Words, Rudyard Kipling once said, are the most powerful drug used by mankind.
Individuals, companies, political parties and governments will work tirelessly to ensure the right words are transmitted to as many people as possible. Public relations can make or break a nation.
So it’s no surprise Egypt’s propaganda wheel is working overtime. In fact, it’s one of the few features binding the country’s warring sects.
While the military and some non-Islamist factions have branded the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and thugs, Brotherhood supporters consider the opposition as “putschists”, who are furthering a fascist agenda.
Slogans and logos now distinguish who is on what side, with each party trying to outdo the other in the hopes of capturing the majority support.
Except the propaganda, unsurprisingly, hasn’t worked. Egypt remains polarised and Egyptians suspicious of each other. Words spoken or written by the military, government officials or Brotherhood spokespeople now all seem to be part of the same political game citizens are no longer involved in.
As the Economist’s Max Rodenbeck highlighted:
At the hands of politicians, the truth can fare poorly in peacetime, too. Yet in Egypt, though the country is not at war, and normal politics is pretty much suspended since the army toppled an increasingly unpopular elected government last month, the truth is taking an unprecedented beating.
Now, Spin Doctors run Egypt.
General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who authorised a bloody crackdown on his opponents, has become a hero to some for the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. His trademark dark glasses and soft-spoken addresses to the nation have won over Egyptians who were desperate for the stability Morsi failed to provide.
His picture, at times flanked by the logo “Egypt Fights Terrorism”, has been plastered on cars, shops and buildings.
“Right now, he could probably win an election at a canter,” Heba Saleh writes in the Financial Times.
Meanwhile, Gehad El-Haddad, the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood has been open to the international media, regularly engaging with his followers on Twitter and declaring the military overthrow of Morsi a crime against humanity and a bloody coup.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters, under the “Anti-Coup Alliance” have flooded journalists, diplomats and foreigners with English-language emailed statements daily.
Of course, some of these movements were wildly successful. The uprisings of January 25, 2011 and then again in June 30, 2013 were driven partly by organised PR campaigns, drawing hundreds of thousands to the streets.
Some have been less successful. Tamarod (“Rebel” in Arabic), the Egyptian youth movement that rallied street protests against Morsi, is struggling to retain momentum. Splits are forming within the group and some members have announced their collective resignation.
Black Bloc, more of a fashion fad than a movement, entered the political sphere in January this year, but drew more attention for their all black outfits and balaclavas than their anti-Brotherhood agenda. Months later, the group has lost steam and any of the original excitement they once garnered.
Still, small campaigns come and go. Masmou3 (“Heard” in Arabic) was created in the aftermath of the military overthrow to protest against the military-backed regime and the Brotherhood. Daily protests involved banging on pots and pans during the curfew. But the campaign was short-lived and soon enough, the tweets and Facebook updates stopped.
Egypt has lost its way, and brands, campaigns and movements won’t help. With each campaign, the Brotherhood and the military-backed government included, Egypt becomes more fractured and each party takes away the support of a smaller fraction of the population.
True recovery will come when the PR tools are put down and politicians prove they are civil servants organising along an economic revival.
– US faces substantial losses if Egypt aid halted – Reuters
Finally a story that reflects pragmatic ties between the US and Egypt that go far beyond the politics. Washington has been considering whether to continue its US $1.23 billion in military assistance, but while the aid institutionalises the political links between the two countries, the money at stake is arguably much more costly if this bond was broken.
A particularly talkative senior Pentagon official told Reuters:
“There’s a whole bunch of contracts out there. The bills keep coming in and we’ve got to be able to pay them somehow otherwise we go in default.”
Apparently last year, when the Obama administration decided to continue military aid to Egypt despite its failure to meet pro-democracy goals, US officials cited as one of their reasons the fact that the termination costs could have exceeded $2 billion.
Reserves crept up by $34 million in August to reach $18.91 billion, the Central Bank of Egypt said, reflecting how billions of dollars of cash from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait was used to defend the currency’s value and pay for imports.
Last month, international reserves jumped $4 billion to $18.88 billion after Gulf countries injected $12 billion in aid. But the minimal increase in foreign reserves this month shows how much of that cash is being used to plug financial gaps.
