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Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood adopting caution on economic matters

By Stephen Glain,

CAIRO — A year after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant party in a new parliament, has a clear mandate to lead Egypt as it confronts its most serious threat: an exhausted, evaporating economy.

And so far, the Islamist group appears willing to respect a secular status quo, emphasizing accommodation over conflict, working with international bankers to help restore economic growth, and playing down more orthodox calls for bans on bikinis and alcohol.

“A lot of people don’t appreciate how conservative the Brotherhood is, and by that I mean cautious as well as pious,” said a Cairo-based banker who did not want to be quoted discussing political issues. “They prefer conciliation over confrontation, particularly now that they’ll be held responsible for what happens to the economy.”

It remains unclear just how much authority over economic matters the country’s military rulers will permit the new parliament, where nearly half the seats will be held by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the victor in historic elections. But the party has moved quickly to assert a leadership role.

Last week, the party announced that it would not meddle with the industrial zones jointly managed by Egypt and Israel to promote trade between the two peace partners. The party has held meetings with a delegation from the International Monetary Fund to discuss a $3 billion bailout that was rejected last summer by Egypt’s military-led government. The party also has assured tour operators that it would not support legislation that would prohibit women from wearing revealing swimwear at beach resorts.

What appears to be tactical restraint, however, might be less political calculation on the Brotherhood’s part than a reaffirmation of its mercantilist sensibility. Its members are well represented among Egypt’s white-collar middle and merchant classes, and many hold senior positions among the country’s professional guilds, or syndicates. (By contrast, the hard-line Islamist Salafists, who won a quarter of the parliament seats as members of the Nour party, draw their support largely from rural and lower-class Egyptians.)

Though admired for its patronage systems that provide food, education and health care to Egypt’s poor, the Brotherhood’s economic agenda is informed by an ancient laissez-faire tradition that has more in common with the values of the United States’ tea party than it does with, say, the more heavily regulated economies of Europe. In the 1950s, for example, the group struggled against President Gamal Abdel Nasser as much for his decision to nationalize the Egyptian economy as for his fierce secularism.

Brotherhood members trace their capitalist conceit to the birth of Islam and tend to associate one with the other. “Islam endorses the market economy and free trade,” Abdel Hamid Abuzaid, a Muslim Brotherhood member and economist at Cairo University, said in an interview before his death last year. “It is part and parcel of Islam as a complete way of life.”

A market in crisis

Not for nothing, Brotherhood members are fond of reminding Westerners, did Ronald Reagan suggest that the philosophies of Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Islamic scholar, anticipated the Laffer Curve by 600 years. The group has supported lower taxes and is staunchly antitrust, owing to a verse in the Koran: “He who brings commodities to the market is good, but he who practices monopolies is evil.”

Skeptics of the free market — Egypt has a broad political spectrum that includes a small, if plucky, Communist Party and a cadre of Trotskyites — point out that the Brotherhood’s neo-liberal agenda differs little from the one promoted during the twilight of the Mubarak regime. It was popular outrage over the government’s corrupt privatization plan and the job losses that followed, they argue, that fueled the revolt against Mubarak in the first place. Small wonder, then, that stumping Freedom and Justice Party candidates spoke vaguely about economic policy, lingering more over the imperatives of “social justice” and “equitable distribution of production” than over the need for fiscal restraint.

Now, with the economy all but vacant of foreign investors and tourists, both vital sources of hard currency, the need for a coherent reform plan is inescapable. Egypt’s gross domestic product is expected to grow by a mere 0.4 percent this year, down from last year’s modest rate of 1.8 percent. Foreign reserves have dwindled by half over the past 12 months — to $18 billion, equal to four months of imports — because of the government’s decision to protect the Egyptian pound. Borrowing costs are rising and currency devaluation is unavoidable, say many economists, a prospect that has triggered panicked buying of gasoline and long lines at filling stations. Inflation, which averaged 9 percent in the second half of 2011, is expected to accelerate this year.

The Freedom and Justice Party’s “Program for Economic Development” calls for an end to corruption and chronic unemployment, enhanced productivity, revived foreign investment, a narrowing of income disparity and reform of Egypt’s long-
neglected agricultural sector — the kind of pale nostrums one might expect from a group that has little experience ministering to a robust economy, let alone one racked by the convulsions of the past 12 months. Even staunch secularists, however, allow that the Brotherhood’s electoral success after decades in opposition confers upon it legitimacy and redemption that is, at the very least, worth the benefit of the doubt.

“The Muslim Brotherhood did not come from nowhere,” said Amr Hussein Elalfy, an analyst at Cairo’s CI Capital, an Egyptian investment bank. “It is deeply ingrained in the grass roots. They have their patronage systems and they are pro-investment. They want things to move ahead, and this is their first and best chance.”

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