Is business as usual possible in Egypt?

Dr Elizabeth Stephens takes a look at the current condition of the Egyptian economy, and asks whether businesses will be able to operate with any kind of normality.

A series of challenges have been presented to investors since the deposing of Hosni Mubarak, with uncertainty and outbreaks of violence exerting downward pressure on investment flows. Despite the deteriorating economic environment and payment delays that plague the oil and gas sector in particular, many foreign companies have remained committed to their Egyptian operations, anticipating a return to stability.

Events in the past eight weeks - the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi and the military’s clearing of two protests camps in Cairo resulting in the death of hundreds of Egyptians – have fundamentally altered these calculations. The potential for disintegration has become clear.

The inflow of funds from the Gulf states is positive and more funding is likely to be announced in the coming months if there is a fall in violence. Egypt is receiving several billion dollars in financial aid and considerable assistance in kind. Saudi Arabia is paying directly for wheat contracts while the Qataris are supplying gas, creating a more positive picture than the USD 19 billion in foreign exchange reserves implies.

In the short term Egypt’s economy will muddle along but underlying economic problems will worsen over the course of the year due to disinvestment. Saudi Arabia is muting the figure of USD 12 billion in aid for the Egyptian fiscal year of July to June 2014 but even Riyadh with its deep pockets will be reluctant to bankroll another state indefinitely.

Over the medium term we may end up with predictable confrontation; cycles of protests that don’t escalate in the manner of recent weeks but with each protest having the potential to unleash another uprising. This makes it difficult for companies to recommit fully to their Egyptian operations because of the risk this creates in moving staff and their families back to Cairo.

While parallels have been drawn with Algeria in the 1990s, one of the many notable differences is that Algiers could be ignored by oil companies operating in the country in a way that Cairo cannot. Egypt’s economy is dependent on the service sector whereas Algeria was a hydrocarbons-dependent economy. Ultimately, Algeria was able to transcend its difficulties with higher state spending as oil prices rose. There is no such light on the horizon for Egypt.

Oil and gas companies recently renegotiated payment agreements with the government and payments were to be resumed in exchange for the reinstatement of investment programmes. In the current climate companies will be reluctant to ramp up investment and a new agreement will need to be reached with interim oil minister Sherif Ismail. Ismail knows the energy companies well and will be sympathetic to their predicament, although the outlook for either party is not positive at present.

In contrast to Libya and Iraq, foreign investors in Egypt’s oil and gas sectors can’t even argue that commitment in the short term will lead to worthwhile gains and financial upside in the future. There is no reserve replacement potential for the next five years at least and the risk of expropriation will rise as the domestic energy balance becomes more precarious.

Astute investors had their credit and political risk insurance in place ahead of the uprisings. While the insurance market has remained open throughout the course of Egypt’s political transition, with some rate and capacity fluctuations, the recent coup and violence has led the private market to close for new credit and investment risk. Existing cover continues and underwriters will honour their commitments but support for new market entrants is only available from multilateral insurers for very select investments. Some limited insurer appetite remains for political violence cover.

The Egyptian economy is highly dependent upon the service sector. Photograph: Getty Images.

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

Getty Images.
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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.