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High hopes, harsh reality for Egypt's economy

Egyptians are taking to the streets to press for long-pent-up demands — more housing, better pay, lower prices. Expectations are soaring, even as they tell themselves not everything can be solved at once.
Image: A view shows the Egyptian Stock Exchange in Cairo
At the Egyptian Stock Exchange in Cairo, shown here, and on the streets, citizens have great hopes for economic improvements.Asmaa Waguih / X02458
/ Source: The Associated Press

The quarrel on a bridge spanning the Nile went like this.

A driver stops to gawk at protesters crowding the sidewalks along the bridge. Traffic is snarled. Tempers flare and car horns blare. A well-dressed man jumps out of his car to berate the driver.

"Move! Move! I'm fed up with waiting for you to move!" he screams.

The driver gets out of his car and yells back some choice insults, repeatedly jabbing the first man in the chest. As a crowd forms and voices rise higher, the men are pulled apart. Shirts are straightened, shoulders patted in an attempt to soothe.

"If you want to watch, why don't you just park somewhere and join them," the first man yells. Then, as he hops back into his car, he barks — as much to the protesters as the other motorist — "Some of us are trying to work. We can't keep living like this."

Abdel-Meguid Omar, who helped break up the fight, looks around him, shrugs and sums up the scene with the sarcasm and humor for which Egyptians have long been famous: "So, this is democracy..."

The man's complaint over the continuing disruption of daily life reflects a growing frustration amid the optimism that was the soundtrack for Egypt's revolution since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Egyptians are now looking to a future in which they hope, for the first time in decades, to chart their own course. With the floodgates open, Egyptians are taking to the streets to press for long-pent-up demands — more housing, better pay, lower prices. Expectations are soaring, even as they tell themselves not everything can be solved at once.

But the turmoil, fueled in part by the continuing protests, is making it harder to address the demands. Revenue from tourism, worker remittances and foreign investment plunged sharply after the revolution, while manufacturing and productivity were hard hit. Many complain that their lives are worse off economically than under Mubarak, increasing the pressure for immediate change.

In a make-or-break year, Egypt's transitional government is trying to show it can make at least some tangible improvements. Officials have approved the new budget for fiscal 2011-2012, a populist behemoth of welfare and development programs. The cash-strapped government is relying on new international aid from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other countries who say they want to help Egypt make a transition to democracy.

Hopes vs. reality
But many Egyptians worry even that won't be enough to meet the burgeoning hopes of the population. The need to see economic progress right now could swamp an already fragile boat, as Egypt also tries to work out its political turmoil.

"Everyone wants what they want now. No one is willing to wait," said clothing store clerk Mansour Hamed, sipping a coffee at a roadside cafe while others around him nodded in agreement. "That's not how to build a country."

The complaints are not lost on the current government and the country's military rulers.

Finance Minister Samir Radwan, who by virtue of his post has become one of the most visible figures in the transitional government, told reporters recently that the revolution had created a "new atmosphere" in the country and that, without doubt, "there are difficulties."

Weeks before the uprising, the former regime was touting economic growth projections of 5.8 percent for this fiscal year ending in June and 6 percent for the year after. Since then, GDP growth for this fiscal year has been slashed to as low as 1 percent by some estimates, with a government forecast of 3 percent next year.

The plunge in growth only worsens problems that long festered under Mubarak's rule.

Living on $2 a day
In Mubarak's final years, almost half the population lived near or below a poverty line of $2 per day, according to the World Bank. Unemployment among the youth, who make up the majority of the population, was at least double the official rate of about 10 percent. Food inflation stood at more than 15 percent per year, jobs were scarce, salaries barely adequate and affordable housing a distant dream.

In the four months since Mubarak ceded control to the military, those numbers have not improved.

The new budget, for the fiscal year starting July 1, aims to get the country through what Radwan recently described as a "bottleneck" by easing tensions long enough for the economy to get back on its feet.

It sets a new government sector minimum wage at 700 pounds ($110) per month, boosting salaries for several million people. Government spending on education, health and other social services eats up about 54 percent of the money. Wages for the public sector account for another $20 billion — a 23 percent increase over the current year's budget.

The overall price tag is $83 billion, while revenue is forecast at $59 billion.

Some of the shortfall is met by increasing taxes, including a new 10 percent tax on cigarettes. But Egypt is also depending on more than $20 billion in promises it has secured from various donors, including Gulf Arab states, the U.S., and the Group of Eight industrialized nations.

Progress means foreign aid
But to keep that aid coming in the future, Egypt must show progress on both the economic and political fronts. The overriding concern, both inside and outside the country, is that the growing power of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood will strain ties with the United States and the West.

Elections planned for September will be key.

"If the political hurdle for support is cleared, G8 and multilateral financial support will provide somewhat of an anchor for public finances," Citigroup said in a report in June. "If, on the other hand, relations between the West and the new Egyptian regime deteriorate, the fiscal trajectory becomes much more uncertain."

Egyptian officials are well aware of the risks. At least two U.S. business delegations have come to Egypt in the past few weeks, including one led by senators John McCain and John Kerry, both of whom praised the changes taking place in the country.

For Steven Farris, chief executive of the oil and gas producer Apache Corp., the first impression came from a local employee who met him at the airport, brimming with excited optimism.

Tapping enthusiasm
"He sparkled," said Farris, who led one of the delegations. "You can feel the enthusiasm and you can feel the hope."

Egyptians do have hope — even if heavily tempered by caution.

An April survey by the U.S.-based International Republic Institute found that 89 percent of Egyptians polled said the country was moving in the right direction. But 81 percent rated the economy as poor, and 41 percent said they have trouble covering their basic needs and feeding their families.

Ratna Sahay, the IMF's deputy director for the Middle East and Central Asia, said there's no reason the economy can't get back on the track of higher growth.

"The fundamentals of the economy haven't changed," Sahay said. "But of course it depends on the political transition, which is hard to predict."

It is the uncertainty that weighs on everyone.

U.S. businesses wait
In their Cairo meetings, the delegation of American executives led by Apache's Farris, which included leaders from Exxon Mobil, Coca Cola and Citigroup, stressed their commitment to the country. Egyptian officials pitched them infrastructure projects, which some are considering. But so far, no new major investments have been announced by these firms.

Ahmed Samir, a 25-year-old Cairo pharmacist, has the same complicated mix of hope and worry that real change won't come, at least not fast enough to satisfy people.

"The real problem in this country is the mindset of the people," said Samir. "For 30 years, they've been trodden on, ignored and made to believe that they should be grateful for that."

"Now, we're like people who have been starving and see food for the first time. We want to eat and don't want to wait anymore."