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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.