Within an Islamic and non-Islamic context, dangerous for his Egypt, President Ahmed Fattah Al Sisi appointed ten new Ministers in the national government and also created some new Ministries.
The government reshuffle, not foreseen even by the insiders of the Egyptian regime, took place on March 23 and regarded people and roles certainly not irrelevant in any government.
Undoubtedly the aim of the government renewal is the need to better tackle the economic crisis and its political consequences, which could undermine the stability of Al Sisi’s post-Nasser regime and, above all, its effectiveness in repressing the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai region, as well as its effectiveness in the internal struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Let us analyze the professional and political biographies of the newly-appointed Ministers. The new Justice Minister is judge Hossam Abdel Rehim, appointed just after his predecessor’s unfortunate statement that he would have put in jail even Prophet Muhammad if he had broken the law.
Hossam Rehim was the President of the Egyptian Supreme Court of Cassation and the Supreme Legislative Council, a body which oversees the internal administrative matters of ordinary justice.
Any appointment in this body lasts four years and is not renewable.
Amr al Garthy is the new Finance Minister, replacing Hany Kadry Dimian, who had been appointed to that post before Al Sisi’s Presidency.
While preserving the small and insufficient Egyptian growth recorded in 2015, Garthy must above all solve the severe shortage of foreign currencies and hence a significant difficulty for imports.
Furthermore the outgoing Minister, Dimian, said that Egypt would record a funding gap ranging between 25 and 30 billion dollars over the next three years.
The funds that Dimian had obtained from the World Bank before his resignation will be granted only in connection with some tax and fiscal reforms that the Egyptian government must absolutely implement.
For the World Bank this applies above all to a value added tax which is still being examined by the Egyptian Parliament.
Garhy comes directly from the business world: he worked for the Qalaa Holding, an important Egyptian financial holding operating in the oil, agrifood, transport and logistics, cement and mining sectors.
Previously Garhy had worked for the El Ahli Bank of Qatar, which deals with corporate banking and has 16 branches throughout the Emirate.
Later, before working for Qalaa, Garhy operated in the EFG Hermes and the Egyptian National Investment Bank, where he focused his activity on the matters he should address as Minister: the privatization of the Bank of Alexandria and the sale of Egyptian government bonds on international markets.
EFG Hermes is also a bank and an industrial holding company operating in seven Middle East countries, since it is now the first investment bank for the whole region stretching from Morocco to Jordan.
As Minister for Investment, Al Sisi chose Dahlia Korshed, former vice-President and treasurer of Orascom Construction, as well as former vice-President of the Egyptian Citibank.
Currently there are four female Ministers in the Egyptian government.
Al Sisi’s idea of separating this Ministry from the Ministry for Industry and Trade is the sign that the Egyptian President wants to give priority to infrastructure and industrial investment rather than to the often unproductive spending for supporting the now massive and bloated State apparatus.
We will analyze this matter later.
The main problem is that, after the structural decline of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) following the so-called 2011 “revolution” and despite the Conference on foreign investment held by Al Sisi in Sharm El Sheikh in 2015, which was certainly not a success, FDI does not take off at all.
From January to March 2015, the Egyptian FDI had reached 2.9 billion dollars, but fell dramatically to 690 million dollars in the following quarter, only to come back again to a still insufficient level of 1.39 billion US dollars in July-September 2015.
For the time being, the safest investment in Egypt comes mainly from Saudi Arabia, which promised 8 billion dollars in project financing over five years, and from China which signed some important contracts with Egypt during the recent visit of Xi Jinping in that country.
Egypt has a primary difficult to face: it does not always succeed in repaying foreign investors, who currently have credit with Egypt to the tune of 547.2 million US dollars.
In this connection, Egypt’s Central Bank has recently announced its offer of investment certificates in local currency at a 15% interest rate, but only in foreign currencies, considering the internal devaluation rate and the persistent overvaluation of the Egyptian currency.
The new Minister for Public Affairs, Ashraf Al Sharqawi, must monitor and supervise State-owned companies and support the growth of start-ups.
He is still the administrative Director of the Cairo University and is member of the Board of the State-owned bank Misr.
Sharqawi was President of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and member, as well as executive President, of the National Auditing Committee.
