Wael the Plumber: Egypt’s Google revolutionary mixes it up at the IMF

Wael the Plumber: Egypt’s Google revolutionary mixes it up at the IMF

Along with cherry blossoms, spring means IMF annual meetings here in Washington along with some always intriguing panel discussions. The most highly anticipated talk at this year’s confab was this morning’s roundtable on "Youth, Jobs, and Inclusive Growth in the Middle East and North Africa," featuring IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Columbia University professor and Middle East Channel contributor Rashid Khalidi, the International Labor Organization’s Nada al-Nashif, Tunisian Central Bank Governor Mustapha Nabli, and Egyptian Google executive-turned-revolutionary Wael Ghonim.

The real topic of debate was the IMF’s past role in lending to autocratic regimes in the Middle East and whether it would expand its mandate to include job creation, economic equality, and good governance, in addition to more traditional macroeconomic indicators. Strauss-Kahn, on the defensive for most of the panel, seemed to promise they would.

Moderator Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera was clearly (and effectively) looking to stir up a provocative discussion. He began by comparing Tunisian self-immolator Mohamed Bouazizi to Willy Loman — the hero of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, who committed suicide so that his son could have opportunities he never had — and ended by asking Strauss-Kahn to respond to a tweet that compared the IMF holding a panel on inclusive growth to Muammar al-Qaddafi holding a forum on human rights.

The most interesting back-and-forth of the discussion was between Ghonim and Strauss-Kahn. The Internet activist — notably the only guy in the room wearing jeans — began by saying, "I feel like Joe the Plumber," the conservative activist who became a shorthand for populist outrage during the 2008 U.S. presidential election. "When I was coming here, a lot of people were criticizing me for it. The perception is that the IMF was part of the problem. It made these regimes survive and put these countries into debt," he said. Ghonim said he had come to the IMF to represent "people like me who don’t understand economics." To which Strauss-Kahn retorted, "Wael, you understand a lot more than you say."

According to Ghonim, the kind of macroeconomic discussions at the panel were far from the thinking of activists in Tahrir Square:

Honestly we were just thinking of how to get rid of the nightmare, not to start dreaming. I went to the street because of two things: I hate it when I see people eating from the trash. I work for a corporation, I’m well paid, and a lot of us just sympathized with those people, but they’re not willing to pay the price of really helping them out. It’s not just me; it’s thousands of Egyptians. One of my friends who lost his eye [during the protests] actually drives a Ferrari. He went on the day of 25th. The second was dignity. We wanted our dignity back. And dignity does have an economic aspect.

He also took issue with Strauss-Kahn’s characterization of "mistakes" made by the international community during the Mubarak era:

It’s such an understatement to say mistake. To me, what was happening was a crime. The way the international community was dealing with the injustice and dictators in the region was basically a crime — partners in crime. […]

For the sake of being very controversial, which is something that I like to do, I’m reading here a [2007] report the IMF issued that says, "Egypt’s economy had another year of impressive performance supported by sustained reforms, prudent macroeconomic management, and a favorable external environment. Growth was strong and has become more broad-based, creating record number of jobs. Investor confidence remains high." When I read such a report, or read a report saying the rate of inflation of 10 percent, then I talk to my neighbor who tells me the cost of meat is 50 percent higher, who am I going to believe?

The managing director responded:

It was very good that you read what you did because it clearly shows the point that we need — not only us at the IMF, but the whole international community — need to link more, what is traditionally seen as important economic and financial [indicators], and what is really important to the people in the street. This has not been part of our mandate so far, but we need to expand it. There’s no way we can go on if on one side we have experts talking about economics and taking no account at all of what happens in real life.… Having growth [as our only consideration] is useless and it doesn’t work.

Ghonim continued his criticism of the IMF’s aid to the Mubarak regime and expressed a hope that the days of Egypt relying on international aid would soon be over, provoking a back-and-forth with DSK that’s (heavily) excerpted below:

I think we should criticize now and we should be very open in the past few years. Bailing out dictators or regimes that are basically totalitarian systems — giving them loans will make the people pay the interest while the top niche are making the money. I don’t understand how in a country like Egypt, billions of dollars are made in commissions of deals by Hosni Mubarak and Co. while we’re borrowing money from international organizations and the Egyptian people have to pay the interest.

I take the radical view that [the international community] should let the Egyptians solve their own problems. Now, with everyone’s dignity back, they will not let things go. Farmers created a syndicate; laborers are fighting for their own interests. We need enough meddling to serve your own values from the outside world and also give us your expertise, advice, and recommendations.

I think, to be very honest, aid didn’t do us much good in the past few years.… At the end of the day we don’t want aid. What we need is investments, improving the legal framework of doing business in Egypt, and the expertise of the international community.… I think the solution is not money.

DSK: Fine!… We’re not bankers looking for customers. The less people that need our money the better.…

WG: I’m not in a position to evaluate the country’s economic needs right now. But with the new government that the people trust to carry out their economic goals, if this government represents the needs of people and they hear the country needs money, this is probably the right way to go.

DSK: So you promise that if the new government asks for help, you won’t blame me if we have the money?

WG: Well I’m a revolutionary, so I have to be against you by design!