The Extreme Capitalism of the Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brothers’ economic credo of free enterprise unhampered by state interference is more closely consonant with neoliberal doctrine than was the form of capitalism dominant under Mubarak. This holds in particular for the version of that credo articulated by Khairat al-Shatir, the Brotherhood’s very capitalist number two after the murshid (guide), and a representative of its most conservative wing, or by Hassan Malek, an extremely wealthy, eminent member of the Brotherhood, who, after making his debut in the business world in a partnership with Al-Shatir, today manages, with his son, a constellation of enterprises in textiles, furniture and trade, employing more than 400 people.
The portrait of Malek painted by Bloomberg Businessweek could well have been titled The Brotherhood Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, so faithfully does it seem to paraphrase Weber’s classic: “[The Maleks] are part of a generation of religious conservatives ascendant in the Muslim world, whose devotion to God invigorates their determination to succeed in business and politics. As Malek says, ‘I have nothing else in my life but work and family.’ These Islamists pose a formidable challenge to secular governance in countries such as Egypt -- not only because of their conservatism but because of their work ethic, single-minded focus, and apparent abstention from sloth and sin. They’re up for winning any contest. ... ‘The core of the economic vision of Brotherhood, if we are going to classify it in a classical way, is extreme capitalist,’ says Sameh Elbarqy, a former member of the Brotherhood.”
The former Muslim Brother interviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek asked the right question. What is in doubt is clearly not the Brotherhood’s allegiance to the neoliberal capitalism of the Mubarak era, but its capacity to shed its worst traits: “What remains to be seen is whether the crony capitalism that characterised the Mubarak regime will change with pro-business Brotherhood leaders such as Malek and El-Shater in charge. Although the Brotherhood has traditionally worked to alleviate the conditions of the poor, ‘the working people and farmers will suffer because of this new class of businessmen,’ Elbarqy says. ‘One of the big problems with the Muslim Brotherhood now -- they have it in common with Mubarak’s old political party -- is the marriage of power and capital.’”
This marriage of state power and capital removes the main obstacle to Egyptian capitalism’s collaboration with the Brotherhood: the repressive harassment of the Brothers under Mubarak. The Muslim Brothers are today assiduously emulating the Turkish experience by creating an association of businessmen, EBDA (Egyptian Business Development Association), which addresses itself, in particular, to small and medium enterprises. It has been constructed on the model of MÜSIAD, with the direct help of that Turkish association. Like the AKP and Erdogan’s government, however, the Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi pose as representatives of the common interests of all categories of Egyptian capitalism, big and small, not excluding the segment of it that collaborated with the old regime -- a sizeable segment of its uppermost levels in particular, as might be expected.
The make-up of the delegation of 80 businessmen that joined Morsi on his August 2012 trip to China nicely illustrates the Brotherhood’s capitalist syncretism. The new president wants to play the role of travelling salesman for Egyptian capitalism, in the style of western heads of state. The members of the delegation were chosen by Hassan Malek, who formed a committee charged with organising communications between business circles and the president’s office. Invited to make the trip were several business executives who had belonged to the former ruling party, the NDP (National Democratic Party), and collaborated with the old regime. Among them was Mohamed Farid Khamis, chairman of Oriental Weavers, which boasts that it is the biggest producer of machine-made rugs and carpeting in the world. Khamis was a member of the NDP’s political bureau and of parliament as well. Another member of the former ruling party’s political bureau included in the delegation, Sherif el-Gabaly, was reputedly a close associate of Gamal Mubarak’s. El-Gabaly is on the board of the Egyptian Federation of Industry and chairman of Polyserve, an industrial group that makes chemical fertilizers.
Basically, Morsi has taken up a position resembling Erdogan’s, at the point of convergence of various capitalist fractions in his country and squarely on the path that Egyptian capitalism overall had already been following. There is, however, a major difference between the Muslim Brothers and the AKP -- and, therefore, between Morsi and Erdogan. It resides less in the differing relative weight of the petty bourgeoisie and middle strata in the two organisations than in the very nature of the capitalism whose interests each represents: in the Turkish case, a form of capitalism dominated by the export-oriented industry of an “emergent” country; in the Egyptian case, a rentier state, and a capitalism that is dominated by commercial and speculative interests and heavily marked by decades of neopatrimonialism and nepotism.
