By Paolo von Schirach
December 12, 2012
WASHINGTON – The Muslim Brotherhood is in charge in Egypt, for the moment. But I would not bet on its staying power. For the time being, Mohammed Morsi is the President and his political supporters, the Freedom and Justice Party, are in control. They have hijacked the drafting of the new Islam inspired constitution and they may succeed in having it approved through a referendum.
Bad economic stewardship
But, as bleak as they may look from the stand point of liberal democratic Egyptians, these developments may signal the upper reaches of Islamic fundamentalist power in Egypt. To put it simply, a backward looking, religion inspired force concerned with enforcing piety more than with economic development is most likely supremely unqualified to lead the extremely complicated modernization efforts of the most populous –and quite poor — country in the Arab world. Egypt’s GDP is close to Sweden’s; except that Egypt has a population of 83 million, Sweden has less than 10 million.
Unlike Iran, no oil
In other words, Egypt is no Iran. In Iran the ayatollahs who took over back in 1979 managed to retain power because they controlled the significant oil revenue. No such advantage in energy poor Egypt, a country that is now in economic free fall because of structural weaknesses made only worse by a couple of years of political turmoil that caused capital flight and the halting of new investments.
To put it plainly, Egypt is now totally broke and it would be miraculous for a conservative political group instinctively suspicious of ties with the West to be able to turn around this over populated and miserable country and lead it into a future of major foreign investments, sustained growth and lower unemployment.
And let us not forget that almost half of Egypt rejected the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of Egyptians would rather have a secular democracy and a more modern, pro-growth environment.
With economic stagnation, end of popular appeal
As soon as it will become evident that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are incapable of relaunching the economy, their political fortunes will start declining. Sure enough, the Brotherhood will be able to count on a significant hard core of true believers, no matter what. But many others who voted for this Islamic group will be turned away. This may be unfortunately messy.
But I seriously doubt that Morsi and his associates have much flexibility. And time works against them. The more the economic mess will last, the more difficult for them to stay in power, even if they want to do this by force.
Muslim Brotherhood economic failure will be a milestone
All told, if indeed Egypt’s experiment with the Muslim Brotherhood fails very soon, such failure will be viewed as the turning point that will encourage Arab societies to look forward with the help of secular institutions and pro-growth political forces; and no longer backward, relying on Islamic inspiration for solutions to pressing public policy problems of growth and employment.