Category Archives: Economy

Bank of ISIS: How to Bankrupt It

When you think of ISIS, forget the image of balaclava-clad men, with kalashnikovs screaming “Allahu Akbar”. Think of a carefully managed startup that has, like other successful companies, lured international investors, diversified its income and widened its outreach. Just like any startup runs on equity and investment, this terrorist organisation also obtained funds to organise its structure and plan operations.

If ISIS Inc. was headquartered in Silicon Valley, it would be considered one of the top private companies in America. Based on even conservative estimates, last year the group controlled assets in excess of $2 trillion, with an annual income amounting to $2.9 billion, according to Thomson Reuters. That’s more revenue than the retailer J Crew and the household appliance corporation, Conair, earn a year.


Yet, in defeating ISIS, it’s important to dispel short-term solutions, particularly those that fall under the sway of “retribution” such as mass bombing. Sanctions and intense warfare alone won’t work, because ISIS thrives on the failure of Middle Eastern governments. To beat ISIS, governments must first address President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria as part of the problem. This is a mess born of the Iraq war and the Syrian civil war, the brutality and sectarianism of which has become a recruiting tool for the Islamic State. “Assad is not a sideshow,” says Emile Hokayem in this report. “He is at the center of this massive dilemma.”

Take ISIS’s authority over oil, for starters. It is by far the most lucrative commodity for the group. It is the “black gold that funds Isis’ black flag” and not only fuels the war machine, but also provides electricity and gives the jihadis critical leverage against their neighbours. Yet, blindly bombing ISIS’s oil reserves could actually help it more than it could hurt it by disrupting the livelihood of those who relied on oil trade. As Hassan Hassan, Chatham House associate fellow, writes:

Airstrikes disrupted this wartime economy and many families, who continued to buy oil from its new owners, ISIS, increasingly found it difficult to find alternative means to survive. This pushed some families to send their sons to join ISIS as the only way to generate a monthly income, according to several individuals living under ISIS.

The depletion of Syria’s ageing oilfields are, alone, containing ISIS to some degree. The group’s need for fuel for military operations also means there’s less to sell in the market.

It’s too late to expect that freezing the assets and halting the sale of weapons to those countries that have supported ISIS will stunt the organisation’s power. The jihadist group has already become immune to international sanctions.

Not only has it infiltrated every aspect of the economy, including the banking system (for example, more than 20 Syrian financial institutions continue to operate in ISIS-held territory, according to Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Counterterrorism program), it has also been making millions for years simply through a string of illegal activities (think: extortion through illegal taxes, and kidnap and ransom payments, selling sex slaves and plundering of antiquities excavated from ancient palaces and archaeological sites).

So any optimism that ISIS will have financial oversight is short-lived. In fact, “blocking the assets that fill ISIS’ coffers would mean rethinking the world’s economy,” says Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, an impossible feat considering the group has already exploited the underbelly of the financial system.

So how do we bankrupt ISIS, considering all the above?

Forget the strategy that addresses the symptoms not the disease. Indeed, as Emad Mostaque, strategist at Ecstrat tells Rebel Economy:

Our governments guarantee us safety from political violence, so when political violence is introduced into public life, governments typically over react and expend valuable resources fighting a small, hard-to-hit enemy.

This is why the war on terror has been a resounding failure, spending $2 trillion, killing 2 million civilians and seeing the number of enemy recruits going from under 1,000 to over 100,000 in 14 years.

Instead, there should be more focus on a long-term option that addresses grave unemployment (remember, ISIS thrives on the Arab world’s failures to provide to the people and relies on unemployed youths for new recruits). This means providing people with opportunities to enter competitive, labour intensive jobs, within blue-collar industries and prevent the draw to radicalism. It is a strategy for economic reform that critically channels most of the gains to the bottom 80%. The summary of this five-fold plan, by Middle East analyst Nathan Field, is necessary reading for understanding why ISIS continues to recruit and grow stronger.

