It was marketed as inevitable, a necessary step to seal the deal with the International Monetary Fund. What choice did Egypt have, economists and analysts said. The nation had no choice but to hike interest rates and float its currency. Yet the country surprised the market, economists and investors with an almost 50 percent devaluation.
Egypt’s economy, one of the most critical, simmering issues in the region, is again in flux. The country’s fiscal situation, which has a direct bearing on the security and livelihood of an already endangered population, was sent into a tailspin when a new currency regime was announced this week. “There will inevitably be fresh pain for the economy in the near term,” said Jason Turvey, economist at Capital Economics in a note. The decision is already having reverberations across one of the most fragile countries in the Middle East and North Africa, with prices of staple commodities expected to balloon. Mohamed El Dahshan, non-resident fellow with Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy told Middle East Eye:
“We are now in hell and the only way out is through.”
The IMF predictably championed the move, saying the new system better prepared people to sell dollars as well as buy them, injecting more money into the economy. The move would eliminate a thriving black market for dollars and secure, after five years of on-again off-again negotiations, that much-needed IMF loan. Without this, there was chaos and economic armageddon on the horizon.
There is a price to pay for Egypt’s complicity with the IMF at such a late stage attempt at economic recovery. Like most regimes with troubled economies, Egypt has a history of hiding the true extent of its inflationary woes. In many cases, governments fabricate inflation statistics to hide their economic problems, and Egypt is no exception. Steve Hanke, a professor of Applied Economics at Johns Hopkins and director of the Troubled Currencies Project at the Cato Institute had this to say to Rebel Economy:
“Inflation is an enormous problem and my estimate is inflation is considerably higher than official numbers and between 105 percent and 110 percent.”
The IMF, Hanke said, has provided “incredibly bad advice,” that serves predominantly to provide false hope and delay any real solution. “They [the IMF] did this just a few months ago in Nigeria, and they have not stabilized the naira [Nigeria’s local currency] and they’re not going to stabilize the pound,” Hanke said. Nigeria is experiencing an eerily similar problem to Egypt. It managed to sharply devalue its currency but only worsened the very problem that devaluation was meant to solve. Read this Quartz piece for a scary window into Nigeria’s present situation and Egypt’s future.
The underlying issue that no one wants to talk about, said Hanke, is this:
“The IMF wants a monopoly on giving advice, and the governments it advises are afraid to get a second opinion because they’re worried they won’t get money from other governments. It’s a false hope and it allows them to kick the can down a little further.”
But there is another way. Hanke suggests Egypt’s solution could be the implementation of a currency board system, which effectively combines a fixed exchange rate between a country’s currency and an “anchor currency” (which would be the U.S. dollar), automatic convertibility, and a long-term commitment to the system. “The rule is you have to back the local currency,” he said. The system has been tried and tested in several countries, including Bulgaria, where Hanke was an advisor to the government that implemented the program in 1997. The key is disciplining the fiscal authorities, says Hanke.
And guess Egypt’s primary problem is? Discipline. “In Egypt, the government can borrow from the Central Bank any time they want,” Hanke said. Bulgaria was in the midst of a banking crisis and entering a period of hyperinflation. The currency board system reduced Bulgaria’s annual inflation to 13 percent by mid-1998 and to 1 percent by the end of 1998 while rebuilding foreign exchange reserves from less than $800 million to more than $3 billion—more than six months of imports.
So why hasn’t Egypt taken this step? Why hasn’t it been put on the table? Because the military, who controls vast swathes of the economy, might find it hard to swallow.
Inflation is at the highest level in at least seven years, and the president and his team will have to satisfy the IMF through hard measures, including adequately reducing energy subsidies. And Egypt doesn’t seem too far from Bulgaria’s situation today.
Emad Mostaque, a strategist for Ecstrat, an emerging markets consultancy, says Egypt was just shy of hyperinflationary collapse before this week’s currency regime changes, with the deficit, tax base and interest payments all hovering around the 12 percent-of-GDP mark, not to mention debt-to-GDP exceeding 100 percent. (If you want to see what hyperinflationary collapse looks like, just check out Venezuela). Mostaque says:
“Nasty things happen when your entire tax base is barely enough to cover your interest costs and you have less than 3 months of import cover.”
