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Egypt takes a pounding
After a year of unending turmoil and military rule, Egypt faces an acute financial crisis that could undermine its political transition and pose a defining challenge to Islamists now coming to power. With mounting debts, negligible economic growth and dwindling foreign reserves, the military rulers and the new Islamist-led parliament now confront some difficult choices, beginning with an allbut-inevitable further devaluation of Egypt's currency that could send the prices of food and other goods soaring.
The government may also soon be forced to overhaul the vast system of energy subsidies that now account for a fifth of government spending. Increases in food prices and reductions of subsidies have provoked riots here in the past. "The situation is dire, " said Magda Kandil, executive director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies, who called some of the recent indicators "alarming".
In a sign of the situation's severity, the ruling military council last week reversed itself and reopened talks with the International Monetary Fund over the terms of a $3. 2-billion loan. The generals previously rejected the same deal as an affront to national sovereignty, but officials of the military-led government now say they may seek an even larger loan.
Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood, the long-outlawed Islamist group that controls half the seats in the new parliament, also indicated its openness to the financial lifeline in its separate meeting with the IMF representatives - an even more stunning reversal after eight decades of denouncing Western colonialism and Arab dependency.
Leaders of the Brotherhood readily acknowledge that steering Egypt through the crisis will be a formative test of their ability to govern. Activists focused on forcing Egypt's military rulers to give up power, meanwhile, say the economic malaise has become a major obstacle to their cause because so many Egyptians have come to crave a return to stability.
Others note with dismay that the bread-and-butter frustrations that helped fuel the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak one year ago have grown only more acute since then, especially for the legions of jobless or underemployed young people.
Nowhere is the economic distress more evident than in the business of Egyptian weddings, which are a costly rite of passage here that marks the graduation into adult life and which generate revenue that rivals the annual American aid budget for Egypt.
In one hard-pressed Cairo neighbourhood, wedding planners say couples have cut back on events that may have cost $300 before the revolution because they can now pay only about $100. Jewellery stores say the average amount that grooms spend on the traditional gifts of gold for their brides has fallen sharply, and disc jockeys say they now perform at just two or three weddings a month, down from an average of 10 before the revolution. "Nobody is getting married after the revolution, " said
Amr el-Khodary, 37, who was forced to close his shop that rents cars for wedding parades.
Ibrahim Mohamed, a 26-year-old cab driver with a college degree, is a case in point. A steep decline in fares, he said, has prevented him from saving up the roughly $7, 000 for an apartment, furniture, a small wedding and the customary gift of jewellery that he says he needs to marry. "If it weren't for the revolution, " he said, "I would have been able to get married. "
The reasons for his plight have been piling up all year: a virtual cutoff of foreign investment, a 30 per cent decline in tourist visits and the stagnation of economic growth. The official unemployment rate is 12 per cent, but among young people the real rate of unemployment is at least double that figure.
The military rulers have also presided over a period of financial turmoil. Inflation has surged into double digits, and the exchange rate for the currency, the Egyptian pound, is under heavy pressure. Foreign exchange reserves have plunged, as the government is spending about $2 billion a month in a losing battle to prop up the pound. Foreign currency reserves have fallen to about $10 billion, after certain obligations, from about $36 billion before the revolt.
Economists say Egypt's military rulers contributed to the strain by shunning the planned loan from the IMF last June, when it could have provided badly needed hard currency and a financial seal of approval that might have helped reassure foreign investors and aid donors. Instead, the ruling military council has tried to sustain the government's growing deficits by borrowing internally, while businesses struggle to get the loans they need to expand and revive the economy.
Now the military government appears to have used up its domestic sources as well. On Monday, the government managed to sell Egyptian banks only about a third of a planned bond offering valued at $580 million, even at yields that reached a new peak of nearly 16 per cent. "Continued borrowing from the domestic markets is a bankrupt policy, literally, " said Ragui Assaad, an Egyptian economist at the University of Minnesota who is now in Cairo.
Fears of runaway inflation are already acute. "Nobody puts their money in the bank because they are afraid it won't be worth anything later, " said Hamdy Shaaban, 40, a mechanic. "Why would I put money in a bank? I don't know what is going to happen next. "
But the other solution that many economists favour - overhauling the policies that have Egypt spending more than $15 billion a year on energy subsidies - appears for now to be politically impossible. It is a regressive system that most benefits those who drive sport utility vehicles and live in air-conditioned villas, and other countries with similar systems have successfully replaced them with more targeted subsidies for the needy.
Still, many economists contend that Egypt can navigate around a potential collapse. They note that the military-led government has recently announced plans to trim nearly $4 billion from the yawning deficit of over $30 billion, or more than 10 percent of gross domestic product.
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