With specific reference to Misr, it is worth recalling that for 92 years this bank has been carrying out an activity of investment and collection of savings from regular clients and it has so far supported the establishment and growth of many companies in all Egyptian productive and commercial sectors. Currently it co-participates in over 202 projects, including agrifood, communications, finance and housing for the poor walks of society.
Furthermore, it also operates with Islamic financial criteria.
Hence, above all, Minister Sharqawi wants to reform and liberalize most State-owned companies.
This is also what Al Sisi has in mind, while announcing he will inject 25 billion US dollars in the Egyptian Central Bank to grant loans to small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as that loans to SMEs will account for at least 20% of all the loans granted by banks, at least for the next four years.
Clearly the Egyptian President’s goal is to recreate a strong and self-propelled internal market, by using foreign funds and internal financial leverage.
Nevertheless a 12.9% official unemployment rate, slightly decreasing as against last year, is a too strong political risk to run in a situation of great “youth bulge” (as we will see later on).
The financing envisaged by Al Sisi is functional and conducive to a youth employment expansion, which is the real sore point of the Egyptian society and economy.
The new Minister for Tourism, which is a key area for the Egyptian economy, is Mohammed Yehia Rashed, who replaces the previous Minister, Hisham Zaazou, who had been reconfirmed in September 2015 by Prime Minister Sharif Ismail.
A little score to settle in anticipation of Ismail’s confirmation as Prime Minister.
For many years Rashed worked in the international hotel chain, Marriot, and was responsible for the unit dedicated to Egyptian tourism within the Kuwaiti tourist agency Al Kharafi.
The Kuwaiti company Al Kharafi has been operating for over 100 years in the building and trading sectors and is currently active in the Middle East tourist sector.
Since 1960 it has been operating as a company for the building of real estate, especially in the tourist sector, and for civil construction throughout the Gulf area.
Al Sisi’s project is clear: to put builders, real estate agents and tour operators together for expanding Egypt’s tourist infrastructure.
Tourism is vital to Egypt and is also the sector floundering in the deepest crisis of its economy.
Before the shooting down of the Russian plane last October, the Egyptian tourist sector was worth 6.1 billion US dollars (and it was worth 12.5 billion US dollars just before the 2011 “revolution”) while, since the Russian plane crash, the Egyptian tourist business has fallen by 282 million US dollars per month.
These negative effects have been recorded even after Egypt hiring the international security consultancy firm Control Risks, while Russia has not yet resumed direct flights to Egypt.
Officers of the Russian security forces are still permanently deployed in Egyptian airports, while Italy has reopened all tourist channels, especially those regarding low cost airlines.
Nevertheless, through Thomas Cook and other national agencies, Great Britain still prevents travels to Sharm El Sheikh.
The task of Minister Rashed, who has a long experience in the luxury hotel sector, will be to convince Russia and Great Britain, in particular, to reopen their tourist routes to the South of Egypt and its archaeological sites.
As Minister for Civil Aviation, Al Sisi chose Sherif Fathy, former President of EgyptAir, who also worked at high levels both for the Dutch KLM and the American Northwest airlines.
The new Minister wants to develop new “unconventional” safety and security models and, together with his colleague of the Minister for Tourism, to convince Russia and Great Britain to return to Sharm.
Mohammed Safan is the new Minister for Manpower, a role which in Egypt is also related to the regulation of employment activities and young generations’ and unemployed people’s access to the labour market.
Before being appointed Minister, Safan had been the leader of the oil workers’ union and deputy-Secretary of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).
Al-Sisi appointed Mohammed Abdel Atty, former Head of Egypt’s Nile Water Authority as Minister for Irrigation and Water Resources, which have been a key factor of the Egyptian economy and society as early as the time of Ramses I.
Nile’s control is certainly a relevant strategic factor, considering that, as early as King Farouk’s days, it is strategically essential for Egypt to secure the supply areas of the Nile River in Africa.
“O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children: there is not such a thing as an old Greek. You are young in soul, every one of you. For therein you possess not a single belief that is ancient and derived from old tradition, nor yet one science that is hoary with age.
And this is the cause thereof: there have been and there will be many and diverse destructions of mankind, of which the greatest are by fire and water, and lesser ones by countless other means”.
