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A rough ride for Egypt's economy

January 27, 2014 at 1:09 pm

National Bank of Egypt in Cario [Daniel Mayer/Wikipedia]

Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece are enjoying a healthy flow of tourists, thanks to turmoil in the Middle East which has driven holidaymakers away from the Red Sea resorts of Egypt and towards the Acropolis in Athens, reported The New York Times recently. Once badly affected by the euro debt crisis, Europe’s southern coast is now enjoying the benefits of extra travellers searching for late summer rays.

Many of the tourists who once came to sail down the river Nile or ride jeeps across Egypt’s desert have been scared away by the bloody crackdown on followers of Mohammed Morsi since his ouster at the beginning of July. Protests demanding his reinstatement and the return of their democratically elected leader left hundreds of Brotherhood members dead after the military forcefully cleared the square where they were protesting.

These days, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel to Egypt and operators in Italy, France and Russia have cancelled or suspended excursions to the country. German tour operator TUI has called off trips to Egypt until the 29 September, bad news for a country in which tourism once made up 11% of the economy. Egypt has dropped 11 positions in this year’s Global Competitiveness Index, and now stands at 118th place.

“We must realise that the performance of the Egyptian economy – perhaps more so than most since it heavily depends on the foreign sector for investment and tourism – is very connected to the security situation,” says Mohamed Dahshan, an Egypt based researcher at Harvard University, to MEMO. “And this has been particularly bad since the ousting of Morsi and the protests, the sit-ins, and the heavy-handed police and army interventions.”

Last week, Al-Monitor reported that St. Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mount Sinai, closed for the first time in 30 years on the orders of the Egyptian security authorities. With no tourists, the Bedouin community in the city nearby have sold their camels to feed their families. Since 2011, when Mubarak was ousted from power, this community has felt the pinch that came with the declining political and security situation, but never as much as they have since the coup that ousted Morsi at the beginning of July.

It’s difficult to say if the economy has become worse since Morsi was ousted, explains Dahshan, because it’s only been two months; not long in economic terms so the numbers aren’t there. “This said, that is indeed my impression, and it is supported by anecdotal evidence and opinion polls. A poll recently run stated that 47% of respondents say their economic conditions are worse after the July 3rd coup.”

To make matters worse in mid-August the military imposed a curfew. Now, from 11pm to 6am throughout the week the streets of Cairo are empty. On Fridays, the day Brotherhood supporters traditionally held their protests against the military backed government, the curfew starts four hours earlier at 7pm. Many owners of cafes, restaurants and bars that once buzzed long into the night now struggle to make ends meet.

“The curfew, in my opinion, is absolutely unnecessary save for the army to establish who’s the boss,” says Dahshan, and “has only made things worse. It is obvious that the Muslim Brotherhood’s capacity to protest has been severely curtailed. Maintaining an evening/night-time curfew means killing tens of thousands of businesses – restaurants, cafes, clubs, cinemas and theatres, and so on, essentially the entertainment industry – as well as completely discouraging tourism. And remember, this is summer. This is a high-season for tourism, but it’s gone.”

Since Mubarak was toppled in 2011, the Gulf countries have emerged as a major source of cash for Egypt. Qatar pledged $8 billion to Egypt under Morsi and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have offered a combined package of $12 billion since he left. But it’s much more of a quick fix, than a solution to a very big problem. It has not helped the Egyptians in St. Catherine’s, for example, neither should it be a substitute for the implementation of desperately needed reforms.

“Even if Egypt receives enough assistance, unless this money is accompanied by a plan to restart the economy as well as fill that deficit, then we’ll run into the same problems in a few months when the money runs out. And it seems this is precisely the way we’re heading” points out Dahshan. “And at that point there will not be a new $12 billion aid package.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.