– Libya has moved into lawlessness and ruin – The Independent
A round-up of how Libya has slumped into its worst economic crisis since the fall of Gaddafi. The key reason is that Libyans are increasingly at the mercy of militias who are dictating the direction of the economy.
But in addition, “one of the many failings of the post-Gaddafi government is its inability to revive the moribund economy,” the author says. “Libya is wholly dependent on its oil and gas revenues and without these may not be able to pay its civil servants.”
This report on Libya’s economy, that Rebel Economy linked to earlier this week, sets out a handful of priorities for the government to avoid falling into economic crisis. One of those is to diversify the economy away from oil.
We may not like it, but Egypt desperately needs Gulf money.
So why not change the way the Gulf lends money to Egypt to make it count. It won’t be just about wasting away cash to address a symptom without resolving the underlying problem.
Indeed, without Gulf aid, the government would have struggled to pay for vital imports and would have fallen far behind on its supply of fuel, prompting nationwide riots and unrest. The pound would have depreciated rapidly in the absence of sufficient central bank deposits and would have been worth closer to LE7.5 or LE8 to a dollar instead of LE6.89.
Egypt had no-one else to turn to.
International donors, including the likes of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the African Development Fund, had too many strings attached for far less money to make it worth while for Egypt. These organisations also promised a whole lot of interference (or as they call it “technical expertise) into economic policy-making – another unpopular prospect for the foreign-wary Egyptians.
Meanwhile the Gulf was a perfect lender to Egypt. It has acted more like a generous Uncle, pouring money (and petroleum products) into Egypt’s coffers whenever needed and with few questions asked. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood are out, the Saudis are in.
But beyond throwing money at the problem, the Gulf has done little in the way of long-term restructuring in Egypt. They’re not interested in reforms and overhauling the tax system, but wielding control in the most populous Arab country and leverage over the Brotherhood.
Though the Gulf can afford to keep playing this game, Egypt can’t.
The government has been given too much free rein with more than $12 billion in cash and oil. None of that has gone towards supporting the budget deficit, or towards reforms that will benefit the lives of millions of Egyptians.
Adly Mansour’s government, or more likely the government that follows after elections, should consider making the most of connections with the Gulf by striking deals in infrastructure and energy.
Rather than just taking money to plug holes that will reappear in a few months time, Egypt would do well to get the same money siphoned off into long-term investment projects.
There are many avenues for joint ventures: Egypt’s factories, the bread and butter of the industrial sector, are shutting down because of difficulty securing loans in the credit market.
Low-income residential projects to house thousands of Egyptians living on-top of one another in Cairo has stalled as contractors struggle to find the funds to keep working.
Labour-intensive infrastructure projects, on roads, railways, water and sewage treatment plants, are in desperate need of investment.
Egypt’s interim government boasted about launching a $3.2 billion “economic stimulus plan” yet very little has been said about reinforcing ties with the Gulf, which is surely the easiest way to implement such a “stimulus plan”. The only mention of Gulf investment is a possible agreement with the United Arab Emirates to finance medical projects and 10 wheat silos.
But that is not enough. There should be a full-scale collaboration with Gulf countries, not only to benefit Egypt, but to show the international community that the money is working hard for the nation.
As the world awaits the decision of whether the US will intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war, the price that country is paying is growing day by day.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered and cities that were once cultural capitals have been annihilated. Inflation is at triple digits, GDP has literally halved and the jobless rate has quintupled.
But the key question today, and the one that President Barack Obama has brought to US Congress, is whether military-led intervention will serve as an overdue punishment and warning to Bashar Al Assad and his regime, or whether it will simply deal a final blow to the country as the Syrian regime’s allies retaliate aggressively at the expense of innocent civilians.
While it is the humanitarian cost that is the number one consideration here, the economy, even in its current state, is still a lifeline for thousands of Syrians. The global economic impact of an escalation of the civil war is also a factor that is being mulled because of the ripple effect on global markets.
Based on interviews with half a dozen senior economists focused on Syria, Rebel Economy has put together a list of the key economic impacts of US military-led intervention in Syria:
Higher Oil Prices
Although Syria is not a major oil producer, many expect the oil price to spike, mainly because Western intervention in Syria is likely to lead to a bigger regional conflict involving major oil producers and two strong allies to the Assad regime, Iran and Russia.
