IMF President Christine Lagarde talks with Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Kandil in Cairo, August 22, 2012. (Photo Credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

In September 2011, I visited the downtown Cairo headquarters of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) to interview its executive director Nadeem Mansour. This was just eight months after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and much of the international media was still focused on street protests and the inscrutable maneuverings of the ruling military junta.

Mansour and the ECESR were waging an underreported legal battle against the economic policies of the Mubarak regime. Chiefly, they opposed the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the subsequent erosion of wages and labor standards. During the regime’s last decade, hundreds of profitable state-owned enterprises were auctioned off at bargain prices to well-connected investors. This economic policy was adopted as part of an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-backed structural adjustment program designed to shift economic activity away from the public sector.

As I sat down with Mansour, the ECESR had just won a major case in Cairo’s Administrative Court successfully blocking the privatization of several state owned companies including the Tanta Flax and Oils Company and the Misr Shebin Al-Kom Spinning and Weaving Company. Although both companies had been profitable under government management, in 2005 after significant pressure from the IMF, the Mubarak regime auctioned them off to private investors.

The September ruling was the first of its kind. The court reversed a Mubarak-era privatization order and legally confirmed what Egyptian labor activists had been asserting for years – despite glowing reports from international financial institutions, Mubarak’s economic policies facilitated endemic corruption and resulted in an unprecedented transfer of wealth from Egyptian workers to a small group of capitalists.

Since 1991, Mubarak’s economic agenda was dictated by international financial institutions like the IMF and molded around the assumptions of the Washington Consensus. The conventional development thinking in the early 1990’s viewed Egypt’s massive public sector, feisty unions, and highly regulated financial markets as impediments to growth. Mubarak came under intense international pressure to remake Egypt’s economy in the image of the newly deregulated economies in Latin America by shifting economic activity away from public sector.

In Egypt, the inequities created by these economic policies resulted in an unprecedented decade of labor-action, yawning economic inequalities, rising unemployment, and eventually, a popular uprising.

Now, eighteen months after the Egyptian revolution, and eight months after the Administrative Court’s landmark ruling, Egypt’s newly elected government has requested $4.8 billion in economic assistance from the IMF to help stabilize Egypt’s floundering economy.

The loan request has been, with few exceptions, universally lauded as a sign of Egyptian political maturity and pragmatism. The myriad press reports announcing the recent visit of IMF President Christine Lagarde to Cairo all contained the same cloying praise for this move toward so-called “economic stability.”

Few Egypt-analysts seem willing to frankly confront the IMF’s checkered legacy in Egypt, its cozy relationship with the Mubarak regime, and its role in facilitating the very policies that sparked a popular uprising over one year ago. As Egypt’s newly elected government moves toward accepting IMF assistance, a close examination of the organization’s legacy is essential.

The IMF’s Disputed Legacy

The IMF’s role during the Mubarak years is thoroughly misunderstood and widely mythologized. International financial institutions and their constellation of development specialists have hailed Egypt as an economic “miracle.” Timothy Mitchell from Colombia University summed up the conventional wisdom this way:

“The conventional story is that by 1990-1991 the Egyptian economy was in crisis, no longer able to support loss-making public industries, an overvalued currency, ‘profligate’ government spending, an inflationary printing of money to cover the budget gap, and astronomical levels of foreign debt. After fifteen years of foot dragging and partial reforms, in 1990-1991 the government was forced to adopt an IMF stabilization… These ‘prudent’ fiscal policies were implemented more drastically than even the IMF had demanded, achieving a drop in the government deficit that the IMF called ‘virtually unparalleled in recent years.’”

The real history of the IMF in Egypt is vastly more complex. The Mubarak regime introduced IMF proposed reforms in a number of stages. In the early 1990s, Mubarak implemented some of the less controversial aspects of the IMFs policies including currency and banking reform. Still, domestic resistance was intense.

Writing in the beginning stages of the structural adjustment regime, World Bank economist Hans Lofgren predicted that reforms would only take root if the population remained “quiescent.” Lofgren goes on to admit that many of the IMF’s proposals would be to the immediate detriment of “most of the population.” Nonetheless, Lofgren reasons that domestic resistance could be quashed because “since the 1970s, businessmen have emerged as a strong and unified force, independent from government control, while trade unions, pro-democracy organizations, and opposition groups remained ‘divided.’”

Lofgren proved to be prescient and Mubarak was able to thoroughly neutralize domestic dissent. As Eberhard Kienle illustrates in his groundbreaking book, A Grand Delusion: Democracy and Economic Reform in Egypt, economic reform in the 1990s coincided with a wave of political repression designed to anticipate and squash any potential political opposition. The early 1990s saw an uptick in raids on NGOs and mosques and a systematic neutering of trade unions. In 1993, the government officially took over Egypt’s professional associations, which had formerly been one of the only outlets for independent political mobilization. At the same time, the regime began to haul the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in front of military tribunals.

