In Egypt, the economy is better off than the Egyptians

In Egypt, the economy is better off than the Egyptians
Comment: Sisi's government boasts of its economic accomplishments, but for the vast majority of Egyptians, their lot hasn't improved at all, writes Jean-Pierre Sereni.
7 min read
13 Nov, 2019
One third of Egyptians live below the poverty line [Getty]
On Tuesday 29 October in Washington, DC, addressing his G20 counterparts, Mohamed Maait, 57, a pure product of the Egyptian bureaucracy and minister of finance since last year, was more than a little proud to be able to boast of the accomplishments of his country's economy:

A growth rate of nearly 6 percent over the last year. A figure which rivals that of China and makes the other 23 ministers of the group of developing countries green with envy.

With rare exceptions they are stagnating desperately in the shallows, with gains of scarcely 1-2 percent or even less for the arrogant Gulf potentates who have come to know the disadvantages of negative growth rates with the drop in oil prices.

Cairo has more good news to tell; inflation has gone down, far below the +30 percent rate of three years ago, when in November 2016 Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi finally signed - after years of stalling by his predecessors - a standby agreement with Christine Lagarde, General Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In exchange for a three-year loan of US$12 billion to be paid at a rate of a billion per quarter, Egypt promised to devalue its currency, reduce its budgetary deficit, stiffen its monetary policies and go some way towards liberalising its economy.

Today, the annual rate of inflation is around 8 to 9 percent, foreign currency reserves are on the rise, public finances are in better shape, public debt is under control and the service of the debt is no longer seen to be unbearable.

And yet, for the vast majority of Egyptians, their lot hasn't improved. In fact, the general feeling is light years away from these results.

How to explain this gap?

Of course people are indignant as they gaze upon palaces worthy of the Arabian Nights, built to house the Cairo kleptocracy

As recently as the beginning of October, a few thousand protestors dared to defy a ruthless repression which resulted in 4,000 arrests according to NGOs. Of course people are indignant as they gaze upon palaces worthy of the Arabian Nights, built to house the Cairo kleptocracy when tens of millions of Egyptians are crammed into uninhabitable neighbourhoods, to rot in degrading tenements. But the anger of Egyptians goes much deeper, and is fuelled by serious grievances.

One third of Egyptians live in poverty

Top of the list comes poverty. According to a survey conducted by an Egyptian agency, 32.5 percent live in unbearable poverty. A person earning less than $1.90 a day, i.e. around $700 per year is considered 'poor'.

At least 30 million Egyptians suffer from this state of misery, scarcely better off than a citizen of the Central African Republic, a country where war has raged for the last 30 years.

Since 2016, poverty has risen by over 11 percent in the country's largest cities (Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Suez) and rural areas are scarcely better off. Half the population has to make do with 17 to 18 percent of GDP, according to
the World Inequality Database (WID) created by a specialist on this issue, Thomas Piketty. The same amount goes to the richest 1 percent.

Of course the poor do have access to subsidies to feed themselves, light their homes and get around; bread, electricity and petrol are in theory cheaper for them thanks to those well-known and much-reviled subsidies.

That is, provided you qualify, and the obstacles are many and laughable: Newborn infants are denied them, elderly pensioners are easily struck off the register, owning a mobile phone can be enough to make you ineligible.

The food reserved for the poor is more expensive than on the open market, a litre of olive oil costs 26 percent more, a kilo of sugar 11 percent. Besides which, inflation is not taken into account. Until recently, the poor were subsidised in kind, but now, they get money. In 2016–2017 inflation was over 30 percent for many months and food subsidies were not increased by as much.

Read more: Egypt under fire over 'shrinking' freedoms, Morsi's death during UN rights review

Greater control over the cash budget was achieved by reducing the subsidy burden in government spending. Since the 2017–2018 finance law, food subsidies have been cut by 44 percent and the number of recipients fell by 3 million. The intended result was achieved - interest payments to 'carry traders'.

These are a new type of financiers who thrive on the yield spread between the money they borrow in New York or London at less than 1 percent, and what they lend at over 6 percent to the Egyptian authorities to finance their deficit, which continues to run at about 5 percent of the GDP.

Today the service of the debt swallows up 70 percent of the tax money paid by the population. Making the poor poorer to make the rich richer.

Diastrous effects of the 'khaki-coloured' companies

Concerning one of its favourite hobby horses; privatisations, the FMI was less successful. Just one tobacco company was put up for sale and two banks undertook a modest opening up of their capital.

Why such restraint? This is because of the so-called 'khaki-coloured' companies, in which the generals are stockholders, and represent a majority of the country's GDP.

The Egyptian army, because of the chronic shortage in the National Treasury, pays its retired senior officers mediocre pensions. To make up for this, generals nearing the end of their career are given positions in public companies.

The food reserved for the poor is more expensive than on the open market

The consequence of this is fatal for the economy since competent civilians are shut out. These military companies systematically flaunt the law, limit competition from civilians in their sector, monopolise bank loans, avoid public tenders, and get rid of competitors with external economic strategies.

As an indication of the generals' influence under Marshal Sisi's military regime, the IMF had to agree to exempt the military companies from a VAT increase provided for in the November 2016 agreement. All of this is responsible for poor productivity, higher prices than on the world market, and a dramatic deficit of new jobs.

Employment stagnation

Every year, 2.5 million job-seekers enter the employment market and for the most part join the ranks of a huge reserve army of labour - people who are either unemployed or hold odd jobs which pay next to nothing. Private companies are practically not hiring at all, while the informal economy does recruit but with no guarantees whatsoever.

In spite of a record devaluation of the Egyptian pound, whose value was cut in half, foreign investments have not forthcoming, unlike other places in similar circumstances. Only the hydrocarbons sector has proven attractive to transnationals such as the Italian oil company ENI, which has developed a huge natural gas deposit and reportedly made Egypt gas self-sufficient.

These military companies systematically flaunt the law

But nothing like that has taken place in manufacturing or the service industry. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has been practically non-existent and the promise of job creation has not been kept. The minister of finance is aware of the failure of his strategy and has promised to ask the IMF for a new loan in March 2020, precisely in order to develop investment and employment.

Faced with shrinking subsidies and the lack of jobs, young Egyptians have good reason to listen to Ali Mohamed, a businessman who has found refuge in Madrid. He denounces the scandals of the current regime, and is seen as Marshal Sissi's rival.

The Tunisian example, where an obscure college professor has just won the presidential election with 72 percent of the vote, ought to give Cairo food for thought.

Jean-Pierre Sereni is a journalist and author, specialising in north Africa and the Gulf. Follow him on Twitter: @jeanpieeresrn

This article was originally by our partners at OrientXXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.