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The Globe and Mail

Egypt’s new democratic era yet to pay off

A resident of the shanty area of al-Dweiqa in Cairo squats near his house October 4, 2012.


Ahmed Waleed realized a long-time dream in the spring of 2010 and opened up an advertising agency in the Egyptian capital. Business went even better than he hoped: his firm soon had seven big accounts, including two multinational car companies, and was breaking even.

And then came the revolution. The accounts evaporated, he was forced to cut staff salaries and his best creative executives left for positions abroad. "I can't blame them," said Mr. Waleed, who is 40. "I asked them to try to get me a job."

When Egyptians voted in their first democratic elections nearly a year ago, it was with widespread hope that corruption in government and business would be wiped out by the new Muslim Brotherhood-led administration – that foreign investors would want in to this country with millions of aspiring middle-class consumers, educated young people and, in theory, a newly transparent economy.

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Yet Mr. Waleed can't make payroll. The shelves in small Cairo shops are bare, international investors are nowhere to be seen and economic worries have left even ardent supporters of the revolution like Mr. Waleed frustrated and anxious.

The new democratic era has yet to deliver a dividend. Inflation is at 10 per cent and unemployment is officially at 12 – although some cabinet ministers have estimated that more like 19 per cent of the population is jobless. The Egyptian military is estimated to still control as much as 15 per cent of the economy, but pays no tax and accounts to no public body about its business dealings. There are almost daily labour actions now, with everyone from doctors to sanitation workers striking for better wages.

Tourism – a sector that employed about 15 per cent of the work force and brought in critical foreign currency – crashed in the first days of the revolution. It has recovered, at best, to half its previous level, causing a critical shortage of foreign currency, which was already in scarce supply after wealthy Egyptians moved their assets abroad in 2011 in fear of what the revolution might bring. "There's a huge problem at the Central Reserve," said Reda Issa, an independent economic analyst in Cairo.

Egypt also has a gaping budget deficit. President Mohammed Morsi, who passed the 100-day mark in office on Sunday, is negotiating a $4.8-billion (U.S.) loan from the International Monetary Fund. But it must be approved by a new parliament, and no date has been set to elect one.

While critical for allaying investor fears, the loan is also bitterly opposed on both ends of Egypt's political spectrum: the Salafist Hizb al-Nour party says it violates the prohibition on usury in Islamic law, while many secular Egyptians oppose increasing Egypt's debt to international financial institutions.

Debt service currently costs Egypt $60-million (Canadian) a day, more than spending on health or education, noted Mr. Issa, who advises a national campaign seeking cancellation of Mubarak-era international debt.

How the new government meets the expectations of its political base, including the huge portion of Egyptians still living in poverty, will be a critical economic challenge. So far, Mr. Morsi seems intent on trying to entice business and has made no radical moves.

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In a speech Saturday defending the record of his first 100 days, he said that many of the basic issues he set out to fix first in his first 100 days in office, such as reducing Cairo's notoriously snarled traffic, have shown improvement.

Mr. Morsi also promised to overhaul the huge subsidies system that accounts for nearly a third of state spending. At present those subsidies are mostly for food and energy, and benefit many multinational industries and companies tied to Mubarak cronies.

Ahmed Elsayed Elnaggar, editor of the Cairo-based magazine Strategic Economic Directions, said the subsidy system as a whole should be retooled to assist the poor. With judicious policy, he added, the Morsi government can turn things around: Egypt has considerable stores of minerals and natural gas, and its large agricultural sector could create new jobs in food processing and fertilizer production. The country's prime location and free trade agreements with Europe and its Middle East neighbours also make it a potential export hub.

Mr. Waleed, the would-be advertising mogul, agreed that the long-term future is bright. But he's not sure his business will be around to see it. "Any new investments will take a year or two to reflect on the economy," he said. "None of the changes reflect on the purchasing power yet. By the end of the year, if things are the same, I'm going to have to pull the investment and go get some other job. Maybe trade, or something. Something with a longer shelf life."

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