In the end, there’s many things to be done:

  • Focus on resolving the Syria crisis as a whole and life after the Assad regime

  • Get the region to think differently about jobs for youths to help stem the flow of disenfranchised young people to ISIS

  • Targeted attacks against ISIS to limit their growth, and other sanctions

  • Cyber war on the ISIS propaganda machine to mitigate their message

There’s also a radical option, more in line with the rebel fighters of Libya. Train Syrian refugees in Turkey and other parts of Europe in the art of sabotage and send them back in as the Resistance. The most embarrassing problem for ISIS is their own “people” striking back at them. Bankrupting ISIS, a terror group which has further reach than any group before it, can only happen if the entire structure collapses, and that starts from within.

Sinai: House of War

The Islamic State, or ISIS, and their affiliates are increasingly showing organizational skill and willingness to engage targets on foreign soil. But one of the key frontiers for this ruthless, extremist group is the Sinai Peninsula. Here, ISIS is building a new generation of jihadist fighters.  Mohannad Sabry, a journalist based in Cairo, has just published a book based on the security and political situation in Sinai, Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare. It was published a day before the Russian plane came down over Sinai, an eery reminder of the frequency of terrorist attacks and, ultimately, our lack of comprehension of the ISIS force. 

Sabry talked to Rebel Economy about how ISIS has become a “magnet in the field for militant groups, attracting every wannabe,” including the young and the amateur. For these young terrorists, the fall of the Metrojet flight to Russia, the killings of hundreds in Europe and beyond, is considered impressive.  Sinai, Sabry says, “has become Beit El Harb, a House of War.” 

  • First thing’s first. Was the Russian plane was taken down by a bomb?

It’s a possibility, but do we have any evidence? I don’t think so. The only evidence we have is residue left on the plane.  There’s little hope in having transparency on the subject. But you cannot just say you have a bomb on board without having any evidence. The intelligence didn’t tell us anything detailed. They just said we have theories, but nothing solid. That opens up a lot of speculation. Simple we have a very valid theory, but until we are given more evidence on the ground, we cannot confirm this theory. Is it 90% possible? Yes it is, but it’s not confirmed. We’re not getting any detailed information from the intelligence and the fact that the Russians and Egyptians are running the investigation is not helping, those countries do not have a track record of transparency.  

  • Why is Egypt so sure that there was no bomb? Is it possible they are not being honest?

They are denying any kind of crisis or scandal which is the usual Egyptian goal, the easiest thing to do for the Egyptian regime is to simply deny anything, and then everyone forgets about it. This is exactly what has happened after every crisis. After the Rabaa massacre, they said we didn’t commit the massacre. They thought they’d deny the scandal and no one would react. But this time the crisis is much bigger than anything they’ve ever handled before. And let’s not forget we are living in the post 9/11 world so anything that involves planes or flight security is terrifying for the world. It is unprecedented and something that Egyptians are not used to.

So now, the Egyptians are using a friendly rhetoric.

By simply holding a press conference instead of not acknowledging the crash, and the fact that one of the investigation team said that he heard the last minute recording of the black box demonstrates a difference in their tactics. The fact they brought Russian and British investigators to Sinai is unprecedented. They’ve been denying other countries access to Sinai and now we’re seeing access given by the Egyptians. But unfortunately it took a passenger flight to crash to change their actions, and 224 lives.

  • Do you think Suez Canal security is also a major issue?

The Suez Canal is far from the major Islamist territories of Sinai, it’s more than 200km away. There was one attack in 2013, and since then the egyptian military understands the importance of the Suez Canal. It’s an international investment and there’s an international collective concerned with securing it. We’ve seen groups infiltrate Ismaila, and in the capital where the Interior minister was killed. But the Canal is hundreds of kilometres long. Are they [militant groups] capable of causing more damage? Yes, it’s a possibility.

  • Can you explain a bit more about Ansar Beit al-Maqdis? What troubles have they caused? Are they the group people now refer to as Islamic State in Sinai?

In 2011 there was a dozen groups in Sinai, half of them were online and amateurs. Jeish el Islam, Tawhid Wal Islam, and others are among the groups associated with that region, but clearly the main group is Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and they are a very understandable dynamic, and the bigger group in Sinai. They are doing what the Al Qaeda campaign did in the 1990s, when declaring global jihad and they ended up attracting other groups to them. What happened then is happening again with ISIS. They are a magnet in the field for militant groups, attracting every wannabe, including young and amateur Islamists. In the overall context, Sinai has become Beit El Harb – a House of War, not a House of Peace. This is actually more dangerous than having weapons – having a reputation and this is helping lure in the kids and the fragmented groups.

