As the months drag on and the prospect of a recovery for Egypt’s economy seem to slip further away, the key question on most investors’ minds is whether the government can push through reforms.
But while it is clear that successive governments have failed to ease hardship, it’s worth addressing whether Egyptians are ready for reforms.
The loudest opposition to the International Monetary Fund loan, energy subsidy reforms and higher taxes was from Egyptian citizens. That’s not surprising considering Egypt’s rocky history with the IMF and the (inaccurate) perception that reforms will make life worse for the poorest.
But perhaps its time for an attitude change. Indeed, it is the very real fear of a popular backlash to reforms that has so far stopped any government imposing anything too harsh.
But as Rebel Economy argued earlier this week, a dose of austerity with some stimulus is better than no austerity at all.
Take Latvia, which has provided “a rare boost to champions of the proposition that pain pays”, where it is perceived as shameful for people who earn any salary, no matter how small, to go on strike, New York Times reporter Andrew Higgins writes:
When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia’s misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.
Then there was light:
But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia’s economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people — five more than he had before. “We have a different mentality here,” he said.
Does Egypt need to change its mentality? Rather than protest dislikes (which is all too easy) what about focusing energy into lobbying organisations to work harder for job creation and inclusive growth?
It worked for Latvia.
The Baltic tiger’s economy grew by 50% during 2004 and 2007, but the global financial crisis of 2008-09 hit the country hard and it endured one of the worst recessions of the European Union. Deep public spending cuts introduced by the new government led to discontent and protests at home, but impressed international lenders enough to earn Latvia an IMF/European Union $10 billion bailout.
Rather than cause uproar, the cuts (including slashed wages, wide-scale sackings of public sector workers and reduced welfare) calmed fears in the international markets and rather than throw the government out of office, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who presided over the austerity, was re-elected.
Of course it would be short-sighted to suggest that if there were no protests then life would improve for the neediest. Demonstrations have been a key tool for Egyptians to communicate their grievances. However, persistent political instability, labour strikes and violent street confrontations are only delaying a recovery.
To be sure, economists have estimated that the military’s overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi led to staggering losses of $17 billion. That mostly reflected a sharp fall in foreign investment, declining production as factories and production facilities stopped working and a major reduction in tourism revenue as security concerns mount.
But is it naive to consider Latvia’s recovery, dubbed a “neo-liberal success story”, a model for Egypt, a country that recoils at the mere mention of “neo-liberal”?
Not necessarily. The reason why the military was so welcomed in its power-grab last month was partly because Egyptians want a return to normality. Few people want Mubarak to return but they are viewing his regime a little softer and moaning that life has gotten worse since the 2011 revolution.
At one point, Egyptians will have to recognise that there must be hardship to reach the desired result. Not everyone will get what they want, but protesting every time you don’t get it won’t make any difference either.
Of course, Latvia and Egypt are hardly comparable. While Latvia was reeling from the global recession, Egypt experienced one of the fastest growth rates in the Middle East under reforms that began in 2004 to increase trade, promote growth and facilitate doing business. But as wealth accumulated, this did not trickle down to the poorest and soon stirred the discontent that ultimately led to the 2011 uprising.
Though the January 25 revolution was the harbinger of growth for Egypt, that day cannot be replicated as we have seen with Morsi’s rule and now the military’s caretaker government.
Egyptians must accept reforms and approach these with the mentality that the country won’t recover unless people are willing to try to fulfil their ambitions for a better future, rather than undermine their opponents or protect their own interests at whatever cost.