The tragedy of YBG

Youssef Boutros-Ghali — better known as YBG — was Egypt's last finance minister under Mubarak, and probably one of the most disliked men in the country: he was constantly attacked by much of the media as the man who handled the state's pursestrings, and hated by the left (and the Mubarak regime's old guard) for his neo-liberal economic views. I met him several times in the last decade, and to me he was chiefly the overworked, fiercely intelligent, charismatic if arrogant, man who for some 30 years (in various capacities) spearheaded a single-minded project for economic reform in Egypt.

It is commonly said that the "economic reformist" ministers of the post-2004 era of the Mubarak regime were Gamal's men, riding his coat-tails to power and implementing economic reform policies that had no social counterpart. The last part of this idea may be true — the crime of YBG and his ilk was to think that economic reform could be pushed without a political opening and greater social equity —  I never thought that there really was much of a Gamal gang — just a collection of individuals who chose to use the opening Gamal created inside the regime.

This is particularly true of YBG, who, let's remember, has been in a position to influence Egypt's economic policy since 1989. His was a long-term project to push the regime in a certain direction, and his best ally in this was not Gamal but the United States and international financial institutions who saw him as a champion of economic liberalism in a regime that was deeply resistant to any change. Over the last decade in particular, YBG (whatever his tolerance for, and even participation in, corruption was) pushed through changes in legislation that also included some good: improvement in tax collection, greater control and transparency of the state budget, financial and customs reforms and more. Yes, a lot of bad probably came with that. But a lot of what he did was also necessary.  

I heard a few months ago that YBG, who sought refuge in London after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, was punched in the face in Hyde Park by an angry Egyptian who blamed him for the country's dire handling of poverty. I don't know if it is true but the story is illustrative of how this man, once feted by the international finance community, has fallen from grace. This story in today's al-Masri al-Youm is further indication of a shattered life, and I can't help feeling a little sorry for him:

The psychiatrist of Youssef Boutros Ghali, the former finance minister who fled to London after 25 January, said that Ghali tried to take his own life twice, and that the British police are aware of that. The psychiatrist warned that he might attempt suicide again.

Sources close to Ghali said that he talked to a mediator to turn himself in to the Egyptian authorities, and that he is consulting with lawyers regarding his legal situation.

In June, Ghali was sentenced in absentia to 30 years imprisonment for deliberately squandering public funds by taking money from car owners whose cars were seized at customs in Cairo Airport. He was also sentenced for another 15 years for abusing power, and fined LE60 million.

Egyptian authorities are still coordinating with the INTERPOL to arrest him.

In related news, a report of the British Metropolitan Police found no traces of poison in the body of Ghali’s wife, Michele Sayegh, who died two weeks ago. The police attributed her death to a heart attack resulting from excessive stress, and ruled out criminal suspicion.

Ghali had accused a restaurant owner and the staff of putting poison in noodles that his wife had ordered, but the report, which was signed by three doctors, refuted such accusations, and the accused were released.

No doubt I will get flamed for this, but for me YBG was a not a major villain of the regime, like Mubarak or Habib al-Adly. He came from the kind of prominent Egyptian family that has always dabbled in politics, and his gravest sin is one shared by much of the Egyptian elite: hubris. He never could imagine that there were alternatives in the way of running the country and thought Egypt's long-suffering poor were infinitely pliable. His talents were wasted serving a regime that was a dead-end. No doubt he thought he was doing his bit for his country, repairing what he could under an economically illiterate president with no vision for the future.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,