  • North Sinai always seems to be in the news for something terrible. Why is it that the Egyptian government can’t seem to regain control of the area? 

North Sinai is in the news every couple of days, there’s attacks all the times. Egypt is fighting a war with a guerrilla army, you’re talking about a military institution that relies mainly on conscripts that are simply ill-trained and unfortunately we’ve seen so many of them killed because they’re not trained to deal with a guerrilla war. There has been countless examples of intelligence failure, where in the best case scenario they failed to utilise the intelligence. All of this collectively explains why we are not winning the war.

  • Can you explain a bit more about the tribal system in Sinai? How does that affect the ability for the army and/or police to root out IS in Sinai? Why does Egypt military distrust the Bedouins?

The state doesn’t trust the Bedouin community, and they don’t want their help. I’ve met the tribal king pins and they’ve offered the Egyptian military help, but they’ve always refused this.

If it’s a case of why tribes haven’t taken out the Islamists, it’s more complicated than hiring a few Bedouins.

Intelligence requires sources to report what they see, like a Bedouin who sees an Islamist planting a bomb. That’s impossible in Sinai, though, because the Bedouin community is not being protected. Dozens of Bedouins have been beheaded. Yet the Bedouins have proved themselves loyal to the state – who freed the kidnapped tourists? Who freed the kidnapped soldiers under Morsi? But what do those guys get, they get nothing from the state.

Egypt is not willing to cooperate with the Bedouins and trust the community. But the easiest thing to do to gather intelligence is to secure the friendly relations of the people and to protect them from the killing.

How One Bomb Affects Egypt’s Economy

In the midst of the worst recession in America since 1929, Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Fed was asked simply, ‘When will this end?’.

This was his response:

The lesson of history is that you do not get a sustained economic recovery as long as the financial system is in crisis.

Sounds logical. Especially coming from the man who was considered the most powerful person in the U.S. working to save the economy, and eventually he did.

Yet, apply this logic to Egypt, which has for so long languished in its political mess, and you see it doesn’t fit. Policies have been made and then broken, currency devaluations have been enforced, slowed and then prevented, and interest rates have been held and occasionally cut, and still reserves are pretty much where they were four years ago – sitting at just over $16 billion, enough to cover about three months of imports—the minimum the IMF considers advisable. 

Up till now, Egyptian tourism has survived big setbacks. If there was any trouble in the desert or along the Red Sea, it was small, and tourists were not the targets (at least, under Sisi.) Yet, memories of an Islamist uprising in the 1990s that took years for then President Hosni Mubarak to crush have been aroused of late. In September, Egyptian security forces mistakenly bombed a convoy of Mexican tourists in the western desert while pursuing militants. Last year, the bombing of a tourist bus in Sinai killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian.

The problem now is that Egypt’s economy is much weaker and cannot sustain a drop in foreign currency. Foreign direct investment (FDI) amounted to $6.4 billion in the last fiscal year (from the financial year running July until June), and the government is hoping (unrealistically) for $10 billion this year. Unemployment has hovered at a record high of over 12 percent since the beginning of 2011 and the biggest issue, the current-account deficit, is still high. That’s because Egypt is still spending a lot more (on oil, wheat, cars, metal and other goods totaling roughly $60.8 billion) than it is exporting (just $22 billion last year.) And that’s been happening for more than ten years.

Unlike the 1990s, Egypt’s economy is in a much more precarious position.

Take these graphs, from Capital Economics, on the number of tourists flying to Egypt and the foreign currency reserve level: 

Tourism and FX - Egypt copy

According to estimates from Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics, export revenues (because tourist receipts are counted as a service export) could fall by as much as $3.5 billion, or a massive 1.3 percent of GDP, over the next year. That is a huge chunk out of the tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of Egypt’s GDP already and 1.3 million jobs. It’s especially bad because the Red Sea resort towns of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada were among the most successful tourist sites, even more so than the desert destinations. Daily occupancy rates reach more than 70 percent here at the start of June. It even prompted the tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou to tell Reuters this in September:

“I will focus on the bulk of tourist movement. While desert tourism is important, the highest figure for it was 350 thousand (people a year). Sharm El Sheikh, on the other hand, received more than 4 million tourists at some point, on its own,” he said.

