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.

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

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.

Tags:Egypt