By the late 1990s, the first wave of economic reforms had failed to deliver results. From 1990 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1996, both rural and urban poverty increased by over 10% and real wages sagged. IMF economists argued that Egypt needed to increase the pace of reform by accelerating the privatization process. In 1996, the IMF reached a deal with the Mubarak regime to extend additional credit to Egypt in exchange for an aggressive privatization agenda.

Privatization, Repression, and Corruption

Between 1996 and 2011, nearly 345 Egyptian public companies were privatized and sold on the Egyptian stock exchange. Under the premiership of Ahmed Nazif from 2004 to 2011, Egypt experienced the most intense wave of privatization with 172 state-owned businesses sold for nearly 60 billion Egyptian pounds.

This privatization process amounted to a massive transfer of resources from the public to the private sector. IMF experts predicted that the shift would unleash an explosion of productivity. Yet, the process of privatization took place under a cloud of political repression and intense corruption. In the end, the promises of increased productivity proved to be illusory. Many of the privatized companies were liquidated or significantly downsized, and many Egyptians associate privatization with employment insecurity and abuse. One of the most iconic cases of privatization gone wrong is the 2007 sale of the state-run department store Omar Effendi to a Saudi Arabian holding company. The holding company rebranded the company as a budget clothing store, closed several historic branches, and rescinded the employees’ long-term contracts.

According to the Administrative Court’s September ruling, a significant portion of privatized enterprises was sold to regime cronies at a fraction of their real value. The Shebin Textile Company, for example, sold for 175 million Egyptian pounds, despite being valued at over 600 million Egyptian pounds. The Al-Nasr Company for Steam Boilers and Pressure Vessels sold for 17 million Egyptian pounds even after a government audit valued the company at over 35 million Egyptian pounds.

The process for auctioning off these public enterprises was opaque and characterized by massive corruption. The most famous case is that of Ezz Steel. The government sold the formerly public steel company in 2001 to Ahmed Ezz, a National Democratic Party politician and friend of the president’s son, Gamal. Ezz was seen as a rising star in the Egyptian political scene, and he was easily able to leverage his political connections to get a bargain deal on the massive steel enterprise.

Under new private ownership, the management of newly privatized companies proceeded to gut the labor force. At the Tanta Flax and Seed Company, for example, the new Saudi Arabian owners cut the workforce by half and reduced health benefits. Naturally, the privatization program provoked a wave of strikes. Between 2004 and 2010, there were more than 3,000 labor actions in Egypt. In addition, for the first time, Egyptian labor unions demanded the ability to operate independently of state-controlled labor syndicates. Political oppression escalated as Hosni Mubarak moved to transfer power to his son, Gamal.

Meanwhile, the IMF applauded Egypt’s progress. Although the new economic policies failed to raise standards of living, they did produce record-level GDP growth averaging nearly 5% annually. The sale of hundreds of public companies did, indeed, generate short-term macroeconomic growth and attract significant foreign investment. In February 2010, exactly one year before the popular uprising, the IMF issued a glowing report praising Egypt’s commitment to economic reform and trumpeting the country as an example of a successful economic transition.

Conclusion: Looking Forward

To her credit, Christine Lagarde has acknowledged that the IMF made mistakes in Egypt. Speaking in Cairo in August 2012, Lagarde explained that “One thing that the IMF has learned as a result of the Arab transition…is that numbers do not tell the whole story and we have to really examine precisely what is behind the numbers. Who benefits from growth? Who benefits from subsidies? How are the fruits of growth allocated in a particular country?”

In the coming weeks, an IMF technical team is slated to land in Cairo to set conditions for economic assistance. No details of the conditions have yet been made public, but Adam Hanieh, a political economist at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London, is not optimistic. “The conditions will likely be the usual set of ‘reforms’ – privatization, deregulation, and opening up to foreign investment flows, ” he said. “I don’t think the IMF has changed its approach at all. We just have to look at the policies it is advocating elsewhere round the world (e.g. Greece). It may be becoming more astute in how it tries to present these ideas – partly in recognition that these policies have had such disastrous consequences and thus need to be wrapped in a different rhetoric – but they remain the same policies in essence.”

Egypt’s newly elected leaders are under tremendous pressure to deliver results. The Egyptian economy is in crisis with currency reserves plummeting and unemployment spiking. After exhausting the largess of friendly Gulf States, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are looking elsewhere for an economic boost. The IMF is an attractive and obvious source for economic assistance.

In the absence of an active parliament, President Morsi has been conducting the negotiations unilaterally. Even without formal channels for dissent, the looming IMF deal has already sparked significant domestic debate. Some Islamists are voicing opposition to the deal on religious grounds while leftists are expressing concern about the IMF’s respect for unions and public sector employees. Meanwhile, Morsi and the Brotherhood are doing their best to perpetuate IMF amnesia and paste over the IMF’s legacy in the interest of a quick economic turn around.

But in a time of mass mobilization and widespread political participation, the high level IMF deal is bringing back memories of the backdoor dealing of the Mubarak years. Going forward, the IMF’s penchant for elite-based decision-making appears to be on a collision course with Egypt’s ongoing political awakening.

*Avi Asher-Schapiro was a 2011-2012 Fulbright Fellow in Cairo, Egypt. He is currently a research assistant at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.