Egypt: It’s the economy stupid

Away from the pro-Morsi protestors in Rabaa Adawiya and the pro-army activists in Tahrir Square there is another Egypt, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih in Cairo.

An Egypt that puts the food in its belly ahead of freedom of speech and which puts the money in its pocket ahead of political slogans. Yesterday I went to visit that Egypt and without sounding ridiculous I think it’s fair to say that it probably represents the silent majority.

My first stop was a poor part of Islamic Cairo called Bab Zuwayla. Amongst the majestic Mamluke mosques and madrassahs lie a warren of souqs mainly frequented by locals. The shopkeepers responded with their usual “alhamdulilahs” when I asked how business was, but a little digging under the surface soon revealed their frustration.

One garment seller told me that foreign tourists (who were a pillar of the Egyptian economy) have been scared away since 2011 by revolutions, violence and military coups. The father-of-three said this has had a devastating effect on his livelihood.

Most of the shops in this area had anti-Morsi, pro-army posters on their fronts and many people expressed disgust at the way the Muslim Brotherhood had handled the economy. They also expressed optimism that things would get back on track without coming up with a convincing reason why.

Economic woes

Egypt’s economy has basically tanked since Mubarak was forced out of office in 2011. Foreign exchange reserves fell from $36 billion in December 2010 to only $16.3 billion in January 2012.

In 2013 Standard & Poor’s rating agency lowered Egypt’s long-term credit rating from B- to CCC+, and its short-term rating from B to C over worries about the country’s ability to meet its financial targets and maintain social peace.

Meanwhile, inflation is running at around 10 per cent and unemployment is at least 20 per cent.

Cairo’s impoverished

My next stop off the tourist trail was the City of the Dead where countless impoverished people live among Cairo’s tombs. There was hardly any activity here at all, perhaps because it was in the middle of the day during Ramadan when people sleep off the hottest daylight hours. Perhaps it was because there was simply nothing to do and no way of making a living.

Then I took a short felucca ride to Gezira al Dhahab (Gold Island) which is a small island in the middle of the Nile. Life here is slow compared to the bustle of the nearby city, people live a simple, even idyllic life, cultivating the land and then selling the fruit and vegetables they produce to the residents of Cairo.

Gezira al Dhahab’s residents eke out a subsistence existence but seem relatively happy. They are following the “military coup” or “second revolution” (whatever you want to call it) on their makeshift televisions but they’re more concerned about getting hospitals and schools onto their little island rather than restoring Morsi’s “legitimacy” or forging a new constitution.

Poisoned chalice

Why anyone wants to rule Egypt when it is in this economic state beats the hell out of me. The country’s fiscal issues run so deep that whoever is in power will get the blame for not being able to do anything about it. As long as the insecurity and instability persists foreign investors and tourists won’t return.

If Egypt’s rulers turn towards the IMF they will be lambasted for it. And if they turns towards the Gulf countries they will also be pilloried. So it’s a safe bet that in a few years time, when things still haven’t improved economically, that we’ll probably be talking about a “third revolution” with the same old religious or political slogans to the fore once more.


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