Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a signing ceremony with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, last week. (Pavel Golovkin/AFP/Getty Images)

Economic Dissent: A Sore Spot For Egypt’s Government

Egyptian authorities arrest a prominent economist for arguing that the country is not inherently poor, but rather made so by President al-Sisi’s shortsighted policies

Egypt arrested on Sunday the author of a new book that sharply criticizes President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s economic policies.

Abdel-Khaleq Farouq, 61, an award-winning economist and prolific writer, along with his publisher, were taken into custody on charges of propagating “fake news,” according to Farouq’s wife, lawyers involved in the case, and security services. If convicted, the two could face a maximum of sentence of three years in prison.

A day before the arrests, authorities confiscated nearly 200 copies of the book written in Arabic—titled “Is Egypt Really a Poor Country?—before they could be distributed. After the arrests, activists reportedly published an online version of the text, which then circulated widely on Egyptian social media.

Amr Magdi, a researcher in the Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, contended to The Media Line that Farouq’s case “exemplifies the current state of affairs in Egypt right now.

“The Egyptian government doesn’t tolerate criticism—even the mildest criticism—whether it comes in a newspaper, book or protest,” he asserted. “The crackdown on all forms of peaceful dissent usually involves trumped up charges.

“What is different in the past year or so is that we are seeing an escalation of crackdowns on well-known activists, bloggers and critics of the government who have a long history of peaceful activism.”

None of these activists, Magdi added, have links to the Muslim Brotherhood or any other similar organization, which Egypt has outlawed.

He concluded that the Egypt’s actions “certainly go against international law. The government is also crushing its own rule of law and does not care about constitutional guarantees or citizens’ rights.”

According to reports, Farouq’s book criticized al-Sisi for claiming in recent years that Egypt is a “poor” country. Because of rapid population growth, the president suggested, the country could no longer afford expensive state subsidies for goods and services.

In response, Farouq reportedly wrote that these comments expose al-Sisi’s “blatant ignorance of the realistic and untapped capabilities in Egypt’s economy and society.”

The economist also slammed the Egyptian military’s monopoly of power, calling it a central cause of the country’s economic woes. Farouq also offered suggestions for improvement, such as fighting corruption, reducing spending and reforming a broken tax code and administrative system.

Chloe Teevan, a Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained to The Media Line that Farouq’s thesis “really isn’t anything new.

“It is very much a critique of this idea that Egypt is inherently poor, and that it has nothing to do with policy, because, of course, it always has something to do with policy,” she opined.

“In the case of Egypt, political repression is often used with al-Sisi as a reason for bringing stability and improvements to the economy. But that hasn’t been the case in the last couple of years.”

Egypt’s economic troubles stem from the absence of a clear development model in the past 20-30 years, Teevan explained. As the Arab Socialist system that former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser created in the 1950s and ’60s was slowly dismantled in the following decades, it was done so in such a way that many state companies were sold off to people very close to the regime.

“Access to credit and licenses from the state all come with political connections. So, this hasn’t created a free-market capitalist system so much as a form of crony capitalism,” she continued, adding that International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to the tune of billions of dollars and other economic aid packages came with incentives for Egypt to implement economic reform.

“But the way the liberalization has taken place has not actually led to real economic liberty.”

Al-Sisi, 63, rose to power in 2014 following a military overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, Cairo has clamped down on protests and sought to control Egyptian media. The government has imprisoned not only many Islamists, but also secular and leftist critics.

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