More than two years into Syria’s civil war, Assad is settling his bills for Russian arms orders to try to shore up ties with his most powerful ally, this Reuters investigation reveals.
Oil prices have already hit an 18-month high, but if the civil war escalates with military strikes the oil price is expected to spike further, playing havoc with global markets as the cost of production soars.
Some oil analysts are estimating that Brent Crude could rise above $120 per barrel as a result of a military strike, while some, including those at Société Générale, see prices climbing to $150 per barrel in the short-term.
A possible spillover into Iraq, OPEC’s second largest producer, would cut the volume of oil from the global market and raise prices. Iraq’s Kirkuk oil pipeline has already been targeted six times in August. This has forced Iraq to cut oil shipments from pipeline by more than half for September.
Foreign Currency Troubles
Pressure on foreign reserves will grow as energy prices rise, especially in countries dependant on imports. Some countries near to Syria are particularly vulnerable to foreign currency pressures, including Lebanon and Jordan whose currency reserves stand at near 10-year lows. This means they could have trouble covering the cost of imports if the conflict in Syria escalates.
And the lower reserves fall, the more currency depreciation is possible and the more pressure on imports.
In Syria, in the days following the US’ announcement of possible military intervention, the Syrian pound has taken a beating on the black market.
Here’s Professor Steve Hanke’s update. He’s a professor of Applied Economics at Johns Hopkins University:
The Syrian pound (SYP) has lost 24.07% of its value against the US dollar in the two days since Kerry’s announcement. Currently, the exchange rate sits at 270 SYP/USD, yielding an implied annual inflation rate of 291.88%. In countries with troubled currencies, there is no better measure of economic expectations than the black-market exchange rate. The recent deterioration in the SYP/USD exchange rate clearly indicates that Syrians are anticipating Western military intervention in the near term.
Trade Routes Disrupted
Analysts say it’s unlikely for key ports in the Gulf or cargo traffic through the Suez Canal to be disrupted as a result of military intervention, however perception is king.
Even the threat of increased disruption could send insurance rates skyrocketing and delay the passage of goods passing through Lebanon’s Port of Beirut.
Aside from the impact on the oil markets and the major oil producers tied to Syria, many other countries in the region could see an adverse impact on their economies because of Syrian strife. Turkey for example, already suffering from a hard to manage current account deficit, could see it widen as political instability weakens the lira and raises oil prices.
And of course Israel has threatened aggressive action if attacked by Hezbollah or the Syrian army, which could impact both Lebanon and other countries in the region if the conflict escalated fast.
Overstating the impact?
Despite all the above pointing to an Armageddon scenario, some still say that an intervention will do no more than dent the Syrian regime.
Samer Abboud, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center and political economist, says the “regime is so boxed in economically and any major economic effects have already occurred – sanctions, the disrupting of production and trade routes, and so on – that the “limited and narrow” strikes will not be as debilitating as we may think”.
For one, though we mentioned above the impact of trade routes, in fact local reports from Lebanon suggest the Port of Beirut is doing much better than expected. The Daily Star reports:
About 2,200 such vehicles enter the port daily, twice the number at the start of the year, and the multicolored containers are stacked five high rather than three. While Lebanon’s growth has suffered during the two-and-a-half-year conflict next door in Syria, port traffic has risen as traders avoid risky overland transit. Domestic demand is also increasing as Lebanon absorbs 1.2 million Syrians fleeing their war-torn country.
Unlike Libya, which had little to no foreign support, Syria has the powers of Iran and Russia behind it arming it and financing the regime. The West’s reluctance and delay to intervene is also ultimately buying more time for the Syrian regime to replenish stocks, move somewhere new and high military assets.
It has also weakened the West against Syria, allowing the regime and its allies to calculate that any intervention will be short and not a major long-term threat, according to Abboud:
Regime allies are unlikely to cease financial and material support in the aftermath of intervention, regardless of whether the regime is perceived to be losing ground on the battlefield. Intervention will only strengthen the commitment and resolve of regime allies and supporters, particularly Iran and Hezbollah. If they can withstand the intervention, then the West’s only major military option will have been confronted.
What is clear is that even though the question of intervention is complicated and mired with complexities, the longer the West waits to decide, the more time the Syrian regime has to retaliate with strength.
1) Egypt and Turkey – Bloomberg
It’s amazing how fickle Egypt’s government can be when it drops an old friend.