“I am going to work on everything related to those areas, from securing them and all else.”

Good job securing that…

The country is back to square one having barely recovered from the ‘second’ revolution of 2013, let alone the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising of 2011. And, somewhat more unsettling is the risk to the neighboring Suez Canal, the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia and one of the country’s main sources of foreign currency.

Despite security efforts, there have been multiple attacks on the Suez Canal. In 2013, an Islamist terrorist group called Al-Furqan took responsibility for hitting merchant vessels passing through the Canal with rocket propelled grenades. This is a clear video of the attack, which happened in broad daylight:

It was the second attack in just under three days (the first was allegedly under the cover of darkness), and demonstrates one example of how Egyptian security forces have taken a reactive approach to military threats, rather than mitigating the risk. According to Stephen Starr, a journalist that wrote a summary of the security risks to the Canal, “the threat of serious attacks by militants—operations that could sink a major vessel and thus block the canal—is a real one.” 

President Sisi has his eye on a mega $8-billion expansion of the canal that aims to double daily traffic by 2023 and increase annual revenues to more than $13 billion by 2023, from just over $5 billion in 2014. Yet, none of this is meaningful if the government continues to resist structural reform which has left the economy floundering for years. It is also resisting the simple fact that there was likely a bomb on flight.

Egypt will certainly need international support once again as foreign direct investment dries up, but officials are alienating themselves by mismanaging the crash inquiry. It is no secret that European countries are among the heavyweight influencers on the IMF board, a organization that has had on-and-off talks with Egypt for years. So, if Egypt really wants to dispel concerns from its donors, in the hope of sourcing funds, transparent investigations are required.

The New Sinai

It is a dangerous time for Egypt. The latest reports to come out from Western governments blaming the crash on a bomb have shown Egypt’s worst fears may be true – the country has experienced one of its worst terrorist attacks. Now, the most likely scenario emerging is that a bomb was smuggled aboard the plane and exploded midflight, despite security and a relatively modern airport at Sharm El Sheikh. 

At first, the death of 224 people in the plane crash was seen by the Egyptian government as a tragic accident, and at the very least a dent on the economy.

Egyptian officials’ vehemently denied any terrorist link, dismissing claims by a militant group linked to the Islamic State who said that they brought down the plane. In fact, their initial assessment was of no foul play, according to someone close to the Egyptian intelligence services who spoke with Rebel Economy earlier today, and they were especially certain that the plane wasn’t hit by a missile.

Yet, just a few days later, the same officials, with a growing sense of confusion, prompted an investigation into the flight, and began to survey the fuselage and other materials onboard, according to the same source. Egypt continues to outwardly deny any terrorist involvement.

However, one of the most lethal groups in the region are now within shooting distance of two of Egypt’s most important economic lifelines and foreign currency earners: the Suez Canal and Sharm El Sheikh, one of the last remaining tourist destinations considered an oasis away from the turmoil elsewhere in the country.

And despite Egyptian officials and political analysts insisting for so long that extremist groups in North Sinai, where the ISIS affiliate is hiding out, didn’t likely have access to surface-to-air missiles that could take down a commercial airliner flying at 30,000 feet, the worst case scenario – an onboard bomb – has occurred. Not only does this demonstrated that ISIS are getting more sophisticated, and bypassing controls and borders, but that the government had no clue it was happening.

After all, it’s not easy to get a bomb on a plane in 2015.

Sinai has always been a study of contrasts: in the south, it’s full of tourists, luxury resorts, scuba diving, and lots of foreigners. The north is shockingly different – rundown cities, outlaws and Islamic extremists hiding in the desert and in mountain encampments. But now, what’s worrying is the influence of ISIS in Sinai and their proximity to big targets. Up till now, ISIS’s ambitions were limited by their geography. The classic ISIS in Syria are a scary phenomenon, but they have had limited access to Western targets.

The Sinai contingent is like a pick and mix of targets for militant group. It’s physically close to Jordan, Israel and mainland Egypt – all of which have a lot of westerners coming through, including attractive targets for a group seeking to make a bigger name for itself on the world stage. What’s more, Sinai is somewhat lawless, and its coastlines are under-policed.

