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The Egyptian Prime Minister’s New Problems Look a Lot Like His Old Problems

The Egyptian Prime Minister’s New Problems Look a Lot Like His Old Problems

Two and a half years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Hazem el-Beblawi must be experiencing a wave of déjà vu. Egypt watchers may recall that during the second half of 2011, Beblawi served as the minister of finance for the military’s transitional government. Now, he has been elevated to the position of prime minister in the wake of President Mohamed Morsy’s ouster. And the challenges he faces are remarkably similar to those he confronted two years ago.

Then, he faced an anemic Egyptian economy weighed down by slumping tourism revenues, shortages of basic goods, and a lack of foreign-exchange reserves. As if that wasn’t enough, his term was marred by violence carried out by the army. Now, well, he faces an anemic Egyptian economy weighed down by slumping tourism revenues, shortages of basic goods, and a lack of foreign-exchange reserves. And as if that wasn’t enough, the army just massacred at least 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

In short, Beblawi’s recent career is a case study in how maddeningly difficult it is to carry out reforms in Egypt today.

When he assumed the position of finance minister in July 2011, Beblawi had a clear agenda: Figure out a way to phase out energy subsidies, restore some dynamism to the economy, and secure the funding to cover Egypt’s budget deficits.

"Subsidies make up 33 percent of Egypt’s spending, two-thirds of which go to oil," Beblawi said in October 2011. "The cancer in the budget is subsidies," he added.

"If we don’t get loans from international institutions how will we deal with the budget deficit?" he wondered aloud that same month.

Addressing the threat posed by instability to the economy, he argued just before taking office that "what is needed is to restore the trust and the credibility of the government. The basic problem facing us now in the short run is restoring security, not just security but the perception of security."

But two years later, the problems Beblawi vowed to fix remain — if anything, they’re worse. Unemployment is stubbornly high, shortages persist, and an IMF loan package must still be negotiated. A "perception of security" is nowhere to be found.

A technocrat with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Paris, Beblawi was the perfect man to carry out a reform agenda. Having emerged as a critic of the Mubarak regime, he had credibility with the protesters — even if his free-market ideology would never make him a crowd favorite. Having served in a series of heavyweight economic positions — including a stint as undersecretary general at the United Nations — he had the economic chops to find solutions. But instead of implementing an agenda to restore a semblance of growth to the Egyptian economy, his term was torpedoed by instability stirred up in part by the army.

When, in October 2011, the army killed 25 Coptic Christian protesters, Beblawi resigned in protest. "Despite the fact that there might not be direct responsibility on the government’s part, the responsibility lies, ultimately, on its shoulders," Beblawi said in explaining his decision. "The current circumstances are very difficult and require a new and different way of thinking and working."

Ultimately, Egypt’s military rulers refused to accept his resignation.

Now, with the Egyptian pound devalued, food prices high, and gas maddeningly hard to come by, Beblawi has a second chance to tackle Egypt’s bread-and-butter issues. That is, if the chaos gripping Egypt subsides long enough for him to try.