Samir Radwan: Evolution from within
It takes not only induction but complete transformation of the thought process
Profile by Aziza Sami
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'Mohamed Ali's system ultimately failed because of its monopolistic bent -- of course this was a time when mercantilism was a legitimate system. And like the Japanese, Mohamed Ali had a strong asset -- his army, but it proved to be a double-edged weapon, because when the British conspired to defeat him, all they had to do was defeat his army. And when they did so the industries that had thrived on army demand -- textiles, iron and food -- broke down. It was practically the end of his reign'
Leaning on the windowsill of his Economic Research Forum office, Samir Radwan is too laid back to show any signs of tension. He is extremely busy, as usual, preparing for a conference in Cairo, to be followed by a week of travel; but the stress, though undoubtedly there, is, again as usual, barely visible. A developmental economist of rare aptitude, he has been in Cairo for only a year and a half, having spent close on 30 years at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), holding key positions while he carved a path as a leading employment specialist in developing and transitional economies -- designing and supervising research strategies and employment policies with a focus on structural adjustment and poverty. Now he has reconnected with his roots, Radwan is the managing director of the Economic Research Forum, a major think tank which, with a series of remarkably erudite studies on Middle East economies, trade, government and social development, has made its mark on the regional and national level.
We are seated in his quiet office balcony overlooking one of the calmer stretches of Boulos Hanna Street in Doqqi when dust- laden leaves blow onto the stone tiles and, noticing that I've noticed, Radwan points to a palm cluster behind him. The municipal authorities, he recounts sadly, have recently pulled down one of the tallest among them -- it must have been 50 years old. The reason? "They said it was about to fall of its own accord, though it wasn't so easy to root out in the end, or even to nudge. But the reason they gave was that it was too frail, that it didn't appear convincing enough to be worth preserving, that palm..."
Radwan received his BSc from Cairo University, moving onto the School of Oriental and African Studies for an MSc in the economics of underdeveloped countries -- his thesis was on import-substitution industrialisation -- and the University of London for a PhD on capital formation in Egyptian industry and agriculture from 1882 to 1967, marking the British occupation of Egypt and the Arabs' defeat in the Six Day War with Israel, respectively. The process, as well as facilitating epistemological growth, enabled him to empathise with such figures as Mohamed Ali Pasha and the nationalist industrial entrepreneur Talaat Harb. His work at the ILO, on the other hand -- the last position he held there was that of advisor to the director general on development policies and counsellor on Arab countries -- served the dual purpose of earning him an international professional standing while keeping him, through one project after another, in more or less direct contact with Egypt: "I never really thought of myself as an expatriate." This from a man who spent more than half of his life abroad, who married a Swiss, and whose two children continue to live in Switzerland.
His daughter Nadia, 26, is writing her MA on the groundbreaking Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi; his son Karim, 22, studies economics at the same institution. He thinks of them both as his sharpest critics -- something for which he is grateful, he says, because it keeps him on edge. Together with their mother, the two flit from Switzerland and Egypt and back, to stay in contact not only with their father but with their country and their culture.
Radwan had entertained the notion of coming home since earning his PhD: "The years go by, the pressures of work never end. But thank God all the work I did was related to Egypt." Yet he concedes that the return, while in many ways satisfying, has not been easy: "To put it simply, we [as Egyptians] have elevated the ability to make life difficult for ourselves to the level of an art form." Indeed his day-to-day, first-hand experience of Cairo -- clustering in the city, unemployment, pollution -- has become one of the driving forces behind his work: "When you study the experiments of countries that achieved economic development -- Malaysia, India, China -- you can tell what needs to be done. Our problem [as Egyptians], though, is once we realise what needs to be done, we start overemphasising it in laudatory terms without actually doing it. It's almost schizophrenic, but it's the prevalent approach -- an innate part of the way we think." While rejecting the label of "liberal economist", due to the negative associations of the term, Radwan is still for freedom of the individual, for "the democratic system". And from this vantage point his principal gripe with Egyptian regimes since the 1952 Revolution is "that the authority of the state over the last 50 years has been so strong it often transgressed individual freedoms". He also takes issue with the state's lack of consistency. The loosening of economic control to which the liberalisation policies of the 1970s gave way, he says, has now degenerated into "a total collapse of the state in its role of regulator -- something you don't see in [largely free- market] economies like Europe or the United States".
The end result, in Radwan's book, is that the social contract between the state and the individual no longer holds. On the one hand traditional values have vanished, on the other hand the values of capitalist society remain nonexistent: "Rights and duties are relegated to the realm of bargaining -- a process that engages individuals struggling to wrest away what they can, whether from each other or from the state." Despite his keen sense of the critical, Radwan speaks with relative calm, yet (in much the same way as he was recounting the story of the uprooted palm tree) it remains evident in his voice how much such questions have preoccupied him: "When one is relaxed one can look at these things philosophically, from a distance, but then one can't always be relaxed -- you're bound to be upset at times."