Plato reports in his Timeaus this speech by an Egyptian priest to Solon, but it is worth recalling that the very ancient civilization which made the Egyptians already adults was linked to the Nile River cycle.
And Nile’s security at its sources is also a serious military and security problem, particularly with regard to the long standing instability coming from the African Great Lakes region.
In fact, Minister Abdel-Atty has excellent relations with the Ethiopian authorities, which are very useful to make the project of the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” set again into motion.
Furthermore, in his public speeches, Minister Abdel-Atty has also always maintained the need to solve, in time, the predicament of structural water shortage in Egypt.
The new Minister for Transport is Galaal Al Saleed, a former Minister in the same Department under the Government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011.
Later, Al Saleed became Governor-General of Cairo.
Al Sisi chose Khaled Al-Anany as Minister for Antiquities.
In 2015 Al-Anany became general supervisor of the Grand Egyptian Museum but, previously, he had been the general manager of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.
Finally, the last new Minister appointed by Al Sisi is Nihal El Megharbel, as vice-Minister of the Ministry for Planning.
What is the political goal of these new appointments made by Al Sisi?
Probably the aim is to buy time at internal level, while the Egyptian government gets ready for a new strategy of suasion and actual new possibilities for foreign investment, as well as attempting a controlled liberalization of domestic markets.
The substance and essence of these choices make us foresee some Al Sisi’s pessimism on Egypt’s future economic potential.
In a 205-page document made public a few days ago, Prime Minister Sherif has already announced that the unemployment rate has risen from the 9% recorded in 2009-2010 to the current 13.3%.
If we consider that, from 2009 to 2014, the total Egyptian population grew from 77 million to the current 90, the situation gets extremely problematic.
Again from 2009 to 2014, public subsidies for food and fuels doubled and, as it was easy to foresee, inflation sky-rocketed so as to force the Egyptian Central Bank to carry out a devaluation of about 13% at the beginning of March.
Meanwhile, military spending has inevitably increased and, considering what we have already said on tourism and Foreign Direct Investment, growth has dropped significantly.
Moreover market signals show that the Egyptian currency is still overvalued and hence prices have risen further.
If another devaluation does not occur, an injection of fresh (foreign) capital will be needed to support the Egyptian currency.
This is an economic and social scenario similar to the one which allowed the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, within the framework of a naive operation of North American coloured revolution.
But it was the Muslim Brotherhood – by providing the Praetorian Guard to the protesters gathered to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, among which the sister of Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda, and the Head of Google in Egypt stood out – to build Mohammed Morsi’s electoral victory, guaranteed by the Muslim Brotherhood religious welfare for the countless Egyptian proletarians.
Then the well-known Al Sisi’s bloodless coup, the discovery of Morsi’s opening to jihad in the Sinai region, and the rest is very recent history.
Al Sisi is well aware that the problem lies in the fact that wages and subsidies account for 75% of public expenditure.
Both the fall of wages, with the resulting mass revolts, and the increase in prices, which would have the same political effect, must be avoided.
The public spending that Al Sisi can never reduce is the one for the Armed Forces, the real leader of Egypt’s economy. Nevertheless the rebellions being planned could thwart all the rational efforts for reforming the Egyptian economy imagined by Al Sisi.
If the new government succeeds in reforming the economy and, with a new internal security climate, in attracting the funds necessary for what the economist Walt Rostow defined the economic take-off (with specific reference to India in the 1960s), everything will turn out well and we will have strategic security in the Suez Canal and in the Sinai region, also for the European Union.
Otherwise the Egyptian crisis will recur, with two well-known scripts: the fundamentalist coup and the arrival of capital of the jihad and the countries sponsoring it.
Or Egypt’s endless economic decline, thus making the people of the most ancient country of the Mediterranean civilization add to the huge flows of people landing onto our shores.
It is also good to think about these facts, when we ask, with good reason, to know the truth about the assassination of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni.
Giancarlo Elia Valori * (@GEliaValori)
* Presidente della merchant bank “La centrale Finanziaria Generale S.p.A.”
– Presidente della “Cattedra sugli studi della pace, la sicurezza e lo sviluppo internazionale presso la Facoltà di relazioni internazionali della Peking University, nonché “professore straordinario” di economia e politica internazionale nello stesso Ateneo
– Honorable dell’Académie des Sciences dell’Institut de France