Egypt and neoliberalism

Posted: 30 January 2011 in Uncategorized
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Like many people who are not experts on Egypt but also not satisfied with simplistic references to a Twitter Revolution or the universal desire for democratic reforms in the Arab world, I have been looking for good background material. What is it that is driving the current protests and what might the consequences be?

As it turns out, Timothy Mitchell published an essay in 1999, in which he explains the effects of the neoliberal agenda in Egypt and the kinds of changes that were necessary at that time. His basic argument is that the adoption of neoliberalism (with help from the United States and the IMF) meant the concentration of public funds into fewer and fewer hands (some two dozen conglomerates, such as the Osman, Bahgat and Orascom groups), and the transfer of resources to financiers and away from agriculture, industry, and employment.

Here’s his conclusion:

Alternative strategies to the neoliberal agenda must begin in the countryside. The first priority is a far-reaching land reform program, redistributing land holdings of more than five acres. This would improve living conditions immediately, increase agricultural output, and reverse the growing landlordism and merchant monopolies that are returning the countryside to the conditions of the first half of the twentieth century. Redistributing agrarian resources would provide a powerful stimulus to local investment and wealth creation. At present, with consumption of commodities other than food so heavily concentrated among the affluent and super-rich, much of the country’s demand for goods can be satisfied only by imported luxuries. The new wealth of ordinary households would create a vibrant demand for local services and local manufactures. Given the relative importance of workers’ remittances from the Gulf (in 1996-97 they amounted to $3.26 billion, more than double the amount of Western portfolio investment and almost five times the paltry level of direct investment by transnational corporations), this is clearly the level at which radicalinitiatives are needed and can make a difference.

The other priority is political reform. Neoliberalism in Egypt, as elsewhere, has been facilitated by a harsh restriction of political rights. Its results include a parliament more than 100 of whose members the courts declared fraudulently elected, but which announced itself above the law in such matters; and in which the handful of opposition deputies are increasingly deprived of opportunities to question the government. Neoliberalism has consolidated a regime that denies Egyptians the right to organize political opposition or hold political meetings, while forbidding the few legal opposition parties to hold public activities. Neoliberalism has meant a steady remilitarization of power, especially as control shifts away from ministries, many of which are now run by technocrats, to provincial governors, most of whom are still appointed from the upper echelons of the military. And it includes the repeated intimidation of human rights workers and opposition journalists by closures, court cases and imprisonment. Meanwhile, the US refuses every appeal to speak out in public on these issues, declaring no concerns beyond the endurance of the regime and its neoliberal reforms.

What Egypt most needs is not the emergence of so-called civil society (which often means giving the educated and the well-to-do the opportunity to organize and speak on behalf of those they consider in need of “development”). The real need is to stop those in charge, both inside and outside the regime, from preventing neighbors, co-workers and communities from getting together, addressing problems, deciding and arguing for what they want, and exposing the corruption, inanities and injustices of those who hold wealth and power. Like land reform, this is not a new idea; it simply isn’t visible through the narrow window of the neoliberal imagination.

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