And upset he is, sometimes, certainly. But when he looks back at his life, he feels it has not been entirely unsuccessful. And his criteria of judgement go beyond professional achievement. He thinks of it rather in terms of evolution: his formative influences, especially those he encountered in England, for example, are "milestones"; living in London in the period 1963-73 contributed significantly to his world view. It was a time of "student revolutions the world over", he says: "I became deeply involved in this." It was also the time of flower power -- revolt with the political establishment, genuine and open critical concern with such issues as Vietnam and, more relevant to an Arab student, Palestine and the African countries: "In all of this, one question was constantly passing across the table: the question of democracy, and respecting the rights and freedoms of others." Radwan has vivid memories of the hours he spent at the British Museum, rediscovering his national history among ancient Egyptian relics. But it was at the University of London that his thinking about (more recent) Egyptian history bloomed: his research revealed intricate and fascinating detail, especially about Mohamed Ali Pasha, whom he still feels is not credited sufficiently as the founder of modern Egypt.
"Mohamed Ali's system ultimately failed because of its monopolistic bent -- of course this was a time when mercantilism was a legitimate system. And like the Japanese, Mohamed Ali had a strong asset -- his army, but it proved to be a double-edged weapon, because when the British conspired to defeat him, all they had to do was defeat his army. And when they did so the industries that had thrived on army demand -- textiles, iron and food -- broke down. It was practically the end of his reign."
Also as part of his PhD thesis, Radwan explored the 19th-century industrialisation experiment under Mohamed Ali's grandson, Khedive Ismail, as well as the achievements of Talaat Harb in the 1920s and 1930s. Once again, relying on secret documents released by the British government, Radwan uncovered the persistent efforts of a group of Egyptian importers to ostracise and eventually break Talaat Harb, whose small nucleus of national industry undermined their vested interests. Today, Radwan believes, liberalisation is inevitable, but it need not imply that the state should relinquish its role as regulator. Drawing on his experience of the ILO, he feels he can bring to his role as adviser to the government -- Radwan is a member of the board of the Investment Authority -- an added dimension: he can draw parallels between development in Egypt and elsewhere in the world. In recent Investment Authority discussions of businessmen defaulting on loans, for example, he cited the Federation of British Industries as a warning signal.
At the ILO Radwan oversaw the organisation's annual report on the conditions of Palestinian workers in the occupied territories. Because of the sensitivities with which the task was beset -- apolitical as it purportedly remained -- he found the report "most difficult to write", a long-standing point of contention with other Arab delegates at the ILO: "I felt that rather than rhetorical outcries about Israeli transgressions, we needed to address the fact that Israel had signed agreements concerning its Palestinian labour which it was now contravening, and which included giving Palestinian workers the right to form syndicates for instance. I believe logic has its own force in the end." Yet questions of social equity and democracy remained paramount throughout his tenure: "Working at the ILO I became totally convinced that no system, whether domestic or global, can succeed unless it takes care of this side of things." It is a theme Radwan was to address yet again, in typically accessible language, at the reform conference in Alexandria last week.
His stint as employment policy adviser to former prime minister Atef Ebeid provided him with rather different insights, on the other hand. Never was it lost on him that there was a paradox inherent in the behaviour of a cabinet that consistently issued promises to provide employment even as it remained committed to liberalisation -- a process that makes it impossible to generate employment. Radwan's prognosis? "It is typically Egyptian, this way of going about things. They want quick solutions because they have no patience for long- or even medium-term solutions. So they issue these promises -- a mistake, a non-solution that can only exacerbate the issue further, perpetuating the syndrome of dependency on the state."
Last year, too, Radwan's Economic Research Forum participated in the first Alexandria Conference on Democratic Reform. "When people criticise reform conferences, they simply ask what it is that such conferences have achieved or will achieve? And whatever your view, it has to be stated that manifestos will not change the Arab world in themselves, even though these conferences remain important in that they keep the state under pressure to change."
Yet assessing the prospects of the current Egyptian regime he remains optimistic: "I think the present cabinet may well be said to constitute a rational approach to policy making. The good thing is that they talk to one another, coordinate -- this is very important." One positive development the new ministers have brought about is "the unprecedented speeding up" of the process of issuing laws, which now takes two days to a week. They also have "the vision to realise that investment is a comprehensive issue, which does not depend on one person".
President Mubarak's recent amendment making elections open to more than one candidate, on the other hand, Radwan describes as "a constitutional tsunami". Yet what is to be feared, he insists, "is the usual tailoring of the law -- those people who will work to circumvent and obstruct the realisation of the proposal". Still, Radwan is far from pessimistic: "The important thing is that the flood gates are open. Who opened them and why? I really don't care, I never did." It is his firm conviction that the first step on the route to change occurs in people's minds, in the way they approach issues: "This is why education, and reforming not only our system but the very way we address the issues we face is very important. Why, for example, not read the much-maligned US Middle East Democratisation Initiative, and address it? People understand logic, and they respond to what they understand."
In a similar strain, when we say we will industrialise, when we look to the labour intensive industrialisation models of southeast Asia as a model, we must first ask ourselves: what is our chance, in this era of globalisation, of successfully following the same course? In the end "the crux of the matter is how to be specific -- the nitty-gritty details." Radwan inhales: "One thing I know is that when it comes to ranking some 80-100 countries on a scale in matters like development, employment, democracy or rights, Egypt deserves a much better place than the one it currently occupies."