Muslim Brotherhood in Ascent in Egypt
Nov 28, 2006
by SALAH NASRAWI
Whatever happened to the political reform in Egypt, the country is still held to be one of the top economic reformers in the Middle East by the World Bank. The reforms paid off with Egypt achieving a steady economic growth over the last years.
Egypt's largest Islamic opposition group is asserting itself as the main challenger to President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime, overshadowing secular reform groups a year after winning nearly one-fifth the seats in parliament.
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The renewed vigor of the nearly 80-year-old group dates to last year's parliamentary elections, which saw Brotherhood candidates - who ran as independents - win an unprecedented 88 seats in the 454-member parliament.
In recent weeks, the Brotherhood fought a fierce battle to win a significant chunk of seats in powerful trade unions, which include millions of workers in the enormous state-run industries, plus workers in the huge government bureaucracy
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To win support from workers, the Brotherhood reversed its traditional support for free-market policies to come out strongly in support of the state sector. That won it support against Mubarak-allied candidates, because the government wants to move toward privatization and other economic reforms.
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Meanwhile, speculation remains rife that the 78-year-old Mubarak is preparing to clear the way for his highly ambitious son, Gamal, 42, to succeed him after his fifth term ends in 2011 - despite Mubarak's denials.
That possibility has led many to believe that the Brotherhood is just biding its time until the period of uncertainty during any such transfer of power.
Yet there is a certain irony in the fact that the top economic reformer in the region is struggling so much with the political reform. The attempt to liberalize a bit the last elections let the Muslim Brothers affiliated candidates to win around 20% of seats in the Parliament.
That any reform bites is easily observed in China where the 12% strong annual economic growth cannot prevent the widespread social unrest in rural areas. Egypt is no China and no Japan. The nation is not known for extra discipline or work ethics of its population.
Years of reforms cannot change the fundamental fact that Egypt is not just hugely undeveloped but rather hugely misdeveloped a country. The economy features a huge and inefficient state sector which for decades was used as a tool for carrying out social policies, mainly sucking an excessive labor surplus off the market. As any tourist who ever visited Egypt knows, this nation beats all records in terms of how many people doing absolutely senseless tasks can be employed in one single country. Dismantling the hugely inflated state sector, created over years by the same Mubarak and his predecessors, is a daunting task.
Daunting but probably not so much avoidable. Contrary to what many may think the path of economic reforms is a one way road. The economic reforms are difficult to reverse and from the moment they are started they have a logic of their own. As Egypt liberalizes and opens up for global markets the increasing pressure of domestic and outside competition dictates urgently dismantling the huge bureaucratic apparatus and trimming the state sector.
Yet the regime is facing an uncooperative opposition that is exploiting the social pains produced by the reforms to make easy political gains. It is painfully obvious that not only the Muslim Brothers but the so called secular liberal opposition too are all too quick to jump on the bandwagon of cheap populism in a bid to win popular support.
Maybe not today and not tomorrow but one day sanating the ailing state sector and laying off dozens of thousands of workers will be no longer possible to delay. Delivering Egypt's version of Michael Gorbachiov is a tough task given the mistrust many Arab societies have developed towards their rulers. The Egypt's economic reforms have barely started but the regime has already ran out of all credit in the eyes of its population. In a country, where the so called intellectuals are feeding on the standard diet of anti Americanism and anti globalist conspiracy theories, it is hard to see how Mubarak's regime would be able to push through painful but necessary reforms while avoiding widespread social unrest and even uprising. And it is even harder to see how anybody else can do it.
Mubarak's regime has been staking lately too much at the success of its economic reforms. But its strategic choice of free market economic policies may quickly become the cause of its own undoing. A society like Egypt does not possess enough of internal cohesion to go through the painful stages that any real economic reform involves. In a country, plagued by the puzzlingly ubiquitous paranoias so characteristic of Arab societies, mutual trust, in particular between the ruling and the ruled, is a rare commodity. And the motley coalition of Muslim Brothers and secular liberals looks hardly capable of being helpful in case the pain of the reforms would trigger a socio political cataclysm followed by an eventual collapse of the regime.
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