Monday, October 20, 2008

Why Do They Hate Businessmen?

"Why do they hate us?" is not only George W. Bush's favorite question. Apparently, many Egyptian businessmen ask the same question, lamenting about the lack of appreciation of the 'constructive' role they play in the Egyptian economy and the ' valuable ' services they provide to their fellow countrymen.

Their bewilderment invites equal bewilderment because the conduct and roles of businessmen in the public space give more room for mistrust and resentment (even loathing) than they allow for gratitude and appreciation, let alone admiration and praise.

Indeed, if one studies the history, alliances and doings of Egypt's business class over the past 150 years, many unpleasant facts become apparent. Their service to authoritarianism probably comes at the top of their national sins. This class, one should not forget, grew out of the womb of the state and remained fervently faithful to it. It owes its existence to Mohamed Ali and his successors who, in the period from 1847 to 1889, decided to distribute Egypt's scarce agricultural land in order to create a stable business class that would circumvent the repercussions of the London Treaty of 1840 which opened Egypt's nascent economy to foreign investors.

Since then, the relationship between business and political authority has remained, in essence, reciprocal; business unequivocally backs the tyrants in power in exchange for benefits that enhance their parochial economic interests. According to these dynamics, the unholy alliance perpetuates authoritarianism and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, not exactly an accomplishment that merits the gratitude of masses.

Needless to say, their closeness to policymakers and participation in the political process frequently put them on a collision course with the rest of society, since, at many times, the package of social and economic policies they had advocated was not geared towards the socioeconomic development of the country as a whole or the wellbeing of the classes below. For example, after their economic and political sidelining under Nasser's regime, the business class reemerged under Sadat, vigorously supporting – even encouraging – his disposition towards the United States and peace with Israel, and the total breakup with Nasserism and the Soviet Union.

That Egypt's dependence on the U.S. curtails its autonomy, that Israel is jeopardizing Egypt's national interest, that the cut of subsidies drags millions of Egyptians beneath the poverty line seems not to be particularly disturbing so long as their swollen balance sheets remain safeguarded. It is no paradox, therefore, that the business class has lost the quest for Egypt's 'heart and mind.'

In addition, unlike their counterparts in other countries, Egyptian businessmen have been lured by short-term opportunities rather than long-term investments, something that made the stock market and the real estate sector their favorite playgrounds and that deterred them from investing in mass-production, industrial ventures. As such, to speak of Egypt's so-called businessmen is to speak of gamblers, or middlemen, hence the common description: "the parasitic class," that thrives on the labor of others without producing anything valuable, unless we subscribe to the illusion that producing soft drinks, potato chips, and chewing gums would elevate Egypt's economy into a first-class economy. They are, therefore, very different in nature and function from the entrepreneurs and capitalists that contributed to the ascent of Western economies post-World War II.

Furthermore, the comeback of businessmen in the 1970s, and their subsequent rise, has depended to a large extent on the formidable ties they have extended with outside parties, much more than it was a reaction to local economic developments. In effect, these intermediaries constitute an "agent class," playing the role of middlemen between outside parties and their own society. Tied to Western markets and partners and hooked to the ebbs and flows of the international capitalist market, Egypt's new compradors, obviously, serve themselves and their patrons abroad, irrespective of the effects of that alliance on the national level.

Their social isolation and the dearth of their social obligations are pretty disturbing as well. They live in fortified communities, clubs and resorts, strive to achieve ends that serve their own vested interests, and are oblivious of -- even indifferent to -- the hardships of other Egyptians. It is not a blatant exaggeration, thus, to say that this class has turned – as sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim pointed out – into 'a class in itself' as well as 'a class for itself.'

To be truly grateful for Egypt's brand of businessmen, decent humans have to ignore all these facts, plus the recent metamorphosis of some of their foremost representatives into gangsters and thugs. They need not frown, however; they are already role models to countless criminals, opportunists and fortune hunters.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on September 25, 2008.