Like an ambivalent marriage, The International Monetary Fund’s on-off relationship with Egypt (which dates back to the 1980s) is back on track.
There is $12 billion on the cards for Egypt, subject to final approval from the IMF’s executive committee. A green-light on the three-year loan package is expected to be followed by a flood of cash from the Gulf, the World Bank and African Development Bank.
Yet for the billions of dollars Egypt has received in the last five years – over $25 billion alone from Gulf States – there is one issue that has the country tied down in a vicious cycle: the banking system, nearly half government-owned, is inextricably indebted to the Egypt’s finances, allowing it to rollover maturing local currency government debt, which is a whopping 30% of GDP, while also providing new financing. Banks are also obligated to invest enormous amounts in Treasury Bills, the hard currency short term debt that the country taps into regularly.
But much of this money has gone to financing deficits and propping up a hugely overvalued currency.
What does this mean for the economy? The government is allowing its banks to superficially support its finances, allowing it to inch along, plug gaps as they appear, without acknowledging deep rooted social and economic reform that is mostly grounded in infrastructural changes. It’s reached a point that the government’s dependance on banks is the “only reason why a full blown economic crisis has not taken place, despite extremely weak economic indicators,” according to Raza Agha, the chief economist of MENA at VTB Capital:
I do not think lending these amounts is healthy – it crowds out generally more productive private sector needs. Plus, lending such amounts also creates enormous risks for banks balance sheets/financial sector in general.
So what does this kind of support look like on paper? First of all, look at what happens when credit to government overtakes the private sector (note: this happened right around the beginning of the Arab Spring, when the red line overtook the blue line):
The chart shows that net credit to the government and public sector businesses is over 1000% of bank capital and reserves, a huge burden to place on the banking sector. Then look what happens when banks go crazy on Treasury Bills, again to support the government:
Banks’ investment in Treasury Bills is 1200% of their capital base. Twelve hundred percent. Agha explains why banks do this:
There are regulatory reasons; there could also be “encouragement” by the government to invest in upcoming auctions of government bills (it’s easy to be convinced when the public sector ownership dominates the banking system); there may also be risk-reward considerations – if banks can earn double digit returns by lending to the government, which technically cannot default in local currency, why engage in riskier private sector lending at a time when growth dynamics are weak?
The banking sector has little choice. Why invest in a potentially more lucrative private sector when the safety and reward is with government lending, and they’re telling you there’s no risk of default?
But it’s a risky game. For instance, this system is predicated on the fact the country’s credit worthiness (which gives investors a window into the level of risk associated with investing in Egypt including political risks) remains fairly steady. If it was to sharply drop, then the banks would be lumped with very risky debt. Agha puts it into context again:
[Egypt’s] credit worthiness is already amongst the weakest I have seen across single B rated countries [see here for definitions of credit ratings]– this is clear in their debt levels, debt servicing pressures and the extent of external financing needs.
In a country ruled by the government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a former army general who seized power from an elected Islamist government three years ago, there are of course other doubts over the success of the IMF loan. Will it tend to rising inflation and the 13% jobless rate? Will it narrow the huge budget and current-account deficits—almost 12% and 7% of GDP, respectively? As Bloomberg’s editorial board puts it in this great op-ed:
IMF officials practically admitted that the new package is mostly cosmetic. The fund and Sisi’s friends in the Gulf need to insist on real reform. Egypt should invest in simple infrastructure such as roads, schools and water-supply systems; make it easier for small and medium-sized business to get bank loans; and break up the military-industrial monopolies in everything from washing machines to olive oil.
The IMF loan is only a window to recovery. Egypt must find a way to balance the social cost of reform with the economic cost of no reform. So far, Sisi seems to have focused much of his economic reform rhetoric on a $45 billion mega-city, which was quietly shelved.
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.
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:
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.
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.
— Mohamed El Dahshan (@eldahshan) March 15, 2015
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.
One of the key markers of a thriving economy is whether investors are committed.
For Egypt, attracting investors has remained a point of contention in the last three years – are they or are they not putting money in Egypt?
