March 30, 2012

Neoliberal Egypt: The Hijacked Revolution

By Dr Jason Hickel, published in Al Jazeera:

London, United Kingdom - The ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 set off a spate of political reforms in Egypt culminating in the recent parliamentary elections and the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Yet the meaning of the 2011 "revolution" remains far from decided.

When Egyptians rose up last year, it was not only against tyranny and political repression, but also against the neoliberal economic order - designed by the United States - that has generated hunger, poverty and inequality in Egypt since the 1980s. For most people, these latter concerns were at least as pressing as the former, though they have been completely obscured in the prevailing media discourse. Now the tragedy is that, when it comes to economic policy, Egypt’s new rulers seem set to reproduce more of the same.

Khairat el-Shater - multimillionaire businessman, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, and likely candidate for prime minister of the coalition government - has been forthright about his economic ideology. He promotes a version of Islam that explicitly valourises free-market capitalism. He has clamped down on dissent among those within the Brotherhood who hold different ideas about how the economy should be run. El-Shater's partner, Hassan Malek, the Brotherhood's next most influential businessmen, has advocated for policies along similar lines.

While hoping to train a higher-skilled workforce and build the country's manufacturing base for import substitution (two concessions to the economic left within the Brotherhood), el-Shater has openly espoused free markets, deregulation and other policies geared toward attracting foreign direct investment - the pillars of neoliberal economics.

The Brotherhood's new position on economic policy has delighted the United States. US lawmakers have pushed hard since the beginning of the uprising to foster a form of political Islam compatible with US economic interests and the ideology of the Washington Consensus. When Senators John Kerry and John McCain opened the Egyptian Stock Exchange in a made-for-TV moment last June, it was clear to all that the US would seek - in a characteristically cynical move - to hijack the cries for freedom echoing from Tahrir Square in order to promote the "freedom" of deregulated market capitalism.

As far as the US is concerned, it doesn’t much matter if the people in power are tyrannical dictators or political Islamists, so long as they align with US economic policy. This was certainly true under Mubarak, who, with the help of the US, implemented a battery of macroeconomic reforms that shifted wealth and power to the upper socioeconomic strata of the population...

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Dr Jason Hickel teaches Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has contributed political critique and analysis to various magazines, including Foreign Policy in Focus, The Africa Report, Pambazuka, MR Zine and Thought Leader. Currently, he is co-editing an interdisciplinary volume titled Ekhaya: The Politics of Home in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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