The IMF versus the Arab spring
The IMF is depicted as the rich uncle saving wayward children, but proposed loans for Egypt and Tunisia could be devastating.
By Austin Mackell Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/25/imf-arab-spring-loans-egypt-tunisia
In the midst of the media storm surrounding IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn last week, my feelings were perfectly expressed in a tweet by Paul Kingsnorth: “Could someone please arrest the head of the IMF for screwing the poor for 60 years?”
Without diminishing the seriousness of the sexual allegations against Strauss-Kahn, the role of the IMF, over past decades and at present, is a far bigger story. Of particular importance is its role at this crucial moment in the Middle East.
The new loans being negotiated for Egypt and Tunisia will lock both countries into long-term economic strategies even before the first post-revolution elections have been held. Given the IMF’s history, we should expect these to have devastating consequences on the Egyptian and Tunisian people. You wouldn’t guess it though, from the scant and largely fawning coverage the negotiations have so far received.
The pattern is to depict the IMF like a rich uncle showing up to save the day for some wayward child. This Dickensian scene is completed with the IMF adding the sage words that this time it hopes to see growth on the “streets” not just the “spreadsheets”. It’s almost as if the problem had been caused by these regimes failing to follow the IMF’s teachings.
Such portrayals are credulous to the point of being ahistorical. They do not even mention, for example, the very positive reports the IMF had issued about both Tunisia and Egypt (along with Libya and others) in the months, weeks, and even days before the uprisings.
To some extent, though, the IMF is aware that its policies contributed to the desperation that so many Egyptians and Tunisians currently face, and is keen to distance itself from its past. Indeed, as IMF watchers will know, this is part of a new image that the IMF, along with its sister organisation the World Bank, has been working on for a while. The changes, so far, do not go beyond spin. You can’t, as they say, polish a turd – but you can roll it in glitter.
Take, for example, the heartwarming IMF and civil society webpage, which as early as August 2007 was noting that civil society groups, by and large, “believe that global institutions also need to be accountable to a broader definition of stakeholders to be effective and legitimate”.
Why then, is the IMF not (as Mohamed Trabelsi, of the International Labour Organisation’s North Africa office, suggested when I interviewed him recently in Cairo) meeting the civil society groups and unions in Egypt and Tunisia? It would rather make backroom deals with Mubarak-appointed finance minister, Samir Radwan, and the generals currently running Egypt who are themselves members of an the economic elite that sees its privilege threatened by the approach of democracy.
Beginning in the 1990s, IMF-led structural adjustment programmes saw the privatisation of the bulk of the Egyptian textile industry and the slashing of its workforce from half a million to a quarter-million. What’s more, the workers who were left faced – like the rest of Egypt – stagnant wages as the price of living rocketed. Though you wouldn’t know it from western coverage, the long and gallant struggle of these workers, particularly the strike of textile workers of Mahalla el-Kubra, is credited by many Egyptian activists as a crucial step on the Egyptian people’s path towards revolution.
This failure to appreciate the revolutions as a rebellion not just against local dictators, but against the global neo-liberal programme they were implementing with such gusto in their countries, is largely a product of how we on the western left have been unwitting orientalists, and allowed the racist “clash of civilisations” narrative to define our perceptions of the Middle East. We have failed to see the people of the region as natural allies in a common struggle.
It is this blindness that makes the revolutions appear as instantaneous explosions, like switches suddenly flicked, rather than as events in a continuum. A good place to start the story, if you want it to make sense, would be the Egyptian bread riots of 1977, which came following an initial round of economic liberalisation (which was as much a part of Sadat’s change of cold war allegiances as his salute to the Israeli flag in Jerusalem). It should not have surprised us that as people’s struggle to survive grew more and more grinding following the IMF-led reforms of the subsequent decades they would rise up once more.
Nor should we surprised at the moneyed fightback, which will no doubt be attempted. During this transition period, forces like the IMF will seek to lock in and enlarge the neoliberal project before there is an accountable government to complain about it.
The example of South Africa, as documented by Naomi Klein, immediately springs to mind. The ANC’s famous Freedom Charter, she points out, contained many demands for economic justice including the provision of housing and health care, and the nationalisation of major industries. However, while Nelson Mandela was negotiating the structure of the new parliament, Thabo Mbeke was busy in economic talks with FW de Klerk’s government during which, in Klein’s words, he was persuaded “to hand control of those power centres to supposedly impartial experts, economists and officials from the IMF, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the National Party – anyone except the liberation fighters from the ANC”.
The team of ANC economists busy drawing up their plan would find themselves unable to implement it once the party was in government. The consequences for South Africans have been disastrous.
These new loans from the IMF threaten to bind the newly democratic Egypt and Tunisia in much the same way. Once more, local elites could collaborate with the institutions at the helm of global capitalism to screw the broader population. If this occurs, these revolutions will be robbed of much of their meaning, and a terrible blow will be dealt to the broader Arab spring.