El-Sisi the Reformer?

Is Egypt’s economy taking a turn for the better? The government is hosting an economic summit in February next year, aiming to attract foreign investment, with the participation of not just private investors but also of the International Monetary Fund.

[Christine] Lagarde said Egyptian authorities’ “recent reform efforts” were “encouraging” and expressed her hope that participants in the upcoming summit will see how these reforms can “help restore durable economic stability and sustainable growth to Egypt.”

On the surface, it appears that Egypt’s government is making tangible progress addressing the country’s fiscal problem. The planned energy subsidies cuts are under way, although these are also accompanied by tax increases, mainly through a planned introduction of a value-added tax, hikes to tobacco and alcohol taxes and a new tax on capital earnings.

Experience from other countries, most notably from Europe in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, shows that fiscal consolidations that rely on revenue increases lead to worse outcomes than consolidations that consist of permanent reductions to government spending.

But, whatever one thinks about this particular question, there are two additional reasons to be skeptical. First, putting aside the fuel price hikes that have already occurred, much of the praise directed at the Egyptian government presupposes that it will deliver on its promise to slash subsidies by one third in the fiscal year 2014/2015. That would be welcome news but it is worth remembering that similar reform targets were set in the past and were systematically missed:

According to the budget for the past fiscal year, 2013–2014, the subsidies to oil materials were already supposed to be close to EGP100bn ($14bn). Yet, the actual spending was drastically higher, perhaps by as much as an additional EGP70bn ($10bn)

Second, it is deceptive to look at the fiscal question in isolation, as a technocratic problem that can be solved by clever tweaks to existing policies. Egypt’s economic problem is political in nature, and will continue to plague the country as long it is governed by a kleptocratic, unaccountable elite.

The government – more specifically its military forces – own and run a large part of the economy, shielded from competition, and generating rents. The military coup last year led to the strengthening of the opaque network of cronyism that has long characterized military-run enterprises. Some estimates suggest that as much as half of last year’s stimulus, worth around $4bn and funded predominantly by funds from the United Arab Emirates, has been directed at military-controlled enterprises that became involved in road construction and other forms of infrastructure works, displacing the traditional construction companies.

Just as it was a mistake to see Vladimir Putin as a market reformer in the early 2000s, notwithstanding some of the real policy shifts (such as the introduction of a flat tax), it would be a mistake to see President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as somebody aiming to open Egypt’s economy to competition and raise the living standards of Egyptians through increased economic freedom. If economic reforms occur, they will occur with the narrow goal of strengthening his hold on power and satisfying the material needs of the generals backing him.

In Egypt, as in other countries of the region, economic and political oppression go hand in hand and are mutually reinforcing. Nothing is a bigger threat to a military dictatorship than an economically empowered citizenry. For this reason, we should not expect genuine reforms to be very high on Mr. el-Sisi’s list of priorities.