Barack Obama was not short of advice before his trip to the Middle East last week, with pleas to save a dying peace process, raise the pressure on Iran and show more resolve on Syria. All are urgent matters, but none are likely to be resolved in the short term. There is, however, another looming crisis in the region — and one that could be averted: Egypt’s unravelling economy. The stakes for the US and its allies there are enormous — and, for a change, a pre-emptive strike is achievable.
Declining foreign exchange reserves, a shaky currency and an Islamist leadership incapable of managing the Arab world’s largest and most important nation do not make for sensational headlines or inflamed passions in the Middle East. Moreover, Egypt’s failings are certainly not of the US’s making nor should they be seen as its problem.
However, an Egypt on its way to becoming ungovernable, with permanent strife, endless protests and a collapsing economy, is hugely detrimental to US interests.
If Egypt fails, so would the notion of a democratic spring that replaces autocracy and stagnation with responsible government and the promise of prosperity. Egypt’s ability to play what is still a crucial mediating and stabilising role in the region will be in jeopardy. And the idea of Egypt failing is not a fantasy.
The US appears to recognise this. During his trip to Cairo this month, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, warned that it was “paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy ... gets back on its feet”.
The time has come for serious consideration of how the US and its partners, particularly the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf, can support Egypt’s economy while also steering its politics on to a more consensual track. One idea is the establishment of an international support group, to which Gulf and European allies would make financial contributions.
It is amply evident that Mohammad Mursi, Egypt’s democratically elected president, has made a mess of his first eight months in government, aggravating the deep splits between Islamists and liberals and dragging his feet on economic reforms needed for a $4.8 billion (Dh17.65 billion) loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Mursi, an Islamist, has yet to understand that politics and the economy cannot be managed separately. A lack of political consensus is destroying his chances of taking difficult austerity measures, including cutting a costly subsidies bill and raising taxes — all of which are required by the IMF.
Understandably, the government has sought to spread out cuts in subsidies and tax rises, which could provoke more of the street protests and strikes that have paralysed the economy. Yet, the government runs similar risks if it fails to secure a deal, with foreign exchange reserves thinning even further, menacing the stability of the banking sector and undermining confidence even more.
Given that parliamentary elections are expected to be delayed perhaps until the autumn, officials have apparently pledged to bolster austerity measures. However, even the best economic programme will stumble if Mursi continues to get the politics wrong — and that is where the US and its partners come in.
An IMF programme, accompanied by substantial funding from an international support group, will help ease the pain of austerity and bolster economic confidence. Most important, it should be conditional on the political progress, encouraging Mursi to engage with the opposition and persuade it to take part in the parliamentary vote, rather than stick to its plans for a boycott.
Political benchmarks should also include real dialogue on potential amendments to a constitution that was thin on human rights and seen as a document drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood that ignored liberal and leftist concerns.
Some states have been generous with Egypt. Qatar has provided billions of dollars in funding; Libya has also stepped in with a $2 billion deposit, but this unconditional assistance has no chance of boosting confidence or putting the economy on a more sustainable track unless accompanied by political commitments.
There are those (outside as well as within the Egyptian opposition) who argue that Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood should be left to fail. They forget, though, that it is Egypt that will also fail — and that chaos will work to no one’s advantage, in the region or beyond.
— Financial Times