Last week, Nathan Anderith introduced us to the global economy’s ruthless cowboy, the IMF. This week we take a voyeuristic look at the gunslinger’s steamy relationship with Egypt…
When their eyes met, the stars aligned. She was a heavily-indebted country who was a strategic interest of the US . He was a international fund who’d been coming under fire and was looking for a late Cold War win. It was 1987, and the night was full of possibilities.
“Did it hurt?” the IMF said.
“What?” said Egypt, startled.
“When your currency fell from Heaven?”
“Wow. How many countries do you try that on?”
“Only the ones that catch my eye.”
“And what is it,” asked Egypt, arching an eyebrow, “that catches your eye?”
“I like a girl with serious problems making her international payments. One with a nice, big debt and a tiny little private sector. The kind of girl that needs an austerity program so bad it hurts.”
“Oh, please. I read that last article. You’re the kind of fund that takes a girl out, sweet-talks her into a loan she can’t pay back, sticks her with an economic reform program that crushes her growth, then you’re out the door when the riots start.”
The IMF laughed. “That last article was a hack job. Listen, I’ve got the cash and you’ve got the debt. Let me buy you a drink and we’ll find out what else we have in common.”
One drink became two, then three. They danced, they laughed, they sent delegations. The next morning Egypt and the IMF woke up at his place, heads pounding and sheets tangled, with a new loan agreement and an economic reform program. Egypt was mortified – she was a good Muslim girl, she shouldn’t be taking out loans with strange men.
They both agreed it would just be the one time, but the money vanished into the hungry hundred nibbles of corruption and the reforms changed the system just enough to piss people off. A few years later, lonely and indebted, Egypt called the IMF again, just to see how it was doing. One thing led to another, and it got a freshloan in 1991, then another in 1993.
Then things went south. The IMF pressured Egypt into privatizing, meaning she sold off all her government-owned companies. It works great if it’s done fairly, with no favoritism or corruption, but this was Egypt, so… not so much. She took crony capitalism to a whole new level as friends of the regime bought up the country. After a big fight in 1998, the IMF and Egypt decided they’d rather just be strategic partners.
The next time they saw each other, in 2011, things were different. The IMF was calmer, more compassionate, chastened from bad publicity. Egypt’s eyes were wild, her hair was in a hijaband she reeked of tear gas.
“Hey,” said the IMF, setting down his drink. “How’ve you been?”
“Alhamdulilah. I’m free now, did you hear? Kicked the motherfucker out.”
“You look like hell.”
“Well, I’ve just had a revolution.” She tossed back the last of her Molotov cocktail.
“Right, right. Uh, listen -”
“If you need – “
“If you need a loan, I can cover you.”
“I said I’m fine!” she snapped.
“Look, you’re clearly not fine. Your stock market’s tanked, your subsidies are out of control, and you’re letting military run everything – openly, for once. Let me help.”
“I remember what your help looks like. You really think I’m going to take you back after what you pulled?”
“I’ve changed! I’ve got a new director, she loves growth and sustainability and all that hippy bullshit. I’ll be gentler, more attentive to your needs.”
“I can’t. The Muslim Brotherhood’s got some real power now, and you know how they feel about interest on loans.”
“Fine. I hope you and your precious Brothers will be very happy together.”
A few months later, at 3 in the morning, the IMF got a call.
“Habibi. Wa7ishteni. Inta fen?”
“Who is this?”
“Ana masr. Bahibak, habibi. 3aiza ashoufek.”
“Egypt? Are you drunk?”
“Nooo. Me? I’m fine, ya3ni, totally fine. I just wanna see you.”
“I don’t have time for this. Europe’s going down in flames, the global economy is shot, I –”
“Please, habibi. Just send a delegation. I need you.”
The IMF cursed and headed to Egypt’s place. On the way he started to think. Maybe this could all work out between them. She was a democracy now, he’d changed his organizational structure, they’d both grown a lot. These hopes were shot when he saw her apartment – clothes covering the floor, week-old dishes in the sink, riots on Mohammed Mahmoud Street and not a parliament in sight.
“What the hell happened?” the IMF demanded. “This is how you come down off a revolution, tearing yourself apart?”
“I know, I’m kind of having a rough patch. But you can help me out, right? =Just a little loan, for old times’ sake?” Egypt gave him a sultry look, which was hard because there were three IMFs in front of her.
“What about the Brotherhood? I thought they hated me.”
“Them? It’s the damndest thing. They’re in power now, and suddenly you’re not the greatshaitan anymore.”
“Funny how that works out. So, what, you have an economic plan?”
She handed him a tissue with some numbers scribbled on it. He took it gingerly, trying not to touch the wet spots.
“Are you kidding me with this?” he said. “Taxes on cigarettes and soda? Fucking cooking oil? This is all on the backs of the poor.”
“I know it’s not perfect, but I need this loan. My foreign exchange reserves are screwed. You know, the reserves I use to pay for little things like food and gas? If they run out, people are going to lose it.”
“You’re not stable enough. What’s this I hear about a constitutional declaration?”
“Don’t worry about that. Here, let me pour you a drink.”
They settled on the couch together, and soon it was like no time had passed. They talked about fiscal reform and argued over government salaries. Egypt put her hand on the IMF’s thigh, and he brushed her hair over her ear. Their faces came closer, their lips touched…
She pulled away. “I can’t.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m sorry! I want to, I do. But I’m just not ready right now.”
“For fuck’s sake.”
“Please don’t give up on me.”
“I won’t,” the IMF sighed. “But you’ve got to get your shit together, Egypt. I won’t wait forever.”
“Don’t worry,” she promised, “things’ll calm down soon. I’ll get a new parliament, a little political consensus, and then we can be together again.”
You folks may or may not have noticed, but things haven’t calmed down with Egypt. Her riots are worse, her government’s less stable, and her economy is heading for a crash. Last week they talked again.
“Did you get my new reform plan? Did you?” Egypt asked. “I texted you, Facebooked you, and emailed you twice.”
“Yeah,” said the IMF. “This, uh, this is pretty much the exact same plan you tried last time. And you have even less control of the streets. Hell, you don’t even have control of the streets.”
“So that’s a no?”
“Look, how about we don’t commit to anything just yet. You want to come over tonight? I’ll cook you dinner, give you some emergency financing to tide you over.”
“You think you can reject me, then offer a one-night loan? You can go straight to hell.”
And that’s where things stand now. Sorry to leave you hanging before the story’s finished, but we’re all watching these two crazy lovebirds have it out, hoping they’ll figure out their differences and have a happily ever after – before the country explodes.
PS - I wouldn’t have been able to write this without the help of Farah Halime, whose Rebel Economy is the best Egyptian economics blog out there. If you’re not reading it, you should be.