Marshall Stocker, an American venture capitalist, was among a band of businessmen drawn to Egypt’s transformation from a sleepy Arab socialist country to one that embraced the market.
The 2004 cabinet had cut the top rate of tax, launched a series of special economic zones and encouraged a rush of construction activity. This robust economic expansion plan, led by Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, hit its stride in 2008, when foreign investment reached dizzying heights of $13 billion. Economic growth clocked in at a consistently high 7%.
The global business community applauded Mubarak’s rule as “bold”, “impressive” and “prudent”. On the surface, the country was a haven for investors like Stocker.
But once he had arrived in Cairo to launch his urban redevelopment real estate company, Stocker’s optimism was short-lived and he was forced to shut down his business just a year after it had hit its peak. He subsequently documented his experiences in a memoir published this year, “Don’t Stand Under A Tree When It Rains”.
Rebel Economy spoke to him about his experience as a foreign investor during the height of the revolution and why he won’t be investing Egypt again, at least for now.
A populist government panders to voters by preventing rents from rising. After several years tenants are paying much less rent than they otherwise should and this makes for lost income to the landlord and significantly lessens the value of an apartment building.
We intended to buy 12 large buildings in Cairo, and instead of buying building by building we could buy them all in a week and redevelop them.
Our team started raising money in 2009 for properties that were a particularly illiquid investment with a lock-up of 8 years. But the aftermath of the financial crisis prompted everyone to demand very, very liquid investments.
That meant that even though we solicited lawyers, doctors, colleges – all types of wealthy people, in the end the people we found to invest were all people we knew and they were all professional investors; people who managed mutual funds, hedge funds, they apparently have a better appreciation of the market liberalisation thesis in Egypt.
We were able to raise money to do that – $50 million of equity – and we started formally in 2010.
I had already advised the President of Yemen and his son on market liberalisation and the positive consequences of liberalising their economy. I always felt that direct investment in this type of liberal environment is where the real excitement is.
Egypt had both boxes checked – a nice liberalisation environment and it had rich opportunities in urban development. Egypt had the single greatest increase in economic freedom in the years leading up to 2008 and 2009, inflation had been brought under control, corporate taxes were halved to 20% and foreigners could own 100% of a business.
What you saw was direct investment increase collectively. And it was relatively easy to set up a business. The General Authority For Investment (GAFI) is a one-stop shop so the whole process of getting a company going was quite easy.
We had another dilemma: whether it is ethical to do business under an autocratic regime and what business are ethical in such environments. Ours was completely voluntary, as in sellers and tenants were free to refuse our offers. That, I thought, was the ultimate measure of ethics.
The peak came after the revolution had begun. Post-revolution there were genuine economic stresses and market prices were falling on buildings.
I negotiated inside a building on Mohammed Mahmoud Street that had its windows duct-taped shut.
The cost of the asset was dropping under tenants were under increased economic stress. So paying tenants to leave was easier to do, and redevelopment, another major component of our business, got easier to manage even though imported goods cost were going up as well as labour. The business made sense post-revolution.
There has been no economic policy post-revolution except to peg the currency. The volatility of the Egyptian foreign currency rate hit an all-time low post-revolution, and that’s absolutely not what should be happening.
In my opinion, economic policy took a backseat. Islamist president Mohammed Morsi had free-market ambitions at the micro level but didn’t show that he understood this at a macro level. So once he was in power, we had started hearing anecdotal evidence that people couldn’t move money out of the country.
GAFI told us this was not the case but we endeavoured to move a modest amount offshore. It took 7 months.
Luckily, we never had much money onshore but come August 2012, we made the decision that informal capital controls and lack of reliable economic policy meant that we would not be able to continue our business.
The business was still excellent. Profits were higher because asset prices dropped and those are the operational risks we were willing to take, but at the end of the project, if you can’t move your money out of the country, woe is the investor who makes the investment.
I have no money left in Egypt. Would I pursue a direct investment strategy that has a decreasing level of economic freedom? No, absolutely not. I wouldn’t go back.
The government has a blank cheque from a number of Gulf states but there is a credit limit and the risk is that this credit limit is reached before sound economic policy is enunciated and deployed.
And in the absence of policy, I have to believe that the money is going to run out first.
