International Affairs — 29 February 2012
The Illusion of Economic Reform in the ‘new’ Middle East

Ali Harfouch

Few Words of ‘Liberty’

Liberation cannot be reduced to economic justice, political independence, or free intellectual inquiry. To do so would be to limit servitude, the antithesis of liberty, to one of many power-structures. Such a reductivist view creates an illusionary reality in which the subject believes he is free and becomes passive amidst a status-quo. A worldview whose epistemology is ‘reason’ and henceforth has reduced reality to that of a ‘material reality’ will only naturally result in such a fragmentary or uni-dimensional understanding of servitude or liberation—an example of which are Marxism and Post-colonialism. These movements have often reduced colonial power-structures to that of economy or culture, and disregarded the matrix of interplaying power-structures which produced and maintained a perpetual state of servitude. Such a matrix, or world-system, is interdependent and works in harmony.

Another fallacy debilitating decolonial efforts is an overtly superficial understanding of freedom (or liberty) to be a universal value. Doing so leads to a situation in which this “universal” value is defined by a particular [hegemonic] conceptualization of liberty; in other words, freedom becomes monopolized by the dominant ideology—in our case, Liberalism. A more appropriate understanding of the global and universal appeal for ‘freedom’ would be to understand freedom as a universal objective which is actualized and understood differently—according to one’s own paradigm and world-view.

Islamic movements today have largely fallen into both of those fallacies and errors in relation to their ‘emancipatory’ political programs. An example of their inability to set a real program for change is in their calls for economic reform (which we will discuss below) while working within a capitalist system and within the nation-state template. Recent “victories,” however, have only falsely legitimized the above fallacies—by creating a delirium instantiated through an illusion of power (and a subsequent illusion of victory) following the recent gains of Islamists in the Parliament. No different to the “victory of independence” in which the white colonial and imperial officers gave the black man “independence” after having created colonial proxies to look after their Western interests after their military withdrawal, and more importantly having made sure to leave behind a westernized Native elite which would both maintain and proliferate their ideological hegemony. In other words, this “victory” is not granted until the identity of the colonized is properly and sufficiently shaped by the colonizer. The colonized is then unable to transcend a particular paradigm (in our case, the nation-state) and think “outside the box” (read Paradigm). His history is limited to his colonial legacy, his identity determined by colonially-defined dismembering borders, and his notion of politics, identity, and independence (and emancipation) emanates from and is located in the West—in the works of Locke, Marx, and Paine. Thinking outside the box becomes dangerous because in doing so, he comes to realize that he is not free, but rather still in chains, more so than those imposed upon him under military occupation, for now his very subjectivity has been colonized—his past, present, and future. Bearded parliamentarianism in Egypt is then no real victory, but rather the legitimization of a colonial construct and a colonial identity—a construct and identity which perpetuates domination and colonization, and debilitates any real emancipation. Notions of identity and the politics of decolonization, however, are not the purpose of this short piece, as the above was mentioned in order to provide the theoretical ground and basis for the illusions of power, victory, and reform which emerged after the elections in Egypt and Tunisia. Our focus is, again, to tackle the illusion of reform and change within a system which is foundationally illegitimate and perpetuates the problems which the attested reform seeks to address. Economic reform and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a pertinent example.

The Illusion of Economic Reform

The Capitalist world-system is a system which, similar to its internal/domestic policies, must maintain a center-periphery structure in which wealth (and power) is invested in the center (the West); hence, it is independent. While the periphery provides security, labor, and legitimacy to the center; hence, it remains politically, economically, and ideologically dependent. Capitalism is based on illusionary “free-market” which, if left alone, will attain its own equilibrium through its own autonomous economic “natural” laws. Deregulation then becomes an inextricable and natural policy of Capitalism as the market is “naturally” expected to regulate itself. In reality however, such a free-market does not exist nor does an “Invisible Hand” maintain the “optimal equilibrium” in the market, but rather “powers beyond the market” control and monopolize wealth (the invisible fist)—A control and monopoly which often legitimates the intervention of a visible fist—the state, to protect the powers outside the market—namely, the corporations. This capitalist logic is replicated on the international scene in which the core nations—the West—maintain a monopoly over the wealth and resources of the “third-world” periphery states (see below). A visible fist—NATO—will be occasionally called in if a periphery state decides to question or seek independence from the system. Other institutions like the WTO and IMF play similar goals. Monopolizing entities which subordinate populations and the whole ‘political field’ amount to, from an Islamic perspective, tawagheet (false-gods) in that they create servile subjects and transgress. And as such, it is no longer an issue of reform, but rather liberation through the dissolution of the savage capitalist system and the pursuit of a more humane and just economic system.

Islamists in their political struggles have hardly expressed such a holistic and realistic understanding of the colonial world-order, promising their constituencies economic prosperity and programs while ignoring the mechanisms and structures which create a permanent state of poverty. One can attribute this short-sightedness to the methodology employed by most Islamist organizations—reformism, in which the system is reformed, not changed. Doing so from within implies participation within the establishment, or, in other words, within the power-structure. The fatal flaws of this are all too obvious to the critical observer.

