Egypt: Economic woes escalating amid tumbling pound, draining foreign currency, soaring inflation

Egypt’s economy has come under severe pressure over the past year, with the Egyptian pound tumbling, foreign currency drying up, and inflation soaring, reported Reuters.

The national currency lost nearly half its value in less than a year, reaching a historic low of 30+ Egyptian pounds to the dollar early January.

The annual inflation has soared to more than 25 percent and grocery stores are visibly becoming more empty.

Many imported products are not available any more due to the drying up foreign currency, and basic foods, such as eggs and cooking oil, have doubled in price.

Causes of woes

Some of the causes date back decades, such as failed industrial development and export policies that created a persistent trade deficit.

An over-valued currency, weak property rights and institutions, and an overbearing state and military have deterred investment and competition. Subsidies – though now reduced – have long drained the budget.

Foreign investment outside the oil and gas sector has been paltry, leaving receipts from remittances, Suez Canal transit fees and tourism to play a crucial role.

Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi often blames turmoil following a 2011 uprising and rapid population growth — the World Bank put annual population growth at 1.7% in 2021 — for the country’s economic struggles. Since 2020, authorities have pointed to external shocks including the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

But analysts also cite policy missteps including costly defence of the Egyptian pound, a dependence on fickle foreign portfolio investments, and a failure to carry out structural reforms.

Situation worsening

Many Egyptians say their standard of living has been eroded. Since March 2022, Egypt’s pound has depreciated by nearly 50% against the dollar. An acute dollar shortage has suppressed imports and caused a backlog of goods at ports, with a knock-on effect on local industry.

Annual headline inflation surged to 25.8% in January, the highest level for five years, according to official data. Prices for many staple foods have risen much faster.

Official data classified about 30% of the population as poor before COVID-19 struck, and analysts say numbers have risen since then. As many as 60% of Egypt’s 104 million citizens are estimated to be below, or close to the poverty line.

Although unemployment has fallen to just over 7%, however, labor market participation also dropped steadily in the decade to 2020.

Parts of the public education system are in a state of collapse. Many graduates with the opportunity to do so seek work abroad.

Foreign support

Both Western and Gulf states have broadly viewed Egypt under Sisi as a lynchpin of security in a volatile region.

As the fallout from the Ukraine war delivered Egypt its latest economic shock, Cairo received billions in deposits and investments from Gulf allies including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But although Gulf states have also rolled over existing deposits they have toughened conditions for injecting new money, increasingly seeking investments that provide a return.

In March 2022, the government said it had begun talks for its latest financial package from the IMF, eventually confirming a $3 billion loan linked to reforms that include reducing the footprint of the state and the military in the economy.

Soaring debts

Egypt’s debt burden has been climbing, though analysts differ over how much of a risk this presents.

The government forecasts that by the end of the financial year in June debt will stand at 93% of GDP, a measure that has risen over the past few years and which it wants to reduce to 75% by 2026.

A heavy debt burden, rising interest rates and a weakening currency have raised the cost of servicing debt. Interest payments on debt are forecast to swallow more than 45% of all revenue in the financial year that ends in June.

Substantial principle and interest payments on foreign debt contribute to a large external financing gap – the difference between supply of and demand for foreign currency financing. Egypt must repay the IMF alone $11.4 billion over the next three years.

Money spending

Beyond outlays on regular costs, including public salaries and services, Egypt has spent heavily on infrastructure under Sisi.

This includes housing, a number of new cities, and rapid road building. The most prominent mega-project is a new capital in the desert east of Cairo, which one official said the state was trying to pay the $58 billion cost of through land sales and investments.

Egypt’s arms imports also surged over the past decade, making it the third-largest importer globally, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Officials say they have upped spending on social programs for the poor, including a cash handout scheme that covers five million families, though critics say the welfare is insufficient to protect living standards.