It is a very dangerous place for ISIS to have a foothold, and could turn the fortune of the country around within months.

Voice from the Grave: Omar Suleiman’s Testimony

The judge made his final call today, confirming the death sentence of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, a crucial step in cementing the counter-revolution and the unravelling of the uprising that had brought him to power.

Morsi, who is now already serving a 20-year jail term for ordering the arrest and torture of demonstrators in 2013, was convicted of breaking out of prison during the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak regime. He has never denied that he broke out of prison, but why it merits the death penalty is hard to comprehend, particularly because he was being held in that prison without charges in the first place. The Grand Mufti of Egypt still has to confirm any death sentences.

Morsi was one of thousands that took advantage of a mass escape of prisoners from Wadi Natrun prison in the north of Cairo during seemingly lawless days at the start of the uprising.

Although we’ll never know exactly what happened in Wadi Natrun during those turgid and chaotic days when all eyes were on Tahrir Square, Rebel Economy can offer a rare peak.

What follows is a complete translation of the testimony of former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman during the trial against Hosni Mubarak. Suleiman, who died in 2012 at an American hospital, gives his account of what happened during those historic 18 days following Mubarak’s deposal, including Morsi’s prison break.

The huge disclaimer is that this is wildly biased against Morsi, but still, it is amazing how current these views sounds. Back in 2011, the idea that foreign powers conspired to cause an uprising in Egypt was considered preposterous by just about everyone but the so-called “Feloul”, or remnants, of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Now, these views are much more widely held in part due to the widespread efforts to undermine every detail of the Morsi regime.

As with all testimony from legendary spymasters, read with a grain of salt.

Here it is in English – this is a professionally translated transcript of the Omar Suleiman’s testimony.

Here is the original Arabic document

Please cite a reference to Rebel Economy if you are reposting or referring to these documents.

Egypt-Israel Gas Deal A Pipe Dream

An Egyptian company’s plan to import gas from Israel is nothing but a pipe dream, according to documents viewed by Rebel Economy and interviews with people familiar with the situation.

Last week, Dolphinus Holdings signed a seven-year deal to buy an estimated $1.2 billion of natural gas from Israel’s Tamar field, but negotiations haven’t included the firm that actually owns and operates the pipeline, East Mediterranean Gas, according to a letter sent from EMG to Israel’s largest gas sellers operating on the offshore Tamar gas field.

Egypt gas pipeline

The letter states that “EMG was not a party to the reported deal and was not included in such negotiations. There are no discussions held between EMG and Dolphinus on such a transaction and there have been no negotiations held in the past.”

This is just the latest twist in the story of the notorious Egypt-Israel gas pipeline, one that has been cursed with misfortune and represents a tangled web of espionage, global diplomacy efforts, big business and even terrorism (the pipeline has been bombed more than a dozen times by unknown militants in Sinai).

EMG, which built and operated the pipeline, was founded by one of Egypt’s most controversial tycoons, Hussein Salem, but is now owned by a consortium of companies including the American billionaire, Sam Zell and the Thai government’s state gas company, PTT.

Several Egyptian government officials were imprisoned over the deal after the uprising and the new government cut off its contract with EMG (claiming it missed payments). That set in motion several high-profile international arbitration cases by EMG against the government. EMG is seeking billions of dollars in damages for its shareholders.

The last four years have been disastrous for Egypt’s economy, including its energy sector. The country is now in such desperate need of gas that it agreed to buy liquified natural gas at a huge cost from European sellers.

It’s ironic that a pipeline originally designed to send gas into Israel for Egypt’s profit is now being considered as a way for a hobbled Egypt to buy gas from Israel. The rationale is easy: importing gas over a 90-km pipeline from a neighbour is much cheaper and requires less infrastructure than bringing in LNG from abroad (which requires specialised plants to turn it into useable gas).

But this deal cannot take place without EMG’s approval and that seems nearly impossible, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

That it because there is no way EMG’s shareholders will agree to drop their arbitration cases against Egypt, the person said. The Egyptian government said that would be a prerequisite of approving any deal to import gas from Israel. Even so, the Dolphinus deal would only represent annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars for EMG, versus billions won from arbitration settlements.

