Ikram's The Political Economy of Reforms in Egypt is easily the definitive account of Egypt's economy over the last six decades: well-informed, full of explanations about the economic principles at work, clearly written, and more than a bit dull. (It, builds on and improves on his 2007 account, The Egyptian Economy, 1952-2000.)
Ikram has been the go-to person at the World Bank about Egypt for decades, as well as a consultant for many other international organizations and think tanks. But unlike many from that background, he is alive to the politics that so influenced Egyptian decision-making. After two introductory chapters outlining Egypt's basic challenges—macroeconomic and demographic—his account is organized into chapters that cover the various rulers: Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and the post-Mubarak period. He succinctly summarizes the approach of each ruler: Nasser's state-run development with a focus on agrarian reform and expanding industry; Sadat's turn to the International Monetary Fund/World Bank approach, encouraging foreign and private investment; Mubarak's crony capitalism; and the uncertain signals from Mohamed Morsi and Abd al-Fattah Sisi. The author is charitable to each, detailing what they accomplished as well as the many failures.
Ikram makes effective use of the best accounts of each period, extensively quoting the leading authors. This is not a particularly original book; it makes scant use of primary documents and statistics. The strength is the clear historical summary, presented without drama or exaggeration. Ikram's style is slow and understated, presenting facts without dwelling on the damning picture they draw: Egyptians for decades have missed opportunity after opportunity and pursued one dead-end approach after another.
Ikram does not discuss what this has meant for ordinary Egyptians: Life has improved but could have improved much more. More international comparisons would
have brought out just how badly Egypt has done relative to its opportunities. Egypt's muddling-through approach has certainly been better than other regional disasters, from Libya to Iraq or Syria, but it has done poorly compared to many developing countries across the world.
The final chapter summarizes the challenges facing Egypt's economy today. The biggest by far is creating enough jobs for a rapidly growing labor force. To date, Egypt has a terrible record of growing its small informal firms, but these hold the most promise for efficiency and innovation. Such small firms are also best positioned to create jobs for the underserved: women, the poorly educated, and those in rural areas and small towns. Meanwhile, larger firms grow primarily by buying others, not by net job creation. Ikram explores the policy options for creating more jobs, showing why Egypt would have difficulty following the path that was so successful in East Asia. At the end of the day, Egypt will likely continue to muddle through, but not much more.
Washington Institute for Near East Policy