Egypt’s new government has made it clear it is not prepared to cooperate with Turkey, an ally and donor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Tensions have grown between the two countries since the army toppled Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and Turkey is suffering for it, with exports dropping as much as 30% since July 3, the day of the coup.
The Federation of the Egyptian Chambers of Commerce this week announced they will suspend all official trade relations with the Turkey after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Morsi’s ouster as an “unacceptable military coup”.
But with the volume of trade between the two countries estimated at about $5 billion, excluding tourism and joint investment projects, Egypt will also end up paying a price for its bad diplomacy.
Not so much an economic story, but one that alludes to the growing influence of Egypt’s “old guard”, symbolically represented by the release of Hosni Mubarak.
The evidence is clear: the army has marshalled support from Egyptians as the country becomes exhausted by two and a half years of turmoil. Investigations against the January 25 killings and politically corrupt individuals during the Mubarak era have been put on hold. Censorship is back, with propaganda infiltrating most TV channels and even some state-run newspapers calling the January 25 revolution a “setback”.
This story makes very clear that Egypt has turned a worrying corner in the quest for democracy and therefore equality, which is really what the revolution was all about.
3) Apache – Wall Street Journal
The oil and gas company, Apache has agreed to sell 33% of its Egypt business to China’s Sinopec Group. It will continue to be an operator on the projects.
Though this story may, on first reading, look like Egypt’s oil sector is vulnerable to asset sales because of increasing debt to oil companies and mismanagement on the part of the Egyptian government, it’s not that simple.
The operations are located in the Western Desert, far from any political unrest that would impact exploration. In fact, this transaction reflects more of Apache’s goal to use the proceeds to reduce debt, buy back shares and fund the company’s capital spending.
What it does highlight is the value of Egypt’s oil and gas sector, which will always be attractive to companies, even despite such political risk.
4) Egyptian government temporarily halts IMF negotiations – Egypt Independent
This story is misleading for a number of reasons. Egypt didn’t halt IMF negotiations, rather the IMF stopped communicating with Egypt partly because of the way the Brotherhood have been almost banished from not just the political sphere but from daily life in Egypt. Most Brotherhood members are in hiding now.
The story also refers to the Gulf as a kind of saviour that will tackle the deficit, but none of the $12 billion will be used to cut the deficit. It will be used to keep the pound afloat and imports flowing. In other words, it’s a running tap that is wasting cash that could be used more shrewdly.
What about making a deal with Saudi Arabia to invest in projects in Egypt? Wouldn’t that be more helpful than throwing billions of dollars into the Central Bank to support a currency that many consider is overvalued?
5) Libya oil – Economist
One of the biggest issues standing in the way of Libya’s economic success is the government’s control over key sectors, especially oil. Now a port that allows the trade of Libyan oil has been shut off and its closure is representative of the power the state wields over the energy sector.
Basically the state believes that a large amount of oil is being “smuggled” out of Egypt. But the party responsible for the potential sale, the Petroleum Facilities Guard, say it is a valid transaction.
The stand-off is part of a bigger political agenda between various factions in Libya, but as this Economist article concludes, if the state-owned “National Oil Company cannot keep its legal monopoly on oil exports it will be taken as yet another sign of the increasing level of political risk in Libya”.
This report, from the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, evaluates the Libyan economy and progress since popular uprisings in February 2011 and the eventual ouster of the Muammar Qaddafi regime.
On the surface, it appears Libya’s economy is back to pre-revolution levels with oil production and GDP at comfortable levels. But this report sets out how the government has failed to come up with a single economic plan.
In this useful read, three main priorities are laid out for Libya’s government including diversifying the economy away from oil, reducing youth unemployment and modernising the financial system.
After several months hiatus (and readers saying they are having sleepless nights without it) the daily wrap is back!
I’ll be linking to a handful of the most important economic stories from the transitioning countries of the Arab world, namely Egypt, Syria and Libya, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco. (The Gulf is there in the background too, but only because of its connections to these countries).
1) Energy groups rethink commitment to Egypt – Financial Times
This story has become evergreen for Egypt and it seems like every couple of months a new story crops up to remind us that debts to oil companies are not going to disappear anytime soon.
