Can Egypt Cure Its Subsidy Addiction?

Egypt’s government spends more on subsidies of consumer products—most prominently energy and food—than on health and education combined. Subsidies distort markets, lead to waste, and are largely ineffective in helping Egypt’s poor. Therefore, it should be heartening to see the government tackling the problem, as part of its effort to bring down the country’s fiscal deficit.

According to Finance Minister Hany Kadri Dimian, in the new fiscal year 2014–2015, “[T]he allocation for fuel subsidies has been cut from around EGP144bn ($20bn) last year to EGP100bn in the new budget.”

On the surface, that appears to be a bold step, slashing spending on fuel subsidies—which are by far the biggest fraction of the total subsidy bill—by almost a third. But there is a catch. According to the budget for the past fiscal year, 2013–2014, the subsidies to oil materials were already supposed to be close to EGP100bn ($14bn). Yet, the actual spending was drastically higher, perhaps by as much as an additional EGP70bn ($10bn)

And, similarly, in the preceding fiscal year, 2012–2013, the budget for fuel subsidies was to be EGP70bn, in what was seen at the time as an attempt to bring spending under control, especially relative to the previous fiscal year. But again, the actual spending on fuel subsidies during the year was drastically higher. Some of the Finance Ministry’s revised estimates were at EGP100bn, while others claimed the real numbers were even more sizeable.

In short, in recent years the government of Egypt systematically—and quite substantially—underestimated the planned spending on fuel subsidies. One can blame that on many factors, most prominently on the political turmoil, but this track record gives little guarantee that this time will be different.

Although the awareness of the problem, as well as the wider use of smart cards to allocate subsidies, are both encouraging, one needs to keep in mind that the most recent announcement is a far cry from a genuine reform plan. Even if actual spending on subsidies were exactly equal to the amount allocated in the budget, in nominal terms that would only bring Egypt back to the spending levels of fiscal 2011–2012, which were already unsustainable. As I argued in an earlier paper, what Egypt needs is a plan to phase out fuel subsidies altogether and replace them with targeted cash transfers. Alas, such a plan is nowhere in sight.