Category Archives: Muslim Brotherhood

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.



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 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.



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.



Why One Foreign Investor Left Egypt

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”

marshallbook

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.

  • What was your business about? 

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.

  • Why was Egypt a good investment?

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.

  • When did the peak come? 

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.

  • What was the turning point, when you knew it was time to leave? 

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.

  • Would you invest in Egypt again? 

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.

  • What do you forecast for Egypt’s economy? 

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. 



Why Egypt’s Army Is Bad At Doing Business

Der Spiegel

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.



Is the worst over for Egypt’s economy?

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:

EgyptPMI

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 launchedEgypt 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.



From Washington, With A Slap

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:

But a healthy dose of realism from a few Egypt commentators doused Sawiris’ outburst:

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. 

aidto egypt

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. 



The Wrap: US indebted to Egypt, Libya Lawless and In Economic Ruin

  • EGYPT 

– 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. 

Egypt foreign currency reserves inch up to $18.91 billion – Ahram 

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 

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.