Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Yahya Sadowski, Political Vegetables? Businessman and Bureaucrat in the Development of Egyptian Agriculture (Brookings, 1991).

That those who control the Egyptian state lack political will is not a novel observation. John Waterbury, in The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat, contended it was Nasser’s soft-heartedness that prevented him from “sweating” the middle class. Import substitution industrialization could not, therefore, be “deepened,” and the radical Arab nationalist agenda inevitably was supplanted by politics of accommodation with internal and external enemies. [1] Sadat, according to Daniel Brumberg, also lacked “political will…to shape a genuine ruling bargain that might have lent legitimacy and political substance to his economic reforms.” [2] Now, according to Yahya Sadowski’s extremely detailed and highly rewarding book, Western aid administrators have diagnosed the Mubarak regime as afflicted with the same malady — of having “vegged out,” or “gone vegetable,” thus undermining policy reform “by failure of political will.”

If potential breakthroughs to the left and right have indeed aborted due to the lack of nerve of politicians and bureaucrats, do comprehension and explanation of key political processes lie beyond the realm of political economy — presumably in the domains of political psychology or those disciplines which invoke culture as an explanatory variable? It is not clear whether Sadowski intends to concede this much intellectual ground to those disciplines, or whether by providing an account of the structure within which “political vegetables” operate, he is seeking to counter this stereotype.

Sadowski forthrightly rejects the neoclassical critique that less government is necessarily better government. He provides numerous examples from Egypt’s agricultural sector and from the economies of the Asian tigers to demonstrate that rapid development requires government intervention, not only to provide infrastructure but to shape markets so that rents accrue to those undertakings that are, or have the capacity to be, competitive. Limitations imposed on Egypt’s export capacity by geography and other “factor endowments” and by rudimentary production-marketing links are illustrated in convincing detail. In short, the “stuff” of political economy is there in abundance.

Yet so too are suggestions that Egypt’s real problems stem primarily from its “soft” or “weak” state, and that an act of political will by those controlling and administrating the state is the necessary and sufficient remedy to that which ills the country. The nexus between rent-seeking businessmen and bribe-taking bureaucrats has to be broken. By combating the baqshish administrative culture, by severing ties through which “crony capitalists,” extract rents, and by “pegging privileges to performance,” the Egyptian state can engineer economic development a la Korea. This book does not provide a precise blueprint for such reforms. It is implied, though, through a focus on the careers of “wily reform mongers” of the type extolled by Albert Hirschman in the Latin American context, of whom Minister of Agriculture Yusuf Wali is said to be a prime example, that the levers of power necessary to bring about such reforms are at the disposal of the state. The problem is to find someone to pull them.

This resort to volunteerism to account for major political outcomes suggests deficiencies in the framework of analysis. Once we take the leap into state autonomy, and render non-state actors to secondary or no importance, the only remaining independent variables are those of political leadership, administrative capacity and elite factionalization. In the prototypical Bonapartist case, the state was said to be autonomous precisely because of its strength. Recent analyses of Egypt, however, including this one, argue just the opposite: The state is autonomous because it cannot penetrate a comparatively strong society. Absent are intermediate structures binding state and society together, legitimating government and enhancing its capacity to make and then implement decisions. This reduces the state to a source of plunder for those (bureaucrats) within it, and to a real estate agent for those (businessmen) who pay it the commission required to extract rents. The weak, passive state inhibits entrepreneurialism because entrepreneurs are those who, by definition, extract rents directly from the marketplace rather than through political connections. By the logic of this analysis, the cure for economic ills is for the state to pick itself up by its bootstraps, stop pilfering by bureaucrats, slam the door in the face of crony capitalists and guarantee that markets be the ultimate arbiter of performance — albeit markets that the state has itself structured in order to reward the worthy, as defined primarily by export potential. The key question is whether this Augean task is more likely to be accomplished if the state democratizes or if it reverts to a more strident authoritarianism. According to Sadowski, the proper choice depends on the “right conditions.” Dictatorship offers the advantage that “it can be made to work more rapidly.” The South Korean government’s “nuanced control over the extension of economic privileges,” he writes, has made it unnecessary to “promote good government,” for cliques of businessmen and bureaucrats have “contribute[d] to national development.”

