Egypt: It’s the Economy, Stupid

As Egypt descends into violence, it is worth remembering that the origins of its current predicament are largely economic. The events of Arab Spring were as much about access to economic opportunity as they were about democratic governance. After all, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose death triggered the mass protests in the region, self-immolated after being constantly harassed, fined, and mistreated by police and local authorities, unable to find other source of employment than selling produce.

In Egypt, the popular support for last week’s military coup is related to the disenchantment with the previous government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which failed to even begin to address the country’s economic problems: unsustainable public finances, rural poverty, and youth unemployment.

In June, the country’s foreign exchange reserves fell by $1.12 billion to $14.92 billion. The outflow is driven by the imports of subsidized commodities, most notably fuels. To avert insolvency, the government will have to put in place a credible reform program that will phase out subsidies – or perhaps replace them with a less wasteful and more targeted social assistance program. Subsidy reforms are tricky, both technically and politically, and the present political environment will make them more, not less, difficult.

The current political uncertainty also adds to a long list of institutional deficiencies that make Egypt a tough place to do business. Many of these can be addressed aggressive reforms expanding economic freedom. Many low- and mid-income countries, including Rwanda, Botswana, Mauritius, or Thailand, have made rapid progress in cutting red tape and scrapping unnecessary regulation, with remarkable economic results. Can Egyptians generals follow their example?

The future of Egypt hinges on whether its new leadership – regardless of whether it is chosen democratically or not – will be able to make rapid and sustainable progress in reducing public debt, restoring the rule of law, and improving the business environment. While one hopes for the best, there are reasons to be wary – not only are the country’s economic problems growing more severe every day, but also the divisive authoritarian politics and the rise of violence are hardly conducive to clear-headed economic reforms.