Such a methodological blunder is ridden with contradictions, a most recent case being that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political program in Egypt during and after the elections. This, of course, should not be attributed to the underlying principles of the Muslim Brotherhood, nor to that of its founder who stated in one of his tracts to the youth that one of the main goals of his organization was, “An Independent Economic System for resources, wealth, the state, and individuals”. These are contradictions which lead to electoral promises of economic alleviation and independence while working within the very same capitalist power-structure which maintains and survives off of permanent poverty, class polarization, and a world system in which the periphery-center relation of dependency provides the West or the Capitalist center its monopoly over resources, wealth, and economic hegemony. Recently, the MB held talks with the IMF which acts as the “collective colonial monetary authority” (Amin) and International Bankers, and has assured Western policy makers that the “free-market” is actually part of the Islam’s economic principles. What exactly about cutting a deal with the IMF would result or even incrementally move towards economic dependence? And it is worth noting that both Bin ‘Ali and Mubarak had initiated neoliberal reforms which led to decent economic “growth” benefitting the upper middle-class who were interestingly enough on the frontlines of the revolutions.

One of the ways in which the Brotherhood has done so is by succumbing to the short-term nature of the Capitalist system – by: (1) relying purely on charitable institutions to address poverty while ignoring (or in our case, accepting and legitimizing) the mechanisms which create it, and (2) responding only to the “objective demands of the moment” like unemployment, high inflation, etc. and, hence, the discourse and logic of capitalist accumulation. This is being done, as opposed to more drastic and real measures which: (1) would expose to those poverty-stricken sectors of society the principles and mechanisms which are to blame for their inhumane state henceforth creating a state of passivity towards the real problem, and (2) resort to strategic and tactical activism which aims at structural and a radical transformation of the economic system. It is important to note, however, that this does not imply the inefficiency of institutions as a tactical means by which the Movement can gain popularity and delegitimize the state which has largely failed to provide its constituents with basics. Immanuel Wallerstein notes, “This assumption of a para-statal role has the double consequence of attracting a good deal of popular support from persons who have indeed been let down or worse, ignored by the formal state apparatus. And of course by performing these functions they weaken, indeed delegitimate, the state-structures still further”. The point is institutions are a means by which the movement can gain popularity, delegitimize the state, and create the proper channels and platform through which it can facilitate mass dissensus and disseminate its ideas. Institutions become counter-hegemonic and tactical, and not means for economic reform.

A Colonizing Nation-State

However, this cannot be done at the national level simply because the nation-state is not a sovereign independent political entity, but rather it is part and parcel of the center-periphery world-system and remains marginalized and economically dependent on a united and powerful West whose economic superiority lays in its ability to export its [infinite] surplus to the periphery.

Working within the nation-state system or adopting its discourse would then, once again, end in cyclic failure and regressive activism. It leads to a situation in which, as Sabet put it, the colonized colonizes himself. From a structural level, the consequences of this are all too obvious. As explained above, the nation-state is in a constant state of dependence on the center states. Even Pan-Arabists (who largely reject and delegitimize nation-state borders) like Jamal ‘Abd an-Nasir, whose popularity stretched across Egypt’s borders into the larger Arab and Muslim world, failed to bring about any real change despite his socialist economical program and the massive steps he took towards the nationalization policies.

Reform within the colonizing Nation-State creates what Tamim al-Barghouti calls a “paradox of interests” where the native elite (now embodied by the MB) is expected to represent the interests of both those who control and pull the strings of the Capitalist world-system and those of the masses whom they were elected to represent. In the end, one of these must supersede the other. Another paradox is the power of no-power; that by having [farcical] power within a system which is designed to impede your emancipation and ability to be autonomous and independent—one’s ability to think outside colonial imaginary constructs like national history, culture, and boundaries—one paradoxically loses real power. Economic reform becomes purely cosmetic, and false hope is invested in futile economic projects like those of Jamal ‘Abd an-Nasir or the destructive and regressive economic plans of the Muslim Brotherhood with the IMF and other world banks.

The Eurocentric discourse of the Nation-State which was colonially imposed upon the Muslim world must be transcended and replaced by the more universal and divine discourse of the Ummah as being the loci of our identity and allegiance. Employing such a discourse and working off of such principles are essential if Islamist movements are to seek a powerful counter-hegemonic economic force in the Muslim world which would be able to compete with that of the Capitalist world-system. Few would deny that only the Khilafah would provide such because of its intrinsically ant-hegemonic economic principles through a non-interested based system backed by a bi-metallic currency—Gold/Silver standard (striking a blow to the US dollar) and a practical program for wealth distribution. A Khilafah would provide the necessary resources both intellectually and economically to decenter the Western-centric world; the Muslim world must become its own center—in terms of identity and economics. Such a transformation might be deemed, and properly so—radical—however, true liberation has never been brought about through cosmetic change or mere reform. And lastly, transcending the nation-state discourse and capitalist logic would enable Islamists to better counter the matrix of power structure inhibiting emancipation.


Ali Harfouch is a student of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut working in Islamic activism with  Islam Policy. 

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