A Persistent Narrative: Development and its irrelevancy to reform in Egypt

“Lord Cromer has always preferred that the English heads should use Egyptian hands.  The native Cabinet and the native bureaucracy have gone on untouched, except to be improved and strengthened, but in the shadow behind every magnificent Ministerial fauteuil stands the Englishman who controls and directs: “Advise the wise it call.”  Except in the Irrigation Department, where high technical skill and the inability to take bribes make it absolutely necessary to have Englishmen, there are no visible English officials.”  From The Spectator, May 3, 1896

“At the national level, the balance between the state versus the market between price stability and fears of inflation  versus economic growth; and between competition and open integration into the world economy  versus national industrialization and building strong productive capacity at home… this balance is very difficult to achieve.  It will also continuously evolve.  And this is one area where we need your help: to continuously identify an equitable balance and the right policies to achieve it.” Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Amre Moussa, from an address to The Third Mediterranean Development Forum, March 7, 2000 [PDF Warning]

“The World Bank Group is committed to support Egypt’s efforts to achieve a successful transition. In the months ahead, the Bank will be available to support the Egyptian authorities in maintaining macroeconomic stability; promoting the role of a competitive private sector in inclusive economic growth and employment creation; enhancing transparency and accountability of government, including fostering citizens’ participation, social accountability, and supporting the improved delivery of social services.” World Bank Country Director David Craig, “Egypt one year after the revolution: Tell us what priorities the World Bank should support?”, World Bank Website, February 9, 2012

Aside from the paternalistic language of the first quote above, which may ruffle feathers among the politically correct of us, there is very little about these excerpts that can be critiqued easily.  Simply perhaps, but not easily.  I think the reason is that the overall tenor sounds so nice.  The goals, Egypt’s growth and development, the methods, “help” or “support”, and the executors, “Egyptian hands” or “Egyptian authorities”, sound reasonable.  What stands out immediately about these quotes, however, is their continuity.

The development industry, in which this discourse now resides, has a pre-colonial history in the Middle East.  That the language has changed to SME (small and medium enterprise) development from the more problematic language of Lord Cromer only obscures the paternalism that has perpetuated until today.  This approach relies on the simultaneous assessment of a problem and its solution, the marketing of both to the appropriate authorities or individuals, and execution [with expert assistance] of a plan of action.  Today, as in Lord Cromer’s day, this process largely ignores the structural realities of the Egyptian political economy.  This ambivalence is, to a large extent, responsible for the failure of the century long project to “reform” Egypt (another aspect is the vagary of military and economic interests in development planning).

One of the problems that has been identified in Egypt is the food crisis.  The memory of the 2007-2008 food price shocks are firmly embedded in the consciousness of many citizens of the global South, despite their affects not being felt very much here in the United States.  The 2010-2011 shock and the rising price of food are part of current realities in much of the world.  The food crisis was cited by many as a primary cause of the social upheaval that spread throughout the Arab world beginning in late 2010.  While I agree that this is an important issue, its framing as part of the development literature is wholly inappropriate.

The food crisis in Egypt is partially a result of internal structural features of the agricultural economy, and partially a result of the political and economic structures of globalization, commonly called neo-liberalism and probably more appropriately, neo-colonialism.  What is so problematic about neo-colonial framing of the problem is that it perpetuates a lack of development in the colonial object.  What is so shocking in the wake of social upheaval, when so many of the contradictions in the development narratives have been exposed, is that it persists.

On an external level, there are two ways to look at the problem.  The first is through individual actions, such as the deregulation of commodities markets, which had a direct role in food price shocks.  The second is through a consistent pattern of foreign intervention, by government agencies and so-called development firms that prioritized certain modes of production, certain products, and certain consumers.  A thorough treatment of the latter exists in Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts.

Internally, state institutions in Egypt were built around an increasingly confused system of patronage networks that specialized in the accrual and distribution of revenue (increasingly rental income).  Political institutions in Egypt have always been subordinated to the power of capital, used broadly to mean wealth or the pursuit of wealth.  Inequality in Egypt is a structural, not an institutional feature.  This structural inequality leads to interesting results.  For example, during the initial peak in food prices, when Egypt’s government might have been expected to control the flow of goods, corruption and hoarding of those goods actually increased.  The combination of the external and internal features means that as state capitalist institutions in that country become increasingly globalized, the mechanisms that would decrease their degree of vulnerability don’t exist, leading to a situation in which “development” actually means increasing the vulnerability of all those not benefitting directly from these institutions (see Stephen M. Walt’s The Origins of Alliances re: the relationship between internal institution building and the process that came to be known as globalization).

Lost in this narrative is the producer of food, the farmer himself.  Since the populist social contract of Nasser’s “Arab Socialism”, there has always been a high degree of dissonance between peasant mobilization as an idea and as a reality.  In fact, in an effort to “reform” the economy, peasants have been systematically marginalized.  At least during Nasser’s reign and to an extent under Sadat, the peasant was mentioned.  Under Mubarak, the peasant became invisible.  Even now, when political mobilization has increased amongst the working poor in Egypt, the rural peasantry has been treated monolithically by these movements.  However, the peasant class is starting to rise.  They have taken collective actions, including encroachments onto land owned by powerful landowners who they see as benefitting disproportionately in the current system.  Agricultural reform, far from the “stable” economic future that those in power might envision, will involve alliance-building and upheaval and will by necessity shake the structural foundations of the Egyptian political economy and therefore its society at large.

All views represented in this post are solely the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization whether affiliated or unaffiliated with this blog.

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