Between knowledge and power: World-renowned economist Ibrahim Shehata

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Tuesday 11 Feb 2020

If Dr. Ibrahim Shehata were the head of the Egyptian government in the years of the rise of Asia, Egypt would have shot ahead of the Tigers’ generation and would have been in an entirely different position today. The world-renowned Egyptian economist and jurist was born in Damietta governorate in 1937.

In 1953, he was the high school graduate with the fourth highest grades in Egypt. In 1957, he topped the list of Faculty of Law graduates, while Dr. Hazem El-Beblawi, who would later become prime minister, came in second. Shehata’s star rose during his studies at Harvard University.

“Ibrahim Shehata’s PhD was the best that I saw in my entire academic life at Harvard,” were the words of Erwin Griswold, the faculty dean.

Shehata worked as a professor at the Faculty of Law, Ain Shams University in 1970. He was then appointed in many key posts around the world. In 1983, he was appointed deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and continued in this distinguished post until 1998. He wrote his famous book ‘My Testament to My Country’ in 1999. He passed away in 2001.

Both the Right and the Left had deep respect for Shehata, with nobody ever questioning his academic knowledge, integrity or intellectual and moral standing. Mostafa El-Feki mentioned that while working as Egypt’s ambassador in Vienna, he was full of pride when he entered the OPEC building and found a picture of Shehata in the entrance of the building. In El-Feky’s opinion, Shehata was capable of outdoing in Egypt what Mahathir Mohamad had done in Malaysia if he were given the same degree of power.

The leftist Dr. Galal Amin spoke about the rightist Ibrahim Shehata, saying, “Unlike my position, Ibrahim Shehata was enthusiastic about the World Bank. He was ready to acknowledge that the Bank committed a mistake in this issue or that, or a failure in this matter or that. But he never doubted the soundness of the Bank’s philosophy regarding development. Despite the intellectual disagreement between us, I believe that if Ibrahim Shehata had held high office in Egypt, he would have achieved results that are very close to what I aspire to.”

Shehata’s writings ranged from economics, law, politics and literature.

Egypt… pillars of power

Shehata said that Egypt is in the middle of the Old World and that it connects the world’s trade via the Suez Canal. It enjoys a strong national fabric, and due to its high population, it possesses important weight in the Arab World and Africa. As for soft power, it extends from culture to media to the international stature of the religious institutions of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church. It also extends to Egypt’s moral role with regards to the Palestinian cause and those of liberation around in the world.

Legal reformation before economic reformation

Shehata published a study in Modern Egypt magazine in July 1996 issue under the title ‘The Legal framework of the Economic Reformation in Egypt,’ where he insisted upon the necessity of conducting legal reformation before the monetary or economic reformation.

The three challenges

Shehata saw that population, education and the private sector are the three big challenges. He advocated decreasing population growth and providing free basic education. He also advocated for free higher education only for high achievers through scholarships or study loans. All this should be accompanied by liberating and maximising the potential of the private sector in Egypt while setting up priorities and appropriations for the public sector.

Three kinds of capitalism

Shehata divided capitalism into three kinds: Enlightened Capitalism represented by the model of Talaat Harb and his companies, where individual wealth is public wealth and constitutes real development; Swindler Capitalism, which is based upon looting and smuggling money outside the country; and Crony Capitalism, which is based on seizing business opportunities due to being relatives or friends of those in power.

The dangers of intellectual regression

Shehata criticised extremist organisations that want the Islamic world to live under anachronistic rules.

Shehata said that he was not advocating for abandoning “basic values… or God’s decrees, and we don’t dispute the necessity of Egyptians holding their religion’s ideals high or having refined morals. Nor are we disputing the necessity of holding onto our distinct civilisation or having our own national identity. All these are necessary bases in the confrontation of the clash of civilisations. Modern solutions should be created which don’t run in contradiction with Islamic values. Islam shouldn’t be a vehicle for regressing into the past and in which we confine ourselves and imprison the future,” Shehata said.

“Islam’s enemies couldn’t desire this more. They would be glad if this trend was propagated and its advocates ascend to power. This would be a perpetual guarantee of Muslims’ backwardness.” He cites as an example Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian far-right leader, who hated Islam and Muslims: “My biggest wish is to see the Islamic countries ruled by sheikhs and mullahs, so they can be controlled without shooting a single bullet.”

Even distant dreams can be achieved

The world-renowned Egyptian economist and jurist was also a poet. He wrote three books of poetry in Arabic. He saw that rising from misery to fortune is always possible. He was influenced by the European thinker Jean Monnet, who supported European unity when it was an impossible dream until it became an existing reality. Shehata used to say: “In order to change the path of things, the soul should be changed.”

Ibrahim Shehata lived a refined intellectual life. When he was beset by illness, he didn’t write a testament to his family, he wrote a testament to his country instead. He always realised that the real asset is human beings and that the eternal shield is inner strength. His poem ‘An Everlasting Beauty’ expresses his path and career:

“I spent my life searching for a beauty that doesn’t end,

Without knowing that it was inside me,

Every beauty withers away

Except the one that is inside you.”

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