The Egyptian government visiting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s tomb also signals a certain level of respect toward his thinking but also of his socialist economic policies, which I don’t agree with. Those type of activities should not be ignored.
Stocker has published a memoir of his experience in Cairo. “Don’t Stand Under A Tree When It Rains” exposes the dilemmas of investing during the Egyptian uprising and provides advice on working in a foreign country.
General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi must be revelling in the image of an all-powerful oligarch created by the media.
Apparently he reigns over a sprawling economic empire that journalists describe (in now rather cliched terms) as so varied that it covers everything from the production of flat-screen televisions and pasta to refrigerators and cards.
It’s claimed that the army has control over as much as 40% of the Egyptian economy. It owns football grounds and restaurants and provides services such as managing petrol stations.
Some even estimate the military control as much as 80% of manufacturing alone. But then again, that estimate came from FOX News, not the most reliable of sources.
The truth is, the Egyptian military is far from being a well-oiled business machine. In fact, historically, the army have been very bad at making money and its own failures have led it to seek other forms of income. Why else would an army diversify its interests so considerably?
The pitfalls of the military’s weak economic strategy are laid bare in this detailed paper by Stephen H. Gotowicki, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who worked in the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office:
In the coming years, Egypt’s military production sector will probably decline. Egypt suffers from low productivity, a lack of adequate funding and a dearth of external markets. Egypt’s largest customer during the 1980s, Iraq, has been removed from the market place as a result of UN sanctions imposed against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. Egyptian military products also face increased competition. The cash-strapped Russians are offering highly advanced weapons at bargain prices.
Egypt’s military industries have not promoted import substitution or sustained export earnings. The technological benefit of the armed forces’ military industrial endeavors have proven to be only marginal to Egypt’s economic developments. While Egypt does assemble sophisticated military weapons systems, the facilities to do so are provided by Western businesses on a “turn key” basis.
The Egyptians receive kits for assembly, but the technology involved is closely maintained by the Western partner. Hence, little technology that would allow independent Egyptian development of systems has been received. For Egypt, technology is a conundrum — high technology industrial efforts are a capital intensive endeavor; Egypt has a labor intensive economy with little capital. Finally, it would appear that Egypt’s military industries have done little to enhance its regional power.
In other words, Egypt’s army failed miserably at the one thing they should have been doing well – military production.
The piece goes onto explain how “self-sufficiency would permit a greater measure of Egyptian independence in security matters and should allow the Egyptian military to fight longer without foreign resupply.” Now the refrigerator production and petrol station management makes sense. The army, if anything, is simply trying to keep its head above water.
Contrary to popular belief, General Sisi and his partners do not have a powerful grip on the economy, nor are they savvy businessmen out to expand a flourishing empire. They are interested mostly in protecting the economic interests that allow them to be self-sufficient and not reliant on foreign partners.
It’s a lazy approach to their business and part of the reason why we have seen the army interfere in the transition so much – to manoeuvre Egypt, as much as possible, out of economic decline and shield its factories and production lines.
But still, the military plays no significant role in any of the major Egyptian industries today – oil and gas, steel and cement. The businesses that the military does play a role in would certainly not give them control of over 40% of the economy.
That figure has never really been verified or proven, with only a few rare instances when the military did reveal how much money they make.
At one point just before the January 25th revolution, Businessweek ran an interview with the then minister of military production, Sayed Meshaal, saying the army made about $345 million in revenue from the private sector, a far cry from the billions of dollars they are claimed to generate.
What’s more, the army’s “economic strategy” is riddled with corrupt practices. Mr Meshaal, who served as the minister of military production till 2011, is now being investigated for awarding contracts “above cost”.
In another example of dodgy money management, millions of dollars of profits from military industry exports during the 1980s and 1990s were reportedly returned to the military coffers with no government accounting or taxes (i.e. “off-budget”).
The military are far from being shrewd businessmen. Instead, because of a track record of losing contracts, bad ties to regional powers and dodgy accountancy, the army are relying on selling bottled water and other domestic goods to survive.
Plus, the military’s role in the economy actually stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets.
