The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged ybg
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.

Egypt: Technocracy vs. Securocracy

YBG in parliament. Photo by Omar Anas of al-Ahram Weekly.

I recently wrote about the postponement of the real estate tax and the Egyptian government's credibility problem when pushing through necessary legislation. Yesterday a ruling party MP took things further, saying that Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali could face his grandfather's fate and be assassinated for his unpopular policies:

Abdel Fattah Omar, parliament's national security undersecretary, launched a withering attack on Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali in Tuesday's parliamentary session over the latter's controversial economic policies.

"The minister doesn't pay attention to anyone and is hated by both the government and the people alike," said Omar. "I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up assassinated like his grandfather."

Boutros-Ghali's grandfather served as Egyptian prime minister from 1908 to 1910. He was assassinated in 1910 following accusations of entertaining sympathies for Egypt's British colonial occupiers.

Omar went on to urge the Interior Ministry to lead the government so as to "restore order," both among government ministries and on the street.

"Because certain ministers have taken wrong decisions, the Interior Ministry has had to deal with street demonstrations," he said, calling on Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to punish those ministers found responsible for popular protests.

Quite apart from being tasteless, this is yet more anecdotal evidence of the transformation that has taken place in the past decade in how the Interior Ministry's role is perceived. Due to the social instability of the country and the rise of protest movements from Kifaya to blue collar workers, the Interior Ministry is increasingly seen as a legitimate policy driver, since it has to clean up the mess. In several labor demonstrations we've seen the Prime Minister and other similar officials come away empty-handed from negotiations, while when a police general is sent in the matter is resolved quickly. In other words, there is a shadow government that handles many of the day-to-day issues that politicians and ministers should be dealing with. The Interior Ministry and State Security in particular has become an inextricable part of the way the business of government is conducted, acting as the middle man between the policy planners — the cabinet and the Policy Committee of the ruling party — and citizens. It's not surprising that this MP wants to see the technocrats like YBG take a backseat to the securocrats like Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly: it's already the way things are being done informally. 

I touched on this "securitization" of governance in a recent article for MEI (subs).