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The New Egypt

Egypt’s economic future up for grabs

Mitchell Hartman Mar 10, 2011
The New Egypt

Egypt’s economic future up for grabs

Mitchell Hartman Mar 10, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s going to do a little on-the-ground diplomacy in the Middle East next week. She’ll be in Egypt and Tunisia to get a first-hand look at things.

In Egypt, a month after the revolution, it’s proving to be a rough transition. There’s been fighting this week between Christians and Muslims, and between protesters and supporters of the Murbarak regime. Markets and businesses are still recovering from the weeks of protests in Tahrir Square.

So when elections are held — perhaps as early as this summer — there’s going to be much talk about the politics of the Egyptian economy. Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman reports from Cairo.

Mitchell Hartman: The typical voter in Egypt’s next election won’t be some university-educated Internet activist with a good middle-class job.

It’ll be someone like Mustafa Ali. He’s 32, dressed in a jelabiya — a long traditional gown worn by Egyptian working men. He lives in a two-room windowless basement apartment with dirt floors, that he shares with his wife and four kids; a fifth is on the way.

Mustafa Ali speaks in Arabic

Ali earns 700 Egyptian pounds a month as the building’s caretaker — cleaning and running errands for the people who live in the fancy apartments upstairs. That’s about $115: not enough to pay for food and clothing, plus supply him with cheap Egyptian cigarettes. So Ali’s planning to move back to the countryside.

Mustafa Ali’s translator: He thinks that after the revolution things are going to get better for him, so that’s why he’s moving back to Aswan. He thinks that he’ll probably find a good job there, a governmental job, and he’ll send the kids to school and it’ll be better.

It’s a poor man’s economic pipe dream. And any political party that can speak to that dream — held by so many of Egypt’s traditionalist working people — will have a good shot at power. The most likely candidate for that is the Muslim Brotherhood, with its social agenda of uplifting the poor and developing the country’s resources to help them.

Esam El-Erian is the Brotherhood’s spokesman.

Esam El-Erian: The Islamic economic theory is a mixing between free market and independent development and good distribution of wealth for all.

El-Erian says the Brotherhood won’t try to roll back liberal economic initiatives that delivered strong growth during the Mubarak era. Policies like privatization and expansion of Western brands such as KFC, Nokia and Coke. But the group will challenge unbridled capitalism that’s allowed a small elite to become fabulously wealthy, while four in 10 Egyptians wallow in poverty. And El-Erian insists the Brotherhood can’t promise help from government or the mosques to buy the support of Egypt’s poor.

El-Erian: We are not rich enough to distribute money. We educate and train people to help themselves, by themselves, to have hospitals, to have schools, workshops for training.

In fact, political figures across the spectrum blame free-market capitalism for widening the gap between rich and poor. Mainstream economists are concerned as well.

Magda Kandil runs the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.

Magda Kandil: If you can afford to pay striking-high salaries, you can afford to take a little bit of this and redistribute the wealth and provide people a decent amount of income to keep up with the cost of living.

There are more radical calls to roll back economic liberalization and curtail the role of multinationals. One socialist talked my ear off about how her country imports from California the ingredients for its own national food — it’s a bean dish called “foul” — because of free trade.

Hisham Fahmy of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt says this kind of talk is to be expected after a revolution.

Hisham Fahmy: I think maybe in the short-term there’s going to be that worry about more leftist ideology. But I think in the long run, any government will have to be business-friendly. Any government will have to look for investment.

At least that’s the hope of American businesses here. Once the dust settles, they want to keep expanding in the Arab world’s biggest emerging democracy.

Reporting from Cairo, I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

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