The story repeats much of what has already been reported, mentioning companies owed millions of dollars including BG group, ENI and the Dana Gas. However the premise of the story may be unfounded. Although oil companies may be acting cautiously at the moment, and holding off any expansion plans, it’s very unlikely that these companies will pull out of Egypt altogether. Not only would this prove costly for these companies to pull out their equipment and human resources, but those firms would miss out on costs they are making at the moment. Because, as the FT story says:
Egypt’s oil and gasfields continued to produce as if nothing had happened.
Reading this story made my blood boil.
The government has already introduced some stimulus measures including lowering interest rates (and more controversially printing money, though that’s more rumour than fact). But increasing spending at a time when the budget is reeling from over-expenditure on wasteful subsidies (for both energy and food) masks a difficult truth: the government doesn’t actually want to make any cuts, or raise taxes to keep its own reputation in tact and avoid any public backlash. Essentially, it’s a cowardly move that will mostly benefit the current interim government who has so far been completely ineffective after the killings of hundreds of Egyptians.
And that perception that $12 billion of Gulf money will save Egypt is very naive. That money is not being targeted at the budget. At best it may be used for some investments, but really it will be used to keep the pound afloat and the country’s imports flowing.
Capital Economics, the London-based consultancy elaborates. This is their bottom line:
Egypt’s newly-announced stimulus package stands a chance of boosting the beleaguered economy in the near-term. But with the package being funded by Gulf aid, over the longer-term, it could actually take the country further away from making much-needed reforms to improve the business environment.
3) Energy stocks rise over Syria – Reuters
I will be writing on the economic impacts of US intervention in Syria later but for now, there are some gems hidden in this stock market story. Capital markets have been responding wildly to this. Gulf stock markets suffered record losses. Though it’s not clear that any escalation of the Syrian civil war would have a pronounced effect on Gulf economies, these same countries have been supporting Syrian rebels for some time.
As a result, investor rushed to the safest commodity around (well it was safe until a few months ago when the gold price plunged…). Gold prices rose to three and a half month highs above $1,430 per ounce as Syria tensions raised its appeal as a safe-haven asset.
Take a look at this chart, which the Central Bank has been proudly parading this month:[caption id="attachment_1917" align="aligncenter" width="552"] Bloomberg[/caption]
It shows how the pound’s official price, controlled by the central bank, has been appreciating slowly since the overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
If we were to take this graph at face value, we might conclude that the pound has strengthened as the interim government (and military) took over, and billions of dollars worth of Gulf aid is helping the country’s currency stabilise.
However, traders on the black market tell a very different story, and say the Central Bank is ensuring the pound strengthens just to give the impression that the economy is stable and improving despite the turmoil.
Here, where the pound is traded illegally, the domestic currency has actually weakened to LE7.20 (from LE7.10 a few days earlier, according to Reuters) reflecting Egypt’s volatile economic and political situation.
The pound actually fell as low as around LE8 per dollar at one point earlier this year on the black market, prompting the central bank to turn to a few different measures to reduce pressure on the currency and revive the economy:
But none of that is working. This graph puts the currency’s performance in context, showing how the pound has rapidly fallen in value this year:
And as the pound depreciates further, the more foreign currency reserves are drained and the less the central bank can support the official rate for the currency. This is why the country is spending foreign currency at a rate of about $1.5 billion a month.
Add to that, the few foreign investors left are moving to withdrawals but currency controls are making it difficult to convert Egyptian pounds to dollars. Earlier this month, Emad Mostaque, a strategist at Noah Capital Markets in London told me around half a billion dollars worth of investment is trying to leave Egypt at the moment.
So the picture isn’t as rosy as the interim government may want you to think.
In fact, the volatility we see on Egypt’s currency cycle will be another black mark to add to the nation’s problematic currency history, marked by the Central Bank’s repeated efforts to keep the pound’s value elevated, sometimes at the expense of the country’s precious foreign reserves.
The people at Dcode, an Egyptian business consultancy, put together a comprehensive graph detailing just how volatile the Egyptian pound has fared in the last three decades:[caption id="attachment_1907" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Dcode[/caption]
As long as the central bank and government refuse to accept that massive political turmoil and violence on the streets alarmed investors and traders, the pound will continue to fall, foreign reserves will bleed faster and the Gulf will have even more power over Cairo as it comes to the rescue once more with billions of cash.