To make matters even more complicated, EMG owes the state-owned National Bank of Egypt in excess of $170 million, according to documents reviewed by Rebel Economy, a loan it took out early on to build the pipeline. It was paying it off until the Egyptian government cancelled EMG’s contract in 2011. (A classic case of Egypt inadvertently screwing itself.)

So for this deal to work, shareholders of EMG would not only need to forego the possibility of billions of dollars of compensation but also agree to not get paid anything for years because any money EMG makes would be used to pay down its debts.

That may be one of the reasons why they have been excluded from the negotiations, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg for this messy non-deal.

Egypt The Mirage

A collection of “inspiring” quotes from some of Egypt’s biggest international investors have been making the rounds on social media:

“Advice: Stop whining. The future will come down to the private sector. … This is a democracy with an enormous amount of legitimacy. I know what an illegitimate government looks like and smells like.” —Timothy Collins, CEO, Ripplewood Advisors

“You don’t commit to a $12 billion investment unless you believe in what is going on in the country.” —Bob Dudley, Group CEO, BP

“Everyone decides on which risks he’ll bite into, and in Egypt, I’ll bite into any risk, any day.” —Emaar Chairman Mohamed Alabbar

“I wish we had as many opportunities in Europe as we have in Egypt” —Joe Kaeser, President and CEO, Siemens

Rebel Economy cannot verify whether these are real quotes or made-up by people who got a bit too much sun in Sharm.

It is an impressive display of support and a vote of confidence for Egypt, the “democracy.” But as Egypt basks in the financial and political support of the world, as deal after deal is signed, and $138 billion dollars of investment is secured for the country in just a couple of days, the truth behind this high-profile economic conference in Sharm El Sheikh is a little harder to swallow.

The floor-to-ceiling glossy signage declaring, somewhat ambiguously, “Egypt the Future”, ignores the fact that Egypt needs to do a lot more than ask for investment. The tourism industry, which at one point contributed over 10% of GDP, is in a pathetic state: the number of visitors last year was a third below the level of 2010.

But more critically, it is the bones of the country that are creaking. Egypt needs power, proper roads, better and more schools, hospitals and housing. Jobs are scarce and the ones available are low quality and pay below what is considered an internationally acceptable minimum wage.

The population is predicted to grow to 116 million by 2030. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah El Sisi, wants to ditch the 1000-year-old Cairo, for a brand-spanking new $45 billion, Dubai-style capital in the desert. But we all know that’s pie in the sky.

So what about all these deals? The Gulf has promised $12 billion to Egypt. The reality is that the country has spent $12 billion several times over in the last three to four years. What is another $12 billion going to do but keep Egypt operating weakly at a unsatisfactory level.

But most importantly, most of the companies investing are ones already in the country (BP, Siemens, ENI, etc), and all these Gulf companies (Masdar, Emaar etc) are merely doing as their government’s tell them – “Keep the Brotherhood out.’

Officials, business people and Egyptians are genuinely excited for the future, there’s no denying judging by the inordinate number of Sisi Selfies, and exclamation marks punctuating lofty ideals about the country. But the multi-billion dollar PR push to showcase the North African nation as a place worth pumping money into betrays the truth, not just because of the country’s inescapable human rights atrocities but because Egypt is lacking the bread (literally) and butter infrastructure it needs to survive.

Sissi said so himself in this bizarre interview with the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth where he talks about himself in the third person (He said, “Sissi reflects the popular will of Egyptians.”).  He tells Weymouth that the country needs $130 million subsidies to support 90 million people:

Where can we get the money to provide for these needs? Who would come to invest in this country if it is not stable? We have an overwhelming unemployment rate of 13 percent.

So what is his response? More money of course. Another $300 billion to be exact. This economic conference is not The Future, it is a mirage that shines the light away from the population’s plight, where thousands are wrongfully imprisoned and thousands more are still hungry, with no access to basic resources and education.

One person asked on Twitter: Does investing in an economy of a potentially unstable and authoritarian regime make business sense? It’s not business anymore. It’s politics when it comes to the Gulf and it’s cautious agreements, with disclaimers as long as scrolls for the companies involved.