Leaving aside the normative issues involved in recommending “developmental dictatorship” over democracy, the paradox of focusing on the state when society is viewed as the stronger partner requires resolution. Can society be expected to indulge the whims of reform mongers operating within the interstices of the state? Does society directly, or through the mechanism of anticipated reactions, contribute to policy outcomes? Can the state really choose, like a diner from a menu, democracy or dictatorship?

Concerning the democratic path, antagonism in Egypt and in other Arab states between secularists and Islamists, to mention but one polarity, renders liberalization problematical, even when state-endorsed. At a more fundamental level it is not yet established that Western forms of liberal democracy are compatible with Arab civil societies. This remark implies no sort of cultural determinism: rather it refers to the fact that the profound class distinctions in Arab countries, now further exacerbated by the politics of infitah (opening), have required Arab governments to adhere to the form and much of the substance of “social contracts,” lest they be swept away by enraged populations. Those social contracts in turn militate against both democratization and the economic rationalism promoted as the key to rapid growth.

Even dictatorship requires a social base. If that base in Egypt were to be the lower classes, as to a considerable extent it was under Nasser, then the hypothetical developmental dictatorship could not follow a policy of export-led growth according to the guidelines of the US Agency for International Development and the International Monetary Fund, precisely because it could not assault its own class base. If, on the other hand, the developmental dictatorship is to be of, by and for the “businessman,” (i.e., the bourgeoisie), the state will have to assume the burden of repression that will threaten economic development by draining away resources, impeding information flow, and very likely fostering the conditions under which crony capitalists and bureaucrats have flourished in the past.

Those alternatives require hard choices. Politicians who appear to Western aid officials reluctant to throw caution to the winds are probably astute political realists rather than laid-back “political vegetables.” Egypt’s developmental blockage is not that its politicians and bureaucrats are lazy, but that it occupies a subordinate and disadvantageous position in the global political economy; that it is situated in the most conflict-ridden region in the world; and that the political infrastructure required to mobilize potentially dominant classes, or to reconcile the interests of competing ones, is insufficiently developed. These factors are not properly recognized when the state is the focus of analysis.

While the costs associated with state-centered analysis are considerable, there are compensatory benefits. Sadowski amply demonstrates that businessmen are parasitical or entrepreneurial not because of some inherent characteristic but because of structural conditions within which they operate. To the extent they must pursue profits through politics rather than through the market, they will adopt parasitism as a modus operandi. US defense contractors, or its railroad magnates of a previous era, are no less cases in point than Osman Ahmad Osman.

The focus on the state also helps to correct the mistaken interpretation that the Egyptian political economy can be accurately comprehended according to a model based on interest group behavior in Latin America. Sadowski provides a wealth of detail on the policy process in the agricultural and financial sectors. Formally organized groups are conspicuous by their absence. Strategic personal connections between businessmen and bureaucrats are the channels within which policies are made. The major constraints on the Egyptian state, associated as it is with bourgeois interests, are those imposed by a fear of lower class reactions, not by “pluralist,” “corporatist” or other interest groups.

Sadowski takes his reader on an entertaining and illuminating trip through the labyrinth of the Egyptian state. He would be the first to concede that the grander tour must ultimately include the society in which the state is only partially embedded. That is why his recommendation for the state to flog society all the harder in order to win the race for economic development appears questionable. Imposing Korean-style discipline is not a task which any imaginable Egyptian government could easily accomplish, as this book so graphically illustrates.


[1] John Waterbury, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 428-29.
[2] Daniel Brumberg, “Democratic Bargains and the Politics of Economic Stabilization: The Case of Egypt in Comparative Perspective,” paper delivered to the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, Toronto, November 15-19, 1989, p. 17.

How to cite this article:

Robert Springborg "Sadowski, Political Vegetables?," Middle East Report 177 (July/August 1992).