Egypt’s army has put the country on a path to economic destruction.
Not only will foreign investors stay away from Egypt for at least a year, but the cabinet is going to fall apart and aid will be hard to come by.
The nation, now more vulnerable than at any time since Hosni Mubarak was deposed two and a half years ago, is on its own.
Promises of aid from the EU and US may now be delayed indefinitely. No one wants to be seen as supporting an illegitimate government that has sat back quietly as hundreds of Egyptians are massacred.
Of course, on one level, foreign aid is less important now given the $12 billion the interim government has been able to solicit from Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. Western diplomats told Reuters that it would last less than a year, buying time for officials to iron out political issues.
But the events of the last 24 hours have destroyed any chance of political reconciliation and with another impending huge hit on tourism and foreign investment, Gulf money will run out fast.
The Gulf is not going to keep funding Egypt’s ballooning deficit, especially as the country keeps spending foreign currency at a rate of $1.5 billion a month.
Egypt’s so-called high-powered economic dream team are being weakened with every death on the street.
Not only has the resignation of Mohammed El Baradei totally undermined the government, but there are already rumours of others following in Baradei’s path, including the government’s chief economist and deputy prime minister, Ziad Bahaa ElDin.
So when Egypt inevitably runs out of cash in less than a year (if not a matter of months), there is only one place government officials will be looking to attract aid and that is from the same international donors, including the International Monetary Fund, African Development Bank and World Bank, it has ignored and asked to stay out of Egypt’s affairs.
Except this time, the negotiations for a loan will be tougher. Stricter conditions may be enforced for Egypt to prove it has what it takes to use aid to benefit the poorest Egyptians. No government has managed to prove that since Mubarak was overthrown in 2011.
Besides, the real reason Egyptian officials have avoided intense negotiations with foreign donors is because the government does not care about working in the best interests of the people. Meeting the conditions for those loans would entail too much politically contentious work. And what politician in their right mind would implement these controversial reforms? (No leader in 60 years of Egyptian history).
So maybe this time international donors should take heed of this request and leave Egypt to fail economically (there is already pressure on the US to cut military aid to Egypt – read Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy, the FT’s editorial, and the New York Times’ editorial for why).
Egypt is completely off track where it started off two and a half years ago. Maybe taking Egypt’s politicians, and particularly the army, off life support is just the shock the country needs after decades of dependence.
Egypt’s energy bill, already a whopping $17 billion, is probably much higher than official figures suggest.
The country is losing billions in petrodollars because it isn’t taking advantage of the international market where oil can be sold at much higher prices, nor is it closing up channels that breed corruption and allow hidden subsidy costs to take hold.
Officially, energy subsidies account for 20% of Egypt’s budget, costing the government $17 billion every year, but it is likely the government actually spends much more on subsidies every year.
1. Missing out on “opportunity costs”
If the government would account for the opportunity costs (sometimes also referred to as economic costs) of energy subsidies, it’s subsidy bill would be at least 50% higher than the official figure.
This is the money the Egyptian government loses by not selling fuel at the international market price, but at far cheaper rates.
That means the state-owned oil company, the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation, provides energy at a cheaper price for the domestic market, when it could be taking advantage of the lucrative international oil market.
The difference between the profit that the EGPC could have made from selling the fuel internationally and the oil it sells domestically at a subsidised price is the “opportunity cost”.
In order to capture this opportunity costs, economists use the so-called price gap approach.
2. Lending between ministries has opened up channels for corruption and hidden subsidy costs
The government has made it almost impossible to track the true costs of energy subsidies.
That’s because of poorly recorded budgets and unnecessarily complex bureaucracy between the oil, electricity and finance ministry.
Samir Radwan, a former Egyptian finance minister explained how this internal bureaucracy works:
“When the EGPC provides fuel to the Ministry of Electricity, its sells it at the subsidised price. The Ministry of Electricity, in turn, collects revenues from electricity sales and pays them to the Ministry of Finance which issues a bond to the Ministry of Electricity.
But the subsidies are recorded as an expenditure at EGPC. It would be more correct, however, if EGPC would sell fuel at the international market price to other entities and then account for the subsidies as a loss.”
Intra-governmental funding has made it even more difficult to track how much subsidies are costing the nation and an “amazing labyrinth of connections between different ministries and different entities of the government,” Radwan says.