General Sisi has said nothing about the army’s economic prerogative but we can already deduce what the military is interested in: remaining conservative, keeping policy simple without innovation or anything too radical (such as cutting those precious energy subsidies that the army rely on so much to run their factories at a cut price) and focusing on big, state-run projects (just like Mubarak).
With no real systemic changes being offered, the army has missed an opportunity to save the economy and much to their demise, protect their own economic interests.
Could Egypt’s economy be on the road to recovery?
Some indicators suggest this might be the case. According to Reuters:
Egyptian business activity shrank for the 13th month in a row in October but at a much slower rate, suggesting the economy may be improving after months of renewed political turmoil.
The seasonally adjusted HSBC Egypt Purchasing Managers Index [PMI – which is an indicator of the economic health of the manufacturing sector] for the non-oil private sector rose to 49.5 points in October, up from 44.7 points in September and moving closer to the 50 mark separating growth from contraction.
In other words, readings above 50.0 signal an improvement in business conditions on the previous month, while readings below 50.0 show a deterioration.
This handy graph from Capital Economics shows what’s been happening with Egypt’s PMI:
Economists at Capital Economics say that “at face value, the rise in the Egyptian PMI would suggest that, following several months of disruption to activity caused by July’s “second revolution”, the economy is starting to recover.
But that’s really all it is, “face value”, because below the surface, Egypt’s economic problems remain a menacing backdrop to any political tensions that unfold and a reminder that no leader can succeed without acknowledging that difficult decisions need to be made.
The reliance on Gulf money has cornered Egypt into spending a lot of political capital without reaping the benefits of economic reform, economist Anthony Skinner writes in the Financial Times:
Unlike the much-maligned and ultimately rejected IMF Stand-By Arrangement, the lenient terms of Gulf aid mean that Egypt is not hamstrung by conditionality; at least not directly. A square in Luxor has already been named after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in recognition of his generosity. Some Egyptians part-jokingly fret that the pyramids will be next.
The trial of former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi this week was partially brought about because of Mr Morsi’s failure to address mammoth problems in the country: joblessness, rising inflation and untenable subsidies that are costing more than the country can manage.
Once the inexperienced Muslim Brotherhood was out of the way, supporters of the coup expected the caretaker government to act immediately by expediting structural reforms necessary to relieve pressure on the deficit and free up the economy.
However, the theatrics of Egyptian politics has detracted from any serious issues.
The trial of Mr Morsi has became more about the power struggle between the army and the Brotherhood rather than the charges that were brought against him. The army’s petty grudge against comedian Bassem Youssef has busied the minds of Egyptians, rather than the creeping xenophobia driven partly by populist nationalism.
And God forbid if a politician were to attempt to bring up the notion of “compromise”, because he will likely be branded a traitor for giving in to the opposition.
The Egyptian government has come up with a $3.2 billion “stimulus package” that is unrealistic, in that the plan is based on spending as much as possible while simultaneously ignoring that the country cannot have a healthy, streamlined economy unless cuts are made and taxes are overhauled and collected properly.
It has also launched “Egypt 2022”, which in economics we call a complete joke.
Other than omitting the glaring detail of how the government plans to finance this multi-billion dollar investment plan, there is no discussion of how the interim government will achieve its ambitious growth rate targets. Instead, ministers have said the plan “focuses on building a strong and disciplined economy based on social justice, characterised by diversity and openness to the outside world.”
This isn’t a Miss World contest, and we’re not asking for world peace or prosperity. Egyptians are impatient and are wondering when vague rhetoric will translate into solid, targeted actions.
News that Washington will suspend a sizeable chunk of military aid to Egypt was met with little more than a shrug from Egypt watchers and analysts who said the decision was unsurprising.
The move to trim part of the $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt had been in question since the US issued a warning in July when the military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
For many, it was all talk not action.
“I don’t see it as any more than a symbolic slap on the wrist,” H. A. Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Global Post.
In the short run, as this Associated Press editorial argues, “the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid will have little effect on Egypt’s military and its ability to defend itself. The cutoff probably will not do much damage to most of the companies with contracts to build such weapons.”
Indeed, a report by Al Jazeera revealed that US military aid has flowed as normal to the Egyptian cities of Damietta and Alexandria since the coup began, despite warnings.
