The wheels of investment are creaking back into motion in Egypt after a long slumber. The past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity both in Egypt and beyond and over the coming month the diary is absolutely packed. Dare we say things are finally looking up?
No sooner had the last sun set on the Muslim holy month of Ramadan than high level delegations from the International Monetary Fund and the United States government swooped into the capital just days apart to discuss economic support for Egypt. The newly elected Islamist president also spread his business-focused wings eastwards to China, with a bevy of businessmen in tow.
A second larger business delegation from the US is on its way and will be on 'a scale that has rarely been done before' with more than 100 executives from 49 companies, according to US Under Secretary of State Bob Hormats who spent a few days in Cairo last month outlining various aid and investment projects.
There are plans to transform the Suez canal into a global trading hub and the mega project is expected to be launched as a tender that international bidders can compete for.
Later this month, investment bank Beltone Financial is hosting a 3 day investment conference under the patronage of the Prime Minister titled 'New Dawn' where western and Arab investors will get face time with CEOs of Egypt's blue-chip corporations.
That same week, and probably competing for delegates and speakers, the big daddy of conferences, Euromoney, will roll into town. The Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Minister of Investment will all be speaking with one question on the agenda being: What is Egypt's true economic situation? Does anybody actually know? Seriously, that's an actual question on the agenda.
Trying to get to the bottom of Egypt's economic program is like searching for clues blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back. As a business journalist I am baffled that I have yet to come across a clear cut coherent list of the new government's economic policies. We have been piecing together the odd statement here, the news report there. It doesn't help that the Muslim Brotherhood's Renaissance Project to re-build Egypt- on which Morsi ran his campaign - is apparently just a 'work in progress' according to the architect of the plan himself.
Take the new budget, which has technically been in effect since July 1st. It could be subject to change because it was drafted by the military and now that President Morsi is penning his economic program, it is conceivable changes in spending allocation could be required. A lengthy 144 pages long, the budget says the deficit is to be reduced from 9.8% of GDP to 7.6% without going into much detail on how that will actually be achieved.
On the touchy issue of subsidies, the biggest drain on government spending, the budget calls for a reduction of 27% in energy subsidies. The plan, we're told, will work through 'rationalization' (one of the most used words by Egyptian officials these days) of energy use, gradual reduction in subsidies for energy intensive industries and improving efficiency in distributing petrol products to low-earners. Barring a handful of quotes from ministers in local media, it is not clear when the implementation of these measures will begin, how effective they will be and if the targets will change under the economic program being drafted.
Egypt's new leaders have an opportunity to shake things up and give the Egyptian economy the jolt it needs, to awaken it from the slump that followed the revolution and ensuing disastrous transition and whip it back into shape.
The current administration has a chance to re-jig the entire structure of the economy in a way that was never done properly, to re-align its key components so that it can function in an integrated and shifting global economy. Make more of the stuff you need so you can import less. Grow more food so you don't spend billions of dollars subsidizing the cost of foreign wheat. Invest more in industries that create jobs, not just create 'capital.' Welcome outside investors but make sure those living inside Egypt benefit too.
But will the people running Egypt today do things any differently from their predecessors?
In less than two weeks a team of experts from the IMF will arrive in Cairo to resume negotiations on a loan worth $4.8bn that the government requested to help plug a balance of payments crisis and that is seen as crucial to regaining foreign investor confidence.
Their boss Christine Lagarde was received with much fanfare when she whizzed through Cairo last month and sat across from a beaming President Morsi in the Presidential palace, prompting the president's spokesperson to proclaim how important the IMF's support is for Egypt's transition to democracy. Twenty-four hours later, ratings agency Standard & Poors removed Egypt's rating from credit watch, thus reducing the risk of a downgrade.
Never mind that hours before Lagarde was welcomed, a member of party's economic team - who is also an advisor to the President - told me they didn't have a problem working with the IMF.
The ultra conservative Salafi Nour party also appears split on the IMF loan, with members arguing about whether the 1.1% interest constituted 'usury', forbidden under Islamic law.
Islamists aren't the only ones opposed to borrowing. A number of groups including the campaign Drop Egypt's Debt, the Revolutionary Socialists and rights group EIPR have called for the government to back track on IMF financing.
While Lagarde met the Prime Minister a protest took place outside the cabinet office and a week later, protesters gathered outside the stock exchange chanting slogans like 'Rest assured Mubarak, Morsi is continuing your work for you.'
There is genuine concern that Egypt could go the way of its northerly neighbor Greece and find itself crippled under the weight of painful austerity measures. The government never misses an opportunity to tout social justice and protecting the vulnerable when discussing any reform. But without a clear economic program, it is unclear how those promises will be kept.
Can Egypt's leaders get their act together and turn things around? Or will they squander this opportunity and waste everyone's time making vague and contradictory statements while keeping their head stuck in the sand? Will they simply patch up the economy to keep it ticking over or will they have the courage and political will to rip off the tattered cover and make some real, bold changes?
This isn't about the IMF helping Egypt get out of its financing hole. Or whether borrowing from the IMF or Saudi Arabia or Qatar is the right thing to do. Or how the government plans on reforming subsidies without hurting the poor. Or what they plan on doing to reassure foreign investors they won't be chased away by opaque litigation if things go sour. Or even how they'll explain an expected devaluation in the currency despite insistence to the contrary. This is about leaders making decisions. And sticking to them. And acting on them. Egypt can't afford to waste any more time. Take the loan. Don't take the loan. Just decide. Now.
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