Egypt-Economic Policy Reform in Egypt

By Owen, Roger | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Egypt-Economic Policy Reform in Egypt


Owen, Roger, The Middle East Journal


Economic Policy Reform in Egypt, by Iliya Harik. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. x + 218 pages. Notes to p. 241. Works cited to p. 250. Index to p. 258. $49.95.

Reviewed by Roger Owen

The main contours of Egypt's economic performance since 1952 are well known. What we now see is a number of works by economists like Bent Hansen, Galal Amin and Heba Handoussa devoted to its interpretation and to judgements concerning its strengths and weaknesses, often in terms of a comparison with other Third World states.' Iliya Harik's Economic Policy Reform in Egypt covers much the same ground, though from a largely political point of view. Harik sees the Egyptian experience as a "valiant national development project that went awry" (p. 1). And he seeks to explain this central failure in terms of Jamal `Abd al-Nasir's regime's choice of what the author calls "an integrative" approach in which an "artificial equilibrium" (p. 56) was preserved by transferring resources between its component parts, not to maximize profits but to achieve a set of general goals involving social equality and the growth of the economy as a whole.

Such a strategy, in turn, involved a high degree of management and control by the state as well as an imposed isolation from the outside world. What it did not involve, and here Harik takes issue with a host of other writers, such as Samir Radwan, Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil and John Waterbury, was any deliberate attempt to exploit some parts of the economy or some social groups for the benefit of others.2 Nor does he see Egypt's bureaucrats as part of the problem either: They were simply the victims of a system they had done nothing to create. Substantive criticism has to be reserved for the integrative approach of the state and the way it fostered low growth, resistance to change, and what Harik calls an "uncivic culture" marked by the "common readiness of citizens to see violation of the law as a matter of right and as a sign of clever social aptitude" (p. 212).

This challenging argument is first set out and then elaborated in a number of case studies devoted to policies concerning industrialization, agriculture, subsidies, foreign exchange, housing and education. And it is here that the problem begins. Although each study yields useful information, particularly about the period during which Harik lived and worked in Egypt in the 1980s, they are all structured in such a way as to provide ammunition for Harik's general argument. They neither test it nor point to anomalies or areas in which Egypt might have performed somewhat better (or, perhaps, even worse) than might have been predicted. Statements are made in the study which seem to be based as much on hearsay as on statistical observation. To take just one example among many, the minister of education's 1987 campaign against private lessons in schools is said to have "apparently" made "no dent" in eliminating the system (p. …

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