Some also said the slap on the wrist decision avoids the real debate at the heart of the aid. Jonathan Guyer of the Cairo Review explains:
If we agree that American assistance doesn’t do much, then why continue it? The basis of this gargantuan military aid package is the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel; that should be the topic under discussion rather than the idea of “leverage” in the abstract.
If Washington is going to cut aid, it must carry out the policy change with a bang, not a whimper.
On the flip side, for supporters of the military-backed overthrow, the announcement inflamed tempers. Naguib Sawiris, the politician and billionaire who has never been short on opinions, started a Twitter row:
Cutting military aid to Egypt is an arrogant counterproductive action! Do not underestimate the pride of the Egyptian people!
— Naguib Sawiris (@NaguibSawiris) October 11, 2013
But a healthy dose of realism from a few Egypt commentators doused Sawiris’ outburst:
— arabist (@arabist) October 11, 2013
How is US cutting its military aid to #Egypt arrogant? It seems that expecting aid without conditions is far more arrogant.
— Matt Bradley (@MattMcBradley) October 12, 2013
For all the discussion of symbolism and how much impact the aid cuts will make on Egypt, the US undeniably has a significant amount of fire power in the Middle East. The decision to suspend some aid, in and of itself, is a big deal that will influence other major donors in their attitude toward Egypt.
Aside from Gulf aid (and I’ve been clear about why that’s not a great idea in the long-run here and here) Cairo has pretty much lost the confidence of every major donor. Washington’s announcement is a nail in the coffin for the European Union, the World Bank and the African Development Bank who have been closely monitoring developments.
Of course, the US is just one of many countries and institutions that provide military and financial assistance to Egypt, as the chart compiled by the Center for Global Development shows below. Even though, taken as a whole, European bilateral aid plus EU assistance is double that of the United States, the US is still the single largest contributor and has huge voting power at other international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, where the country’s quota on the board is the largest. The US can stop Egypt getting the help it needs when it undoubtedly asks for it in a few years, if not earlier.
Whether Egypt likes it or not, even a symbolic decision is damaging to Cairo’s ever-withering reputation in the eyes of the international community.
The only saving grace is that those in Egypt’s government realise how detrimental the US decision is to its chances of securing other aid and make moves to speed up the election process and be rid of the the military’s undemocratic rule.
But somehow, with condemnations of the US coming fast and steady from all parts of the administration, that looks very unlikely.
Instead, as Cairo isolates itself more and more it further drives itself into the power-hungry hands of the Gulf.
It was bound to happen sooner or later.
Egypt has returned to Qatar the $2 billion the Gulf state deposited in Egypt’s central bank after negotiations to convert the money into three-year bonds failed.
Though this represents only a quarter of the total funds Qatar has lent or given to Egypt, the decision to return the money symbolises the increasingly strained ties between Cairo and Doha following the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July.
Qatar had been a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi and his departure raised questions of whether Egypt would have to repay any of the total $8 billion in Qatar deposits and loans. Official reports suggest Egypt couldn’t reach a deal with Qatar and decided to repay the deposit rather than convert the $2 billion into bonds.
But in reality, perhaps Qatar was asking for a higher interest rate than Egypt was prepared to pay. Or maybe Qatar simply wanted its money back.
Either way, Egypt has been left in a vulnerable position.
Despite the $12 billion in support from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates that the government keeps boasting about, the breakdown of this bond deal shows that Egypt cannot rely on the Gulf to solve its problems.
The truth is that multi billion dollar support came because the Brotherhood were eradicated from the political scene, not because Gulf states are particularly bothered about seeing an economic recovery. But here’s the dilemma: the international community have openly stated they want an “inclusive political solution” that does not abandon the Islamists.
So how will Egypt reconcile the needs of international donors (such as the International Monetary Fund, African Development Bank and World Bank who can help implement essential reforms but need the Muslim Brotherhood on board), along with requirements of the Gulf states (who have provided a helpful but unsustainable safety net)?
Egypt has so far taken the easy road by refusing to make any real budget cuts and instead announced an unrealistic stimulus package that it can’t afford.
The Qatari deal breaker signals that the government is weak and its backers are dwindling. Now is the time for Egypt to reconsider how to make the most of the Gulf while the support lasts.