Egypt reopens slowly to revive pandemic-hit economy

Agence France-Presse
The Egyptian government gradually loosens coronavirus measures, but tourism – its biggest cash cow – is reeling from the crisis

NEARLY EMPTY. A view of the area around Bab Zuweila (background), one of the remaining gates in the walls of the old medieval city of Egypt's capital Cairo, on April 24, 2020. Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP

CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt’s economy had just started to recover after years of political turmoil and militant attacks when the coronavirus crisis hit, impacting especially its vital tourism sector.  

Now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has loosened a strict curfew for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in an effort to kick-start North Africa’s largest economy.

Having shuttered shops and cafes in late March and forced millions of civil servants to stay home, it is slowly reversing some of these measures, bringing back many state workers and extending the trading hours of shops and malls.

The blessing for the emerging economy of more than 100 million people, experts say, is that activity has kept ticking over in agriculture and construction, and especially in the vast informal sector.

“25% of the workforce is in agriculture, which remains unaffected,” said Angus Blair, a business professor at the American University in Cairo.

“Many other businesses continue to remain open, albeit with reduced staff, and construction is continuing.”

Egypt’s main sources of foreign currency have been tourism, remittances sent home from workers abroad, and Suez Canal revenues – which have all dropped sharply during the global lockdown in travel and trade.

But more than half of Egypt’s private sector is made up of the so-called informal economy – ranging from streetside fruit sellers to day laborers on construction sites to one-man auto repair businesses.

Around 4 million workers make up this shadow economy comprised of low-paid irregular laborers.

“The large informal sector, while finding conditions slower, will continue to function,” predicted Blair.

Slow growth, fewer jobs

The challenge is huge for Egypt, where nearly a third of people live below the poverty line, many more face precarious conditions, and social order has traditionally been maintained by a strict military apparatus.

Slow growth and fewer jobs may have “a temporary impact on poverty rates in the country,” warned Alia El-Mahdi, former dean of Cairo University’s faculty of economics and political science.

“The state must encourage the private sector on a macroeconomic scale so that it can overcome the crisis.”

The Sisi government approved a 100-billion-pound ($6-billion) aid package to stem the fallout of the coronavirus, which has caused 400 deaths and nearly 7,000 infections according to official data. 

This included payments of 500 pounds a month to informal workers who lack any social insurance to fall back on.

Cairo also sought a fresh loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last month and cut its interest rates in March to encourage lending for individuals and businesses.

The biggest cash cow, tourism, has however taken a heavy blow as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered travel worldwide.

It was all the more painful after the country famed for the Pyramids, Nile river cruises, and Red Sea resorts had last year booked tourism revenues topping $12.6 billion, the highest in a decade.

Deserted beach resorts

Mahmoud al-Dabaa, a travel agent in the popular seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, said he was shocked at how the once bustling travel destination had turned into a ghost town with deserted beaches.

“It’s the first time I see Sharm completely empty like this,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Dabaa had expected this season to also be profitable, but a string of canceled bookings signals a bumpy road to recovery.

On Sunday, May 3, the government announced that hotels may start operating again for domestic tourists, provided they stick to a limit of 25% of capacity until the end of May. 

From the start of June, this will rise to 50%, reflecting the authorities’ confidence they can keep infections under control while jumpstarting the tourism sector.

Egypt hopes to get back to the relatively better times of recent years, which saw annual economic growth rates above 5%.

The government has been implementing financial reforms since 2016 when it secured a $12-billion IMF loan, and investors have flocked back in recent years, driving a booming construction sector.

As recently as January, Egypt was ranked among the top 10 countries in Morgan Stanley’s Emerging Markets Index.

Planning Minister Hala El-Saeed has estimated that the economy will slow down to about 4.5% growth in the 3rd quarter because of the aftershocks of the virus.

But Blair said he was optimistic of a gradual recovery, judging that, if the constraints loosen further in June, a broader revival of commercial activity could “drive economic growth further late in the 3rd and 4th quarters this year.” –