Mark LeVine: Arab Revolutions Mask Economic Status Quo

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He has authored several books including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press, 2005) and An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

The World Bank and IMF have been restructuring the economies of the Middle East for decades, with largely negative results. Yet they are poised to play a major role in the post-revolutionary efforts to stabilise Egypt, Tunisia and other post-authoritarian states.

The post-1967 era of the Middle East can, in many ways, be defined by the turn towards market liberalisation across the region, although the attempts by Western lending institutions to pressure local governments to initiate structural reforms goes back to the Nasser period. From the start of the 1970s-era infitah, or opening, under Anwar Sadat, there have been over a dozen episodes of mass protest and even revolt against IMF and World Bank-imposed austerity measures. Not just in Egypt, which has had at least four such episodes, but in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as well.

At times local governments made some effort to resist the imposition of what is today referred to as "Washington Consensus" policies, which advocate trade liberalisation, privatisation, opening economies to foreign goods and investment, stabilising budgets and exchange rates, and cutting government expenditures and presence in the economy. As one left-wing paper headlined a story in 1978: "Egypt puts the IMF on notice, heralding new era of economic development."

But the new era was stillborn; Egypt would soon be far too tightly enmeshed within the US-led order to pursue an independent path towards development, continuing a history of frustrated economic development that stretches from the mid-19th century, when Muhammad Ali's attempt at independent modernisation was met by a joint European-Ottoman front that ultimately forced Egypt - and the Ottoman state - into a European-dominated economic fold that, within three decades, led both states to bankruptcy (and soon thereafter, for Egypt, to more than half a century of British occupation).

Today, some Egyptian observers argue that one of the main reasons the army was willing to sacrifice Mubarak was because of its anger at the increasing power of his son Gamal and his colleagues, such as former - and recently convicted - IMF official Youssef Boutros-Ghali, who were accruing significant power through the financialisation of the economy and other policies that weaken the power of the army and the more traditional national capitalist elite....

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