This only serves to undermine official figures.
But more worrying still is that the convoluted internal financing mechanism is masking an accumulation of intra-governmental debt. The Ministry of Electricity not only owes money to the EGPC and the Ministry of Finance (according to estimates, the Ministry of Electricity pays about 200 million Egyptian pounds a month to the EGPC), but is also owed funds and debts by other ministries and entities.
The question now is: how will the government undertake any energy subsidy reform, if it is not even able to track its own subsidy records?
As the months drag on and the prospect of a recovery for Egypt’s economy seem to slip further away, the key question on most investors’ minds is whether the government can push through reforms.
But while it is clear that successive governments have failed to ease hardship, it’s worth addressing whether Egyptians are ready for reforms.
The loudest opposition to the International Monetary Fund loan, energy subsidy reforms and higher taxes was from Egyptian citizens. That’s not surprising considering Egypt’s rocky history with the IMF and the (inaccurate) perception that reforms will make life worse for the poorest.
But perhaps its time for an attitude change. Indeed, it is the very real fear of a popular backlash to reforms that has so far stopped any government imposing anything too harsh.
But as Rebel Economy argued earlier this week, a dose of austerity with some stimulus is better than no austerity at all.
Take Latvia, which has provided “a rare boost to champions of the proposition that pain pays”, where it is perceived as shameful for people who earn any salary, no matter how small, to go on strike, New York Times reporter Andrew Higgins writes:
When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia’s misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.
Then there was light:
But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia’s economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people — five more than he had before. “We have a different mentality here,” he said.
Does Egypt need to change its mentality? Rather than protest dislikes (which is all too easy) what about focusing energy into lobbying organisations to work harder for job creation and inclusive growth?
It worked for Latvia.
The Baltic tiger’s economy grew by 50% during 2004 and 2007, but the global financial crisis of 2008-09 hit the country hard and it endured one of the worst recessions of the European Union. Deep public spending cuts introduced by the new government led to discontent and protests at home, but impressed international lenders enough to earn Latvia an IMF/European Union $10 billion bailout.
Rather than cause uproar, the cuts (including slashed wages, wide-scale sackings of public sector workers and reduced welfare) calmed fears in the international markets and rather than throw the government out of office, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who presided over the austerity, was re-elected.
Of course it would be short-sighted to suggest that if there were no protests then life would improve for the neediest. Demonstrations have been a key tool for Egyptians to communicate their grievances. However, persistent political instability, labour strikes and violent street confrontations are only delaying a recovery.
To be sure, economists have estimated that the military’s overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi led to losses of around $3 billion to $5 billion. That mostly reflects a sharp fall in foreign investment, declining production as factories and production facilities stopped working and a major reduction in tourism revenue as security concerns mount.
But is it naive to consider Latvia’s recovery, dubbed a “neo-liberal success story”, a model for Egypt, a country that recoils at the mere mention of “neo-liberal”?
Not necessarily. The reason why the military was so welcomed in its power-grab last month was partly because Egyptians want a return to normality. Few people want Mubarak to return but they are viewing his regime a little softer and moaning that life has gotten worse since the 2011 revolution.
At one point, Egyptians will have to recognise that there must be hardship to reach the desired result. Not everyone will get what they want, but protesting every time you don’t get it won’t make any difference either.
Of course, Latvia and Egypt are hardly comparable. While Latvia was reeling from the global recession, Egypt experienced one of the fastest growth rates in the Middle East under reforms that began in 2004 to increase trade, promote growth and facilitate doing business. But as wealth accumulated, this did not trickle down to the poorest and soon stirred the discontent that ultimately led to the 2011 uprising.
Though the January 25 revolution was the harbinger of growth for Egypt, that day cannot be replicated as we have seen with Morsi’s rule and now the military’s caretaker government.
Egyptians must accept reforms and approach these with the mentality that the country won’t recover unless people are willing to try to fulfil their ambitions for a better future, rather than undermine their opponents or protect their own interests at whatever cost.
CORRECTION: This article originally linked to a story by Middle East Monitor that suggested Egypt was hit by losses of $17.1 billion after the military overthrew the former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. The article has been corrected to reflect losses of around $3 to $5 billion, according to economists Rebel Economy consulted.