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Roundtable on Post-Mubarak Egypt: Authoritarianism without Autocrats? (Part VII: Abul-Magd)

[Workers from Mahalla Textile Company on strike (February 2011). Image Source: Al-Masry Al-Youm] [Workers from Mahalla Textile Company on strike (February 2011). Image Source: Al-Masry Al-Youm]

[This is the last of seven posts associated with a Jadaliyya electronic roundtable on the future of Egypt. Click here to access the full roundtable. Participants include: Issandr Al-Amrani, Zeinab Abul-Magd, Nathan J. Brown, Jason Brownlee, Daniel Brumberg, Mohamed El-Menshawy, and Samer Shehata. A description of the roundtable can be found here. For the previous post click here.]

Bringing The Economy Back in!

I agree with Jason Brownlee that Egypt does have an “incomplete revolution” and is experiencing an era of “post-Mubarak authoritarianism.”  I also support his argument that SCAF’s undeclared policy of maintaining the old security apparatus while pursuing limited reforms, such as the unsatisfying cabinet reshuffle recently announced, is key to preserving the old authoritarian structure in the country. I would argue, however, that while most activists and researchers are focusing their attention on the security apparatus, which was already weakened by the revolution, the economic factor, as a matter of fact, is more fundamental in preserving the old authoritarian order of things now under the military regime. Controversy about the Ministry of Interior seems to many like an elitist matter that close circles of activists and academicians only care about. Switching the attention of public and scholarly debates from security apparatus to socio-economic aspects of the current situation not only takes us back to the original reasons behind the revolution, but it also secures and guarantees the street’s support in getting it complete.

During the last twenty years, Mubarak’s authoritarianism thrived mainly due to its commitment to pursuing economic reform policies in accordance with “Washington Consensus.” In fact, one of the Ministry of Interior’s main tasks was to crush public resentment against market measures and their negative implications. For the last six months, SCAF ignored any demands to revaluate these policies, especially after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Egypt last March.  The IMF and World Bank’s blueprint of market reforms in Egypt, whose application was exacerbated by Gamal Mubarak’s “Policies Committee” of the ruling party and the businessmen-controlled government of the last seven years, helped generate massive corruption and tremendous social disparities. For example, corrupt-ridden privatization deals allowed a small number of pro-Mubarak Egyptian business tycoons and foreign investors to buy state enterprises at ridiculously cheap prices, and subsequently lay off hundreds of thousands of workers. In addition, liberalizing laws governing agricultural land rents and elimination of subsidies led to considerable impoverishment of Egyptian small peasants, migration from the countryside to the city, and growth of slums and urban poverty. It was the byproducts of U.S.-designed market reforms, which opened the door to crony capitalism and severe social injustice, that pushed millions of citizens to take to the street in January 25th revolution. The brutal security apparatus that attacked the protesters was not only protecting its own survival and interests but, more importantly, the interests of the small elite of business tycoons who benefited from the withdrawal of the state from the economy and controlled it through its clientlist relations with Mubarak’s family.

U.S.-sponsored model of market economy, or the dogma of neoliberalism, was undoubtedly an integral part of creating and fostering Mubarak’s authoritarianism. Thus, reversing U.S./Gamal’s measures of market reform is the logical outcome of the revolution. But the SCAF seems to have other plans as it continues to uphold these measures and avoid addressing public controversy surrounding these policies. The security apparatus is only a protector of the existing economic order and the interests of its narrow circle of business elite that maintain it. Thus, I believe that public and scholarly efforts should be redirected to address the economic foundations and causes of Egypt’s authoritarianism.

Despite the lack of documentation about the military council’s members involvement with corrupt business tycoons, evidence is gathering here and there as I tour Upper Egyptian governorates about close ties between military institutions and private business community.  I have encountered numerous stories in the southern governorates of Aswan, Luxor, Qena, and Sohaj about the close partnership between the military and infamous figures in the business elite. In his article, Jason Brownlee refereed to a New York Times piece about the great degree of military control over Egypt’s economy. The SCAF has not privatized the state assets it manages, but it rents them out or conducts business through them with Mubarak’s old corrupt tycoons. In this respect, preserving neoliberal policies is an important part of protecting SCAF’s privileges in the economy and keeping it beyond the reach of public accountability and transparency.

As for September’s parliamentary elections, I believe they would not lead to anything more than minimal changes to the current situation. I agree with Brownlee that such elections will bring about a parliamentary majority consisting of ex-NDP members and Muslim Brotherhood candidates. Neither of these groups has any interest in reversing U.S.-designed market reforms nor do they seriously care for social justice in their written platforms. They are both allies of the SCAF and are likely to continue to obscure economic debates in the legislature. Without giving new political parties, especially the ones with leftists agenda, enough time build their membership base and develop their platforms, the upcoming elections will only foster old authoritarianism and reproduce military despotism supported by religious rhetoric.

I am afraid that while Egyptian activists and international academics are focusing on criticizing the obvious or what seems to be an elitist issue that only a narrow circle of political campaigners care about, i.e. the security apparatus, they are ignoring the more important aspect of post-Mubarak’s authoritarianism. As long as the SCAF overlooks altering neoliberal policies in Egypt, old business tycoons and their allies will remain in power and win local and parliamentary elections, the military institution will continue to financially benefit from this business elite’s corruption, and the ancien régime will prevail. If we redirect our attention to the socio-economic conditions and the issues that affect the daily life of Egyptians in Cairo and in the southern and northern governorates, only then we can secure the full support of the street to get this revolution complete.

NEXT: A final response by Brownlee…

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