x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Our last chance' to get Egyptian economy right

Many were optimistic when Hosni Mubarak was ousted. But the Muslim Brotherhood's incompetence and cronyism has brought the economy to its knees. Alice Fordham reports from Cairo

A man carries cooking gas cylinders at a selling depot in Cairo. There are no plans for reforming subsidies of fuel and food, which account for about 10 per cent of GDP.
A man carries cooking gas cylinders at a selling depot in Cairo. There are no plans for reforming subsidies of fuel and food, which account for about 10 per cent of GDP.

CAIRO // Ashraf Kamal, the managing director of a small business, leaned back in his chair, looked at photographs of famous golf courses hanging in his office and remembered the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

"The revolution," he said ruefully, "made me have a lot of time for golf."

An entrepreneur whose most recent venture was in digital marketing, he was filled with optimism when the autocrat of 30 years was felled.

But Mr Kamal's story in the two-and-a-half years that followed echoes that of much of the Egyptian business community.

He watched in dismay as the market contracted and foreign investment disappeared while instability soared. His business has only just been able to cover his costs.

Worst of all, he says, has been the way Egypt's elected, Islamist government put its own people in positions of power, outdoing the cronyism and incompetence of the old regime. Egypt's new interim leaders have presented an economic plan, promising changes for the better.

But business people and analysts are concerned the projections in the plan are overly optimistic and that it does not give sufficient attention to the structural problems that keep half of Egypt's population on or near the poverty line.

Last week, Ahmed Galal, the finance minister, said that by the end of the year, the budget deficit would be reduced from 14 per cent of the gross domestic product to 9 per cent. At the same time, the deputy prime minister, Ziad Baha El Din, announced a 22.3 billion-Egyptian pound (Dh11.86bn) stimulus package for investment projects in the next 10 months.

The plans were buoyed by more than $12bn in grants, loans and fuel from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July.

The influx of cash has bolstered dwindling foreign reserves and averted a catastrophe - like being unable to import wheat - but even such large sums will not end Egypt's economic problems, said Salma Hussein, an economist at the state-run Ahram Hebdo weekly. She said the plan could increase the country's debt burden to more than 100 per cent of GDP.

"The idea of the stimulus plan is correct," said Ms Hussein. "Because the private sector is now very hesitant. You need to spend money to create jobs."

However, she said she thought that the stimulus plan was "meagre" and that she was not convinced whether the projects were designed to create jobs for Egypt's poor.

Structurally, there are no plans for reforming subsidies of fuel and food, which account for about 10 per cent of GDP, according to the Oxford Business Group, a consulting firm. Nor are minimal tax rates set to be increased.

"The newly appointed interim government signalled it would not engage in major structural reforms, which would entail controversial legislation, as it lacks a strong mandate, being a transition government," EFG Hermes, an investment bank, said last month.

In a country now prone to mass demonstrations, it would be unwise to impose painful reforms, the report said.

The report also cast doubt on the idea that the budget deficit could be reduced by 5 per cent over the next year and pointed out that the Gulf aid, about half of which is in loans, adds to the debts, some of which Egypt should begin repaying in the next two years.

Ms Hussein said that programmes to reform subsidies have been on hold since 2007 and the economic situation has become progressively worse since. She said that reform was more urgent in a country where the needs are great. A report by the Economic Research Forum in Cairo in 2011 set 25.2 per cent of the population below the poverty line and a further 23.7 per cent as "near poor" and that the average Egyptian spends more than 40 per cent of income on food.

Since that report came out, food prices have increased, with a dramatic spike this year. There are also no immediate plans for improvements to health care or education. UN figures suggest about 28 per cent of Egyptians are illiterate.

The widespread "social insecurity" this causes fuels political instability, said Ms Hussein.

"People can't send their kids to school, feed them, get health care. Until you resolve this instability, you will not solve this," she said, adding that if the Brotherhood-led government, with its popular mandate, only lasted a year, the current military-installed leadership could be toppled even more quickly if they do not address the economy.

Mr Kamal, the golf-loving businessman, expressed similar views. He said that as a member of the business community he wanted to see an improvement in security and a focus on attracting foreign investment as priorities.

But he also feared that unless the concerns of the poorest were met, the country could continue to spiral downwards.

The 2011 uprisings called for bread and social justice as well as freedom, he said, but life has become harder for the poorest and hungriest.

"In 2011, there was a golden opportunity and we missed it," he said. "We only have one chance, because there will be a hunger revolution if things do not get straightened out. This is our last chance."

afordham@thenational.ae

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