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A member of medical team sprays disinfectant as a precautionary move amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Cairo, Egypt (File) Image Credit: Reuters

There is hardly a nation on earth that hasn’t been negatively impacted by the lethal, highly-contagious virus that has swept over our planet killing the most vulnerable, stealing jobs and hurling families into poverty. Egypt hasn’t escaped the pandemic’s tentacles but so far it has weathered the storm with remarkable success when compared to developed nations such as the UK, France, Belgium, Spain and the United States of America that alone accounts for almost a quarter of global cases.

At the time of writing Egypt’s active case tally stands at less than 10,000 while sad to say since the pandemic struck 6,187 have lost their lives. That said given a population of well over 100 million plus Egyptians’ natural propensity for socialising with family and friends as well as crowded living in certain areas, this record could have been a lot worse.

Early on when the numbers looked like spiking the government responded with a lengthy curfew plus the shutdown of cafés, restaurants, shops (other than food stores and pharmacies), hotels, beaches, parks and places of worship while mandating masks in public buildings, malls, shops and inside vehicles. Restaurants, cafés and approved hotels have since been allowed to reopen with reduced capacity. Buffets and shisha remain banned.

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Fallout of the virus

Moreover travel around the country was heavily restricted. Visitors from abroad were and still are required to produce a negative PCR test result with the exception of foreigners flying directly or transiting briefly to various Red Sea resorts.

Naturally tourism is way down as it is everywhere but flights to Hurghada, Marsa Alam and Sharm El Sheikh from Europe have resumed and just a week ago Sharm greeted its first tourist groups from the UK arriving on Easy Jet. As of last month no tourists had contracted the virus.

In the meantime, planning for a future tourist influx is well underway. Some days ago a restaurant lounge was inaugurated on the pyramids plateau in Giza for the first time ever and boasts splendid views of all three pyramids. A fleet of electric buses will be available to visitors keen to get around in comfort. Next year the world’s largest museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum, will at last be unveiled.

It goes without saying that Egypt has suffered a hit to its economy but again fairly minor in comparison to others. The country has evaded a recession and, indeed, the IMF has raised its growth estimate to 3.5 per cent and predicts GDP will rise slightly to 0.8 per cent by this fiscal year’s end.

Stable economic environment

The World Bank’s Economic Update puts Egypt’s escape down to a stable economic environment, relatively high growth rates and a comfortable cushion of foreign reserves. Ahmed Shehab, the head of Deutsche Bank’s office in Cairo, asserts that foreign asset managers would do well to invest in Egypt to gain higher returns.

The Oxford Business Group confirms that before the pandemic Egypt’s economy was among the best performing in the Middle East and North Africa, adding that the trend looks to continue. Last year, Egypt received $8.5 billion in Foreign Direct Investment, more than any other nation on the African continent.

The Egyptian government deserves praise for delivering stability and growth over the years since the revolution that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood regime but it cannot rest on its laurels in light of the remaining obstacles to a secure future.

One of the most pressing is the situation in Libya that shares a long border with Egypt. Further destabilisation by foreign powers and Syrian mercenaries working for Turkey is considered by Cairo as an existential threat. The two main feuding sides have reached a permanent ceasefire according to the United Nations but the question is will it hold?

Secondly, Cairo’s dispute with Ethiopia over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that threatens Egypt’s share of Nile water is ongoing despite years of negotiations. In an attempt to solve the current impasse due to Ethiopia’s intransigence, the EU, the African Union and the US have all called for talks to resume.

A big mistake

President Donald Trump who brokered a deal which all three parties — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — accepted, has now firmly sided with Egypt. “I had a deal for them and then unfortunately Ethiopia broke the deal which they should not have done. This was a big mistake, and we have stopped payment to them of a lot of aid because they did it … You can’t blame Egypt for being a little bit upset, right,” said Trump on Friday.

Crucially the Arab World’s most populous nation is facing a population explosion adding a massive 7 million since the 2017 census. Over the past three decades the population has doubled stretching resources. At this rate, the population is set to almost double again by 2050 which is unsustainable.

The family planning campaign ‘Two is enough’ launched in September has been bolstered by “Your Right to Plan” backed by the UN’s Population fund. The government’s efforts are supported by new projects such as health clinics, health educators and thousands of volunteers trained to make women think twice about expanding their families. Unless the people get on board, this may be the most intractable problem authorities face and one that might continue for many years to come.

Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East