Sisinomics: Is Egypt about to Witness a New Wave of Austerity?

Egyptians are already in the process of voting for their next president, although few are in doubt about who’s going to win. Just in time did Abdel Fattah al-Sisi flesh out plans for his future economic policies, a policy platform which was, until the end of last week, left open to speculation. His economic platform was previously published on the campaign’s website only to be deleted a few hours later, then republished again. Now we have “The Map of the Future.”

In it, Sisi’s campaign discussed the establishment of new free trade, investment and tourist zones, a campaign to lower unemployment and remapping the country’s administrative and investment landscape. Changing the subsidies system will also be a priority: “Money currently wasted in subsidizing fuels to achieve popular demands, such as services, facilities, housing, schools, hospitals and so on, will be directed towards raising the capabilities of the state in supporting basic commodities for low-income individuals,” the manifesto stated.

But what else is on the horizon? Annual talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are expected to continue after presidential elections, although neither side has commented on the status of a potential loan (previously valued at $4.8 billion). If Sisi’s administration agrees to a deal, he will likely have to engage in “structural readjustments” – the IMF’s collective term for reforms aimed at economic liberalization, privatization and austerity.

While some analysts claim the IMF today is very different to the one leading readjustment in, for example, Latin America in the 1980s, past negotiations with the Egyptian government have routinely called for hallmark policies such as privatization and subsidy cuts. Under Morsi, IMF delegation visits were often met with protests. Successive governments have shied away from implementing recommended adjustments, a reluctance many have interpreted as a fear of the possible public backlash.

The negotiations can be placed in the context of Egypt’s recent past as a “laboratory for neo-liberalism,” as Rabab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet put it in their 2009 book, Egypt: The Moment of Change. In 2007 the World Bank named Hosni Mubarak “the world’s top reformer” for introducing cuts to subsidies, privatizations, and other austerity policies. Around the same time, a then unknown Sisi wrote his US military college thesis in which he argued that attempts by “many Middle East countries” to “sustain government controlled markets instead of free markets” was having a deleterious effect on regional economies. The general wrote how under former president Anwar Sadat “government controls” were lifted to stimulate growth, “however, these efforts have not blossomed under President Mubarak.”

In the 1970s, mid-way through Sadat’s period of infitah (“opening” or “open-door”) economics, the government cut subsidies to food and fuel – policies supposedly suggested by the IMF. What followed, the “intifada of bread,” saw activists, workers and ordinary Egyptians face up to the army – a landmark moment for Egyptian leftists. Historically, austerity policies have been met with street protests. Indeed, as a leader with a clear sense of history (and his own place in it), Sisi will be more than aware of the political risks of these policies.

The looming threat of workers’ unrest, which gathered pace after January and – some say – contributed to the downfall of Hazem El-Beblawy’s transitional cabinet, is a looming political risk Sisi is no doubt aware of. Impartial analysts and opposition voices are meanwhile banking on the economy as a potential source of opposition in the future.

So far Sisi has attempted to soften the blow of prospective economic hardship by appealing to ordinary Egyptians with a mixture of charisma, Nasser-style patriarchalism and narrativizing the importance of working for the greater good (i.e. the Egyptian nation).

“Every Egyptian able to work will be required to exert real efforts and I will be the first to spare no pains for a future well-earned by Egypt,” Sisi said in his presidential bid speech in late March. “This is the time to rally for the sake of our country.”

Speaking to journalists and media figures in a speech aired over a week ago, the presidential candidate made an oblique reference to Egypt’s poor.

“I get letters from people that can’t find food,” Sisi said on the verge of tears, according to Mada Masr. “And they tell me: ‘We’re not eating, but we accept that for your sake’.”

In a series of leaked recordings, Sisi also left some suggestions Egypt could witness a period of austerity after the elections.

“If I make you walk on foot, can you stand it?” he asked in one recording. “If I make you wake at 5 o’clock in the morning every day, can you stand it? If we become short of food, can you stand it? If we lack air conditioning, can you stand it? Can you stand it if I take away subsidies in one go? Can you stand that from me?” As GlobalPost’s Tom Dale has noted, these leaks are ripped from much longer recordings and have been distributed by media channels often unfriendly to Sisi. Still, the rhetoric has left some concerned about what the future holds.

And yet fresh policies hinting at future liberalization have arguably already begun.

On April 22, interim President Adly Mansour approved an investment law which would block third party interference in contracts between the state and investors, an avenue of financial oversight which has been used in the past to combat corruption on the one hand, and politically sensitive privatizations of state-owned enterprises on the other. Over the years, workers’ organizations, civil society groups, lawyers and activists have all used third party challenges in a range of cases.

Mansour earlier passed a presidential decree increasing the amounts government bodies could assign to projects through “direct order,” a system through which executive bodies can assign public funds or assets without opening it up to public auction. This system has already been used to hand several contracts, for construction and development deals, worth around EGP 7 billion ($1 billion), to the Egyptian army. According to a tweet by @TheBigPharoah, Sisi told a meeting of young businessmen recently that if they want to build anything, they should turn to the army – because it is good at it.

At the same time, the interim government has made steps to introduce a five-percent progressive tax on the highest earners, a EGP1,200 ($170) minimum wage for public sector workers and made cautious reforms to its social housing policy; all steps the government says demonstrates it is answering the calls for social justice which bellowed out of Tahrir Square in 2011.

The reality is, of course, more complex. Everyone will be watching Sisi’s economics in the weeks and months after the election, but the last 40 years of neo-liberalism, opposition and reform suggests Egypt’s future is far from guaranteed just yet.

Tom Rollins is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

Image: Photo: Egypt Armed Forces