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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - February 25, 2012

by Heba Saleh in Cairo

As Egypt teeters on the brink of an economic abyss, both the country’s Muslim Brotherhood rulers and its Western partners are pinning their hopes for a last-minute rescue on a long-delayed $4.8bn loan from the International Monetary Fund.

In a frequently repeated best case scenario, the loan would unblock a wider package of pledged external finance, allowing some $14.5bn to flow into the country.

Just as important, Cairo’s commitment to austerity measures prescribed by the fund, including sales tax increases and fuel subsidy reductions, would restore confidence in the economy and lead to a resumption of investment and job creation.

Domestic political support is crucial to the success of this scenario; indeed it is a precondition for granting the loan stipulated by the IMF.

There is much, however, in Egypt’s political journey since the 2011 revolution to suggest that a strong element of fantasy informs this scenario. Every step in the country’s transition has led to more strife and a deeper polarisation between Islamists and their opponents. With parliamentary elections now having been called for April it would be brave to predict anything different lies ahead.

Egypt needs the IMF loan, but even more so it needs a genuine political consensus so it can implement difficult economic and other reforms and deal with consequences that will almost certainly be destabilising in the short term.

The onus for creating this consensus can only fall on Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist president, and his Muslim Brotherhood as the largest political force in the country and the one that will inevitably shoulder the blame for economic failure.

The Brotherhood hopes the April elections will allow it to form a government mandated to implement an IMF programme. In an ideal world, the population of Egypt’s fledgling democracy would then be persuaded to swallow the bitter pill of reform so they could move on to a healthier future.

But all the needed reforms are high-risk endeavours in a poor country suffering from deep divisions and in a state of constant political flux. They include thinning a 6m-strong bureaucracy, restructuring a brutal and inept police force and implementing an efficient system for ensuring that subsidised goods reach only the poor.

In this atmosphere, Mr Morsi’s many enemies, including remnants of the previous regime, are bound to ensure that any difficult measures backfire against him. The much hoped for stability, that would bring back tourists and investors, might prove elusive even after elections and an IMF loan.

So far, the temptation for the Brotherhood has been to dismiss the secular National Salvation Front opposition alliance as weak and irrelevant and to seek to divide it and delegitimise it. When it has invited opponents to talks, those have tended to turn out to be mere photo opportunities with no influence on political decision-making. It is also seeking tougher and more restrictive legislation to limit protests and hamstring civil society groups.

“The group’s behaviour over the past two years has prioritised factional, above national interest,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the Century Foundation, a think-tank. “They have sought to capture control of institutions and maximise their power even where self-interest should have pushed them towards a consensual approach.”

But the weakness of the opposition, analysts say, should not mask strengthening anti-Brotherhood sentiment which spills over into regular demonstrations on the streets. Analysts also note that in December, only 20 per cent of eligible voters supported the controversial constitution railroaded by Mr Morsi’s group and their ultraconservative Salafi allies. The charter passed because turnout was a low 33 per cent. The president himself was elected with a slim 52 per cent majority.

The real challenge now, observers say, is for the president to restore confidence in his leadership and to do that it will not be enough for his group to win parliamentary elections.

“The election result will not be an accurate gauge of discontent in the country because of the lack of organisation on the side of the opposition,” said Mr Hanna.

“Morsi needs to go about dealing with reforms in a consultative fashion and to have more people on his side. He will have to concede positions of authority and give the opposition the chance to participate in a meaningful fashion. At this point, it is the only way to right the ship.”

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