By David Faris
The neoliberal critique of post-revolutionary Egyptian politics is emerging, and the argument goes something like this: by caving in to demands for social justice, subsidies and welfare, the transitional government is effectively continuing the failed policies of its authoritarian predecessor.
High-profile figures like Hussein Salem are being sought for extradition or prosecuted but otherwise it’s sordid business as usual. And by using money from the IMF deal for things like food subsidies and public housing, the government is falling back into the nasty habit of trying to buy off its own citizens.
Unfortunately this critique is loaded with the assumptions of Washington Consensus wishful thinking — that if Egyptians just obliterated the already-meager welfare capacity of their own state, the economy would take off like an EgyptAir flight. Swoosh! That boom you hear could be supersonic growth rather than the wake of departing investors.
According to the Wall Street Journal (the Al-Ahram of neoliberalism), what Egyptians need isn’t justice, but rather to sew shirts faster. The editors note disapprovingly that “while it takes an Egyptian worker between six and seven minutes to make a basic shirt, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi workers did the same job in four minutes, and for less money.”
A shirt in four minutes! Such is the horizon of aspiration in the contemporary world.
The neoliberal diktat to Egyptians is unmistakable: Put down that piece of bread! H&M needs new sweatshops for its t-shirts. There are garments to be made: ironic t-shirts, flimsy v-necks, sports paraphernalia. Your hands will never make the clothes worn by urban hipsters in the West if you don’t learn how to move your fat, bread-speckled fingers faster.
Oh, sorry, you’re hungry? Well you don’t want future historians to dismiss your civilization as having been incapable of efficiently outfitting rich people in casual, stylish but affordable attire, do you?
Such advocates of slashing and burning the Egyptian welfare state seem not to have considered how allowing the already-dire circumstances of ordinary Egyptians to further deteriorate might have a destabilizing effect on Egypt’s fragile proto-democratic order. There is no question that reforming Egyptian business practices is essential for a more prosperous future — particularly eliminating the multiple layers of graft and hassle that stand between entrepreneurs and sustained economic growth.
However, that graft has very little to do with food and housing subsidies. And the day that the millions of Egyptians who live daily on less than the newsstand price of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal will be able to get by without their food subsidies is a long way off in an economic climate far, far away. If anything, Egyptians need more of things like health care, public transit and housing — in other words, more responsible public investment, not less. Imagine, for example the kind of economic growth that might be enabled if there were more than two subway lines for a city of 20 million people, and if it were possible to get from one end of Cairo to the other in less than two hours.
Egypt’s transitional government is surely mindful of the lessons of 1977, when Sadat tried to dispense with bread subsidies and was met with millions of angry citizens in the streets. He very nearly became Ben Ali before there was a Ben Ali. But in any case they call them “bread riots” and not “please cut our subsidies riots” for a reason.
The Egyptian governing class clearly understands something that the neoliberals do not: for millions of Egyptians, subsidies are not an affront to some parsimonious economic theory, but rather a necessity of daily life. While the system is far from ideal and does not work perfectly, a temporary increase in subsidies to help Egyptians ride out the economic storm unleashed by the revolution is not the apocalyptic sign of continued authoritarianism that Western financial wizards seem to believe.
The real problems in Egypt are not that the government is dishing out too much cash for gasoline, but rather that Mubarak and his cronies oversaw the sale of state assets for next to nothing, enriching a handful of billionaires but leaving most Egyptians in the cold. This cannot be undone overnight. Making people hungrier is certainly not the answer, especially if such change comes from a military government that was not elected by anyone to do any such thing.
The long-term answer to Egypt’s woes is not increasing or decreasing food subsidies. It is to build a society — through education, reform and public investment — that can harness the many talents of its citizens so that food subsidies become less necessary. But that is a long-term project. If either Egypt’s current or post-election leadership succumbs to the prescriptions of neoliberal fantasists, they better hope they can sew a shirt in four minutes or less — so they have something to wear on the plane to Saudi Arabia.
David M. Faris teaches political science at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He did extensive research on digital activism in Egypt from 2007-2009 and returns in the summers for research.