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Arab market economies here to stay, say Tunisia delegates

Despite widespread calls for social justice, experts say modest reforms to the region's capitalist systems are all that can be expected

Ahmed Feteha in Gammarth, Tunisia, Monday 29 Oct 2012
Tunisian vendor
Vendor in the market of Sidi Bou Said, northern Tunisia (Photo: Reuters)
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Market economies are likely to prevail in countries affected by the Arab Spring despite calls for widespread change, according to economists and academics gathered at a Tunisian conference.

Uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond were at least partly sparked by feelings of economic disenfranchisement, but delegates at Monday's forum in the seaside town of Gammarth agreed the Arab world will struggle to implement radical fiscal reforms.

"Lets be honest, the left -- including myself -- criticise the system, but offer no alternatives," Adam Przeworski, a professor of political science at New York University told Ahram Online.

Prezworski said he believed the need for a change in economic direction was clear but Arab countries had little choice but to follow some kind of version of a market economy.

"[Other economic systems] are all fantasies of the left and I count myself in this camp," he said.  

"[French president] Francoise Hollande years ago criticised the market economy, but even as a president he has a problem with finding alternatives."

The Arab world's fledgling democracies may be able to stimulate demand, increase market regulations and bump up taxes, but Prezeowrksi said he believed anything more radical remains unlikely.

Another delegate, Valentine Moghadam, director of the international affairs department at North Eastern University, said that northern Europe's social democracies were the most feasible model for Arab countries.

"A north European, multi-party system would be best to meet the aspiration of the people whose uprisings were motivated [to a large part] by social and economic injustice," she told Ahram Online.

Although Moghadam said her hope was for the region to see economic systems that more inclusive or "socialist " she agreed this was unlikely to happen given the current international political and economic climate.

But Egyptian former finance minister Hazem El-Beblawi slipped a note of uncertainty into proceedings, saying the economic direction of his home country was still not clear.

"Do you know the current government or president's economic policy? I don’t," El-Beblawi, who served as Minister of Finance during summer and autumn 2011, told Ahram Online.

"Even going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to get a loan -- this is not a clear indicator of their economic policy," he went on.

"Egypt is in a very tight situation economically, that's why they went to the IMF. It's because of a need not necessarily because of ideology."

Nonethless, El-Beblawi said he believed some kind of variation on a traditional market economy remains Egypt's most likely course.

The Tunisian conference, entitled 'From Arab Spring to Economic Spring' and hosted by the International Development Research Centre, is being held in Gammarth from 29-30 October.

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