CAIRO: To identify and write about a problem and for 40 years watch as it deteriorates while the warning messages are ignored is a frustration economist Galal Amin is all too familiar with. He calls his 40-year-long writings on Egypt’s identity crisis as the nation grappled with a growing ‘foreign complex’ a Greek tragedy — he has even seen himself accused of being a culprit. But at the same time he recognizes the inevitability in it.
By accepting Western technologies, the adoption of other Western, non-local practices can’t be averted, Amin argues in the second installment of his autobiography “Rahiq El-Omr” (The Nectar of Life). Even though innovation is still possible without such concessions, “the problem is too complicated and won’t be solved by submission or pretending it’s easy.”
Why does he continue to write then? “First, telling the truth must be useful even if there is no way out. And two, I must admit that when I said it was a Greek tragedy I still have a hidden hope that I’m maybe wrong. Maybe something will happen and save us,” he says in his Maadi house.
Amin, an economist who studied in Cairo and in London, who taught in Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo, a staunch socialist who refuses to own a mobile phone but buys a Christmas tree for his family every year, an Arab nationalist with a seemingly Western lifestyle, has seen all these contradictions played out by his critics who accuse him of giving in to the same consumerism he said had eroded our identity, our heritage.
“No one lives his everyday life in intellectual doubts. It comes naturally. A person makes concessions naturally and holds on to things also naturally,” he says in Arabic before switching to English to finish the sentence, “Like for example speaking in English, when I really should’ve been speaking in Arabic.”
He sees these concessions as personal, not painful. The nationwide compromises — on the macro level — however are more threatening, painfully destructive.
But aren’t his personal concessions part of macro level consumerism? He agrees, suggesting that he might not have been socially committed as he should’ve been. “But honestly, I haven’t found examples in history [of people] that banged their head on the wall in the way you maybe suggesting, I mean resisting individually for the sake of a general cause, and succeeded.” Even Gandhi, a man with such spiritual power, was killed and defeated, Amin adds.
The road to consumerism
Amin’s commitment has been evident nonetheless in his continuous writings about identity loss and its implications since the 70s. The impact of Sadat’s open door policy, or infitah, was devastating — incomparable to the slight Westernization that took place under Nasser, he explains.
The infitah wasn’t as shocking as the Naksa (the defeat to Israel in 1967), but its negative effects proved to be durable: a culture of consumerism growing on the expense of a nation’s heritage.
“[The Naksa] left a wound that survives to this day amongst Egypt’s intelligentsia. Worrying about identity is painful, but it’s a milder one. It didn’t shake our self confidence as much as the Naksa,” he says, explaining that fear of losing all that’s beautiful in Egypt’s heritage was slow. “Like the deterioration of the Arabic language … it takes decades, sometimes even centuries.”
With identity and culture undermined, he argues in “Nectar,” the resulting defeatism and the population’s lack of self confidence become the greatest impediment to development. Economically, the identity debate metamorphoses into one about capitalism and socialism — a standoff characterized by the inevitability of mutual compromises.
In today’s Egypt, Nasser’s socialism is intertwined with Sadat’s capitalism. It’s a strange mix, Amin says. “It’s ugly.”
This doesn’t mean that Egypt has to choose one of these two paths; no country in the world or in history could be classified as purely capitalist or purely socialist, not the US or the Soviet Union in the past century, he explains.
“Our problem is not exactly that we are not either or; because maybe the best thing is to mix the two. Our problem is that we lost our will. We develop or not develop according to what other people want us to be.
We adopt some socialistic measures and some so-called capitalistic measures, [but] not freely. It’s all imposed on us. What’s required is to liberate your will. Not choose one over the other. China is mixing the two and India is mixing the two. All of them are mixing the two.”
Asia often comes up as an example he approaches with cautious optimism: countries with sweeping economic development that have the potential to preserve their heritage from erosion on the long run.
This standoff between socialism and capitalism becomes relevant when discussing minimum wages in Egypt. At the same time the government is promoting investment and revisiting its subsidies system rooted in its socialist background, workers are complaining — through legal channels, strikes and protests — of inadequate pay among other problems. A court has mandated the government to increase minimum wage, which many are calling for to be set at LE 1,200 to cope with current prices.
“If you actually increase [minimum wage] to LE 1,200 a month, a lot of economic disasters will ensue: Inflation, no foreign investment will come, etc,” he says with guised cynicism. He maintains that LE 1,200 is necessarily to lead a decent life, “but wherever you look — given the system we are in — it’ll be a dead end. … There is no way out.”
Amin has often criticized the reliance on attracting foreign investment rather than focusing on productivity, and the “unfortunate obsession” with the economical growth rate.
“However high the rate of growth is, if you don’t do things in other spheres, in redistribution, improving the quality of life, etc, it’s meaningless. On the other hand, even with a much lower rate of growth, like 5 percent or 4.5 even, you can do a lot to improve people’s lives, by deciding what to produce, what not to produce, where to locate the enterprise, what technology you use, [how many job opportunities you create].”
Higher minimum wages in the public and private sectors, he continues, “don’t go with relying heavily on the private investment.” If the government wants to increase wages, it “should take the responsibility for most of the investment. This is why the whole economic philosophy has to change with regard to taxation, with regard to who will invest, with regard to foreign investors, with regard to your relations with international organizations.”
With his signature cynicism, he explains that applying progressive taxation, which was suggested as a source of funding for the potential raise in minimum wages, would be a diversion from the advice of the IMF and the World Bank and a deterrent to potential foreign investors seeking a bigger margin of profit through lower taxes and wages.
He continues, “You can’t raise the wages and at the same time say we will develop depending on encouraging foreign investment. You can’t. The whole policy has to change. The whole outlook. And every component of policy has to be consistent.”
Along with reforming the public sector to make many of its idle administrative employees productive, this change of outlook has to start from the top. “There is no way for economical and social change to take place without the political, because those sitting at the top have no benefit in reform.”
If the only solution lies in total change, what’s the plausible scenario? Is it someone like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency who’s currently leading a movement for change in Egypt? Amin says he’s optimistic. “It would be very good, but he is facing all sorts of problems. The regime has taken him as an enemy. They keep making his life more and more difficult. And we can’t be sure that foreign powers want him.”
Even though popular support is and would be the strength of any movement for change, the West remains an inevitable part of this equation — another materialization of Amin’s theory about the loss of will.
Amin sees the current regime’s “weakness vis-à-vis the West” as one of the decisive factors. “If the regime found that the West supports it then it gains more confidence in hitting [the opposition]. When it responds violently to Baradei, it [the West] doesn’t say anything and looks the other way.”
The West can do more than just look the other way; it can decide not to put enough pressure on the government for free integral elections, it can “empower the regime, militarily, financially and morally.”