What Coca Cola Tells Us About Egypt’s Economy

The next time you sip on a bottle of Coke, think about how much it tells you about Egypt. 

How much does a bottle of coke cost in Egypt? Figure out this simple piece of information and you could estimate where the Egyptian pound is headed or at least how overvalued it is (or undervalued, depending on your perspective. If you still haven’t figured out what’s going on with the pound, read this excellent Bloomberg Q&A).

That’s according to data startup, Premise, a San Francisco company that’s using an army of smartphone users around the world to take pictures of food and drink and use it to track global food prices. It can sniff out inflation way before a country has a clue. One of its tools, a snappy chart called the Coca Cola Index, a riff on The Economist’s famous Big Mac Index, reveals currency trends about the world based on the price of a bottle of Coke (at least, that’s what Premise reckons.) Here’s a snapshot of their work:

So what do these squiggly lines say about those countries’ currencies and what does that have to do with the price of Coke?

Premise explains:

Like the Big Mac, the price of Coke sold in a supermarket reflects the cost of a wide range of inputs: sugar, rent, manufacturing labor and the labor of retail workers. If we assume that the price of Coke is broadly representative of the price level, then we can infer likely movements of exchange rates. Countries with a relatively high price level will try to import goods from other countries with cheaper goods, weakening the domestic exchange rate.

Take China, for instance, where a bottle of Coke is roughly half the price it is in the US. Premise say this could hint at an undervalued Renminbi. And if it wasn’t for China’s fixed rate policy which keeps the currency at a consistent 50% undervaluation, the price of a bottle of coke would likely appreciate under a floating regime. They did a little more digging on Argentina, Brazil and the US, too.

Imagine the same method applied to the Egyptian pound and what it could reveal about currency trends, particularly what the government isn’t telling us. According to Numbeo, which aggregates cost of living data around the world, the average price of a bottle of Coke in Egypt is 43 cents (3.3 Egyptian pounds), which is ridiculously cheap compared to the roughly $1.50 you’ll find in the US.

If it wasn’t for Egypt’s monetary policy which has kept the pound artificially low, but to some still overvalued, where would the currency be today?

We don’t have enough information about Egypt’s coke prices to infer anything solid, but Premise shows us how simple tools and easily attainable data can offer a peek into the real value of the pound, which for so many years has been shielded by the Central Bank, one of the most opaque institutions in Cairo, and the government, one of the most dysfunctional.

Naguib Sawiris’s Fiefdom

Naguib Sawiris wants to plop hundreds and thousands of Syrian refugees on isolated islands for sale off the coast of Italy or Greece, and use this manpower to build a new country that he would own. Almost at the same time as the billionaire philanthropist was giving an interview to CNN, saying he “cannot just sit … and do nothing…and pretend it’s not my problem,” Egyptian security forces gunned down at least 12 tourists and guides in Egypt’s White Desert.  It was an accident, of course.

For a telecoms magnate worth approximately $3 billion, it is hard to dismiss Sawiris, especially as the UN call this the worst global refugee crisis since World War II. But the motive behind this plan is questionable when Sawiris’ agenda in one country – his home in Egypt – does not align with his interests elsewhere.

In Cairo, the Sawiris family, who control the Orascom conglomerate spanning telecommunications, construction, tourism, industries and technology, have turned a blind eye to the ruthless crackdown of their fellow countrymen and women, thousands of whom are political prisoners, in exchange for a favourable business environment, where big corporations are rewarded while small business is plagued by red tape. Egypt still ranks 112th on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index, trailing behind Zambia and Swaziland. But the disappearing of people and the silencing of dissent is not a worthy cause.

Sawiris told CNN (taken from a rough transcript):

I would build temporary housing and temporary school and temporary hospital, you know. And then we will use these people and provide them jobs to build a new city on the island, to build this island, you know. Because this war is not going to end in weeks or in months. It may be years even.

The exodus of millions of Syrians is devastating, and perhaps solutions should be unconventional,  but is Sawiris the right person to be proposing and controlling such a project, when he is politically implicated in Egypt’s own disastrous government? And then there’s this fantastical promise of a haven for Syrians, that in reality, will become a massive refugee camp, lacking in infrastructure, on an island cut off from society. This is a temporary solution, at best, and at worst, it is an over-populated, under-served fiefdom controlled by a telecoms magnate. This is not how cities and societies are built.




