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Is There A Path Forward for Egypt?

Mohammed Morsi

Can Egypt turn the corner? Ashraf Swelam, currently the senior adviser to the Egyptian National Competitiveness Council and previously an adviser to presidential candidate Amr Moussa, thinks so. Writing in the FT, he points to Mohammed Morsi’s inability to transform Egypt’s economy from a rent-seeking, clientilist model to a more broadly inclusive, entrepreneurial one. Morsi’s mistake, he says, has been to misread the revolution:

For 10 months, [Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood] have done nothing but to reduce the revolution to nothing more than the transfer of political and economic power from one closed group to another. That won’t happen; for even the most generous of support packages from the IMF, the US, Europe and rich Gulf countries can’t deliver it. The gap is simply too wide to plug.

Swelam’s analysis is right, as far as it goes. But his underlying assumption is that the right presidential leadership could make Egypt succeed. That may not be true, either because in the current state of the world economy there is no path open to Egypt for the broadly based, inclusive growth Swelam wants, or because even if such a path exists, Egyptian society may not have the political will or the cultural or institutional capability to take it.

That’s a hard idea for Americans to wrap their heads around, but it’s more likely than not that nothing anybody does can put Egypt on a path to real prosperity anytime soon. It’s more likely than not that the children of today’s poor Egyptians will not live much better than their parents, and that the gap between Egyptian and western levels of development will grow rather than shrink. Egypt is not a “developing country” in the way that Brazil, China and Malaysia are. It is not catching up with the leading edge of the world’s most advanced societies; it is floundering and struggling somewhere back in the pack.

Given all that, Egypt’s rulers whoever they are must think about governance and power differently from the way leaders in developed and developing countries do, and Egypt is not the only country where this is true. The governance problem in many floundering, non-developing countries today is a different kind of problem than Americans are used to thinking about. The question Americans ask about government is “How can we get it to work?” But Egypt’s problem today may be “Since no government can really work, but since human societies must have government to avoid anarchy and worse, how can a government keep power even though the people are and will remain very unhappy with the results of the government’s policies?”

This pessimistic view about national possibilities leads to a very different kind of political calculus than the liberal quest for win-win solutions that shapes political discourse in the democratic west. Western and especially American experts will never understand the thinking of leaders and their rivals in vast stretches of the world if they can’t understand the perspectives and priorities of those who take this state of affairs as normal, obvious, and unchanging.

[Photo of Mohammed Morsi courtesy of Getty Images.]

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  • rheddles


  • Pete

    ” Egyptian society may not have the political will or the cultural or institutional capability to take it [a path to ‘inclusive growth’].

    “That’s a hard idea for Americans to wrap their heads around,..”

    No, it is not a hard conclusion at all to come by. In fact, it’s common sense and is obvious. Only a naive fool could think a place like Egypt can become a functional modern state in the 21st Century.

  • Mark Michael

    Michael Totten has an extensive interview with Muslim Brotherhood senior official Helmy el-Gazzar at World Affairs Journal, 12 May 2013. See:

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