Youssef Boutros-Ghali: An Insider's Perspective on the Egyptian Economy

Friday, Jan 15, 2016

Princeton University students enjoyed an intimate discussion with economist and former Egyptian finance minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali during an informal lunch hosted by The Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy and Finance. 

Born and raised in Cairo, Boutros-Ghali earned a PhD in economics from MIT in 1981, the same year that President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated and Hosni Mubarak assumed the presidency. After graduation, he worked for the IMF until 1986, after which he began his public service career in Egypt. During his seven years as Minister of Finance, he was instrumental in reforming and modernizing Egypt’s economy.  

He described many “behind-the-scenes” experiences from those tumultuous years with extraordinary detail, warmth, and frankness, sharing many personal anecdotes with the poise and humor of a seasoned storyteller. He touched on many of the political challenges he faced, and praised the help that came from the IMF and World Bank: “Their help forced our government leaders to focus, talk to each other, and create a clear framework for effective policies, saving us the time it would have taken if we tried to build that structure in-house.” 

Boutros-Ghali also discussed some of the new threats posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, many of which have turned back the clock on his reform efforts. The most recent Egyptian constitution (passed soon after Mubarak and Boutros-Ghali stepped down) created a government structure that is troublingly fragmented and hinders effective fiscal and monetary policy decisions, Boutros-Ghali explained. “There are over 100 political parties right now in Egypt, which leaves no possibility for a majority,” he said. “It’s very difficult to formulate effective policy without a coalition, without that consensus. In today’s Egyptian parliament, everyone wants to be Pharaoh.”

The students around the table had many questions, some about the personal challenges of his public service and some on the matter of his legacy, particularly since Boutros-Ghali was tried and found guilty of corruption “in absentia” in 2011 (during an infamous six-minute trial) while visiting the U.K., where he now has been granted permanent political asylum. 

“We almost made it,” he said, wistfully. “For those seven years, the politics might not have been working, but we were growing the economy, we had inflation under control, our reserve was expanding.

“But you don’t take public office in Egypt expecting great fun. It’s dangerous, emotionally and physically. I was driven by a sense of duty and ambition for my country, because I knew if the economy could be properly managed, we could really ‘make it.’ I thought perhaps I was someone who could make a difference.” Ultimately, he admits, “I feel lucky to have come out alive.”

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