Egypt’s Mafia Fund

A private equity fund launched by Gamal Mubarak managed to reel in millions of dollars of investment from Egypt’s elite, revealing the depths to which political and business connections ran as he began rising in stature in the late 1990s.

According to a document obtained by Rebel Economy, Gamal Mubarak’s $54 million Horus I Fund, created in 1997, attracted some of the country’s most controversial businessmen including steel fugitive tycoon and Mubarak-confidante Hussein Salem, steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, who was acquitted in June after being charged with monopolising the country’s steel market, and the ex-CEO of Egyptian investment bank EFG Hermes, Hassan Heikal. Heikal is a defendant in an insider trading case involving both of the Mubarak sons. His former colleague, Yasser El Mallawany, who is still officially an employee of EFG, is another investor in the Horus Fund.

[caption id="attachment_2059" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Full list of investors who committed to Gamal Mubarak's fund Full list of investors who committed to Gamal Mubarak’s fund[/caption]

The fund, which was operated by EFG Hermes and invested in Egyptian projects and companies, attracted millions of dollars of investment from members of Egypt’s old guard, some of whom have been targeted in corruption cases since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Although there is no evidence the fund engaged in corrupt activity, the connections between the people named as investors on the account has never been properly investigated by the Egyptian authorities.

The list of individuals and companies published above raises questions that have so far been left unanswered by Egyptian investigators.

The document, which details how much individuals and companies committed to the fund at the time of launch, also provides a window into the everlasting influence of Mubarak’s old guard and their long-standing ties to Gulf nationals in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

It represents the beginning of Gamal Mubarak’s foray into private equity, where his financial interests in the Egyptian economy, from tourism to agriculture to oil, began to grow. The fund was created prior to Gamal’s entry into political life, when he acquired 18% of EFG Hermes Private Equity.

Among the handful of Gulf companies listed is First Arabian Development and Investment Company, run by Hamza al Kholi, a prominent Saudi Arabian businessman, and Yahya Al Yahya, the chief executive director of Gulf International Bank.

The ZAD Global Direct Investments Fund is also a notable appearance on the list. This investment company, founded by Prince Mishaal Al-Saud, second child of the Prince Abdullah bin Turki bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Jeddah is a privately controlled investment company, organized, owned, controlled and operated as the investment vehicle for the family of Prince Mishaal  for the purpose of managing the family’s investments.

Some businessmen have used clever ways to hide their investment activity. A company connected to Hussein Salem appears on the document. Clelia Assets Corporation, a Panama registered company, is linked to his name.

Salem fled Egypt in 2011 when he came under fire for tax evasion and his complicity in a corrupt gas deal.

Other controversial names on the list include Mohammed Abou El Enein, the chief executive of Cleopatra Ceramics, a major Middle East ceramics firm that has faced repeated labour strikes.

Abou El Enein, who once called himself “the noblest businessman on Earth”, was at one point under investigation for allegedly violating labour laws. Workers have staged sporadic strikes asking for improved working conditions and higher wages.

The fund is a worrying sign of how little progress Egypt has been made in defeating a tight circle of Egypt’s mafia, some of whom were subject to now forgotten corruption cases.

And now, there is evidence that some of Mubarak-era moguls may make a reappearance on Egypt’s political and business scene. Hussein Salem, who is currently exiled in Spain, has reportedly asked to make a deal with the interim government that would end any court cases against him. He has said he is presenting a new initiative to the interim government which includes funding for the unemployed in the tourism sector, as well as restoration of police stations, churches and mosques.

Hassan Heikal, who resigned from EFG Hermes earlier this year, has indicated that he will be acting in a consultancy basis to the Egyptian government. He has signalled he will offer ideas and launch new initiatives “that offer long-term solutions to Egypt’s fiscal challenges and economic development,” according to a statement he made when he resigned.

But the army has a strategy of its own. It’s interest is in preventing an examination of its own assets and business interests, which not only is likely to affect other investigations but focus on a shift away from Mubarak-era crimes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the former president Mohammed Morsi.

So as the army continues its assault against the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists and civilians, the more these characters will disappear into the background, leaving them free to operate, uninterrupted.