Ikram, a former director of the World Bank's Egypt department, has long been an active participant in Egyptian economic policymaking circles. He has written an account of the long view—how Egypt has fared since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952—while describing the performance and policies of each successive government: Nasser to 1970, Sadat to 1981, Mubarak to 2011, the leaders who followed him to 2016.
His major lesson from this history? How much things have stayed the same. The continuity in economic policies persists despite radical political change. As Ikram writes,
Egyptian regimes since 1952 have maintained an implicit compact with citizens: the regimes would provide a mixture of subsidies and other benefits [garnished with the threat of coercion], the citizens would remain politically dormant.
The government used resources in ways designed to buy social peace, not to encourage the economic growth that would have been most effective at relieving the long-lasting and crushing poverty for its citizens. From 1965 to 2016, despite having a series of governments claiming to be pursuing economic reforms to promote private business, nearly one-third of the labor force was employed at some level of government. Ikram writes that "over the fifty-year period, subsidies accounted for some 12 percent of total expenditures in the budget," despite periodic programs with the International Monetary Fund that made far-reaching promises to scale back or eliminate subsidies. A key actor in some efforts to curtail those subsidies, Ikram faithfully records their failures.
Another serious Egyptian shortcoming concerns discouraging exports. As Ikram writes,
During the entire period from 1952 to 2016, the coalition of import interests monopolized the ear of the government to the disadvantage of the interest group of exporters ... Import protection was not confined to tariffs ... An extensive system of non-tariff measures [NTMs] reinforced the structure of direct tariffs. These NTMs were generally cloaked as quality control or health protection measures.
The result of these biases was that from 1952 to 2016, exports of goods and services paid for 73 percent of Egypt's imports of goods and services—which meant the country staggered from crisis to crisis, generally dependent on substantial foreign aid secured by being politically useful to rich and powerful countries.
More generally, the problem was, as Ikram summarizes, "What Egypt has not done was to undertake structural reforms that would reduce the cost of doing business." He gives detailed accounts of promised reforms and, then, how little happened. As he puts it,
There was a wide gap between the articulation of the problem and implementation of the solution.
The focus in The Political Economy of Reforms in Egypt is very much on what Egyptians were doing. Ikram provides limited information about the flood of foreign aid that inundated Egypt. He simply does not touch on the vast resources spent on a military machine that accomplished little—and which remained an impressive drain even after peace with Israel in 1979.
Promoting Egyptian economic growth, no matter the policy, would not be easy. Ikram is quite clear at describing the challenges faced by Egyptian policymakers. The dependence on the Nile is a tight limit; the cultivated area in 2016 was only 15 percent more than in 1947. Population growth has long been high; the 2020 population is about ten times higher than 1900, and population is on track to rise by another one-third (i.e., 30 million people) by 2050. Feeding all those people with such limited farmland is no small problem, not to speak of creating jobs for the millions joining the labor force annually. But Ikram is also honest: faced with these problems, Egyptian policymakers did a terrible job.