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Egyptian visiting scholar examines political economy of the Arab world

The Program on Arab Reform and Democracy (ARD) at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) is pleased to welcome Egyptian economist Samer Atallah as a visiting scholar for the 2015-16 academic year. Atallah has taught economics at the American University in Cairo (AUC) since 2011, and his work focuses on development economics and political economy of democratization. He is a leading contributor to debates on economic public policy in Egypt, and previously served as an advisor to the 2012 presidential campaign of Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fettouh. He holds a PhD in Economics from McGill University and a Masters Degree in Engineering from University of California, Berkeley. His research on the Arab world has received the support of the Arab Council for Social Sciences and the Economic Research Fund, and spans a wide range of areas, including; education, electoral behavior, public opinion, trade policies, and political institutions in resource dependent economies.

During his residency at CDDRL, Atallah will work on a series of publications examining salient questions in the political economy of the Arab World, including the impact of trade and capital flows on governance in Egypt and Tunisia, and the relationship between education and wealth inequality in Egypt. Atallah’s fellowship is generously funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to support scholars from the Arab world. In the following interview, Atallah discusses his current research projects and their relevance to important public policy debates.


What are your research goals and priorities during your residency at CDDRL?

First of all, I would like to say that I am extremely delighted to be here and excited at this valuable opportunity to collaborate with distinguished scholars at CDDRL and Stanford University, which promises to be a nourishing environment for my research. 

My research agenda during my residency here at CDDRL includes working on two projects, both of which are related to broader questions of democratization and development. This first one is a comprehensive theoretical and empirical study investigating how political and economic institutions evolve as economies become integrated in the global economy. I am interested in understanding how trade and capital flows impact institutions - in the economic sense of the term - and the implications of that impact on political change. For instance, the experiences of economic liberalization in countries like Egypt and Tunisia had unquestionable consequences on the distribution of wealth within their respective societies. Economic liberalization policies had equally important effects on the performance and evolution of their legal, economic governance and political institutions. My own research seeks to investigate how these institutional changes have evolved and the impact of these processes on political change.  The second project is an empirical study examining the relationship between wealth inequality and educational inequality in Egypt.


In what ways do your projects speak to contemporary debates on the origins and trajectories of the Arab uprisings?

I would argue that the divergence in outcomes across the various uprisings in Arab region cannot be understood without seriously thinking about the different historical evolution of political and economic institutions in these countries. These institutions impact the functioning of the economy, its growth, and the social inclusiveness of that growth—factors that were very pertinent to the popular mobilization that advanced the post-2010 uprisings. Certainly these institutions are in part the product of how the economy is managed in a given country in the short-run. At the same time, they are the result of long-term external and internal factors that we need to investigate and understand.

A case in point is the bureaucratic apparatus in Egypt. That sizable bureaucracy is the outcome of a long-standing policy of guaranteed employment, which the government had adopted in the 1960s to secure political support. Whereas economic liberalization policies adopted by President Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s shrunk the economic role of the state, the size of the bureaucracy, nevertheless, increased significantly. Thus, the question we confront as researchers is why have these institutions remained stagnant and shielded from change despite the fact the nature and priorities of the economy have shifted. This is a major concern in my own research.


What lessons, if any, does your work offer policy-makers involved in the areas of economic and human development?

My second project on inequality and education speaks to one of the central factors that have animated the post-2010 uprisings in the Arab world, namely economic inclusion. In the context of Egypt, educational inequality has contributed greatly to the huge disparities in income and wealth in the country. Exacerbating and reinforcing these disparities is an intergenerational dependency in educational attainment—that is, children of uneducated parents are highly likely to remain uneducated, and by implication, economically underprivileged. This is an area that leaves a lot of room for policy interventions.

But such interventions must be grounded in a better understanding of the causes of this dependency and why it persists. Toward that end, my research seeks to investigate how the type and range of assets in a given household affect schooling and education decisions. Other key determinants of these decisions include access to credit, spatial distribution of educational facilities, and volatility of household income. With a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the problem at hand, all of these factors present potential areas for policy interventions to alter the incentives for school enrolment and quality of education delivery. Such interventions could potentially lead to a better distribution of education and income in the long run.


What are the potentially important research questions that address Arab reform and democracy?

I believe the recent upheavals in the Arab world have pushed us to re-evaluate our understanding of the underlying reasons and implications of political and economic change. This has opened up a multitude of lines of inquiry related to the economic incentives and costs of political change. One such endeavor entails an ambitious effort to compare the evolution of social movements, economic policies, and political structures in the Arab world with other regions of the world. For instance, I think we could draw multiple parallels between the Arab experience and that of many Latin American countries, especially with respect to the role of military institutions, the impact of economic liberalization, social inequality, and civil society movements. Having said that, there is also a lot of work that needs be done in understanding and analyzing the divergent outcomes of the Arab uprisings.