The trip to China was, to be sure, meant to promote Egyptian exports and reduce the $7bn-plus Egyptian trade deficit in exchanges between the two countries. The Egyptians also sought to convince the Chinese leaders to invest in their country, albeit with little success. Morsi’s basic continuity with Mubarak, however, appears in Egypt’s manifest dependency on GCC capital -- with the difference that Qatar has replaced the Saudi kingdom as the new regime’s main source of funding, as is only natural in light of the Muslim Brothers’ relationship with the emirate. Qatar has granted Egypt a loan of $2bn and pledged to invest $18bn over a five-year period in industrial and petrochemical projects, as well as tourism and real estate; it is also considering acquiring Egyptian banks. Moreover, Morsi’s government has applied for a $4.8bn loan from the IMF, making it clear that it is entirely disposed to comply with the IMF’s conditions as far as budgetary austerity and other neoliberal reforms go.
These new loans will exacerbate Egypt’s already very onerous debt burden: One quarter of the country’s state budget expenditure, which exceeds receipts by 35%, currently goes to servicing its debt. The decision to borrow more, in compliance with neoliberal logic, means that the government will have no choice but to cut public sector salaries as well as the subsidies and pensions that go to the neediest. Morsi has, moreover, promised a delegation of businessmen on a September 2012 visit to Egypt organised by the US Chamber of Commerce that he will unhesitatingly carry out drastic structural reforms to put the country’s economy back on its feet. Given these economic orientations, the regime will inevitably have to prepare to repress social and working-class struggles. The new government’s effort to suppress labour union freedoms won as a result of the uprising, like the spiralling dismissals of labour union activists, are harbingers of things to come.
Morsi, his government and, behind them, the Muslim Brothers, are leading Egypt down the road to economic and social catastrophe. Neoliberal prescriptions, applied in the country’s present socioeconomic environment, have already provided ample proof that they cannot help Egypt break out of the vicious circle of underdevelopment and dependency. Quite the contrary: They have plunged it even deeper into the quagmire. The profound political and social instability engendered by the uprising only make the prospect of growth led by private investment still more improbable. And one has to have a strong dose of faith to believe that Qatar will make up for the penury of public investment in Egypt, particularly in a climate of uncertainty about the country’s future.
In Mubarak’s day, the only recourse the poor had was to charity, combined with “the opium of the people.” “Islam is the solution,” the Muslim Brothers have been promising them for decades, masking with this empty slogan their incapacity to draw up an economic programme fundamentally different from the government’s. The hour of truth has now come. As Khaled Hroub has stressed, “In the period just ahead of us, these two questions or logics -- the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ and the discourse in the name of religion -- will, with their ideological burden, face the test of a public, mass experiment conducted in the laboratory of popular consciousness. The experiment may last a long time, devouring the lives of an entire generation. It seems, however, that the Arab peoples must inevitably traverse this historical period, so that their consciousness can make a gradual transition from an exaggerated obsession with their identity to an awareness of political, social, and economic reality.”
Those who traffic in “the opium of the people” have now become the government. The soporific power of their promises has inevitably waned as a result, the more so as -- this is another difference between Khomeini, on the one hand, and Ghannouchi and Morsi, on the other -- they do not have the advantage of a big oil rent with which to buy the consent or resignation of a large segment of the population. Maxime Rodinson posed the issue very well more than a quarter of a century ago: “Islamic fundamentalism is a temporary, transitory movement, but it can last another 30 or 50 years -- I don’t know how long. Where fundamentalism isn’t in power it will continue to be an ideal, as long as the basic frustration and discontent persist that lead people to take extreme positions. You need long experience with clericalism to finally get fed up with it -- look how much time it took in Europe! Islamic fundamentalists will continue to dominate the period for a long time to come.
“If an Islamic fundamentalism regime failed very visibly and ushered in an obvious tyranny, an abjectly hierarchical society, and also experienced setbacks in nationalist terms, that could lead many people to turn to an alternative that denounces these failings. But that would require a credible alternative that enthuses and mobilises people. It won’t be easy.” Gilbert Achcar is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. This article is taken from his book The People Want: a Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising published this month by Saqi Books (UK) and University of California Press (US) -- translated by G. M. Goshgarian. Copyright © 2013 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global