When Alaco last visited Cairo in 2013, the city was only just emerging from the nightly curfew imposed by the military following its removal of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi that summer. Cairo’s notorious traffic was light; tourists and business visitors were few; the hotels that skirt the banks of the Nile were near empty. Now, with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s intervention legitimised by his election as President, visitors are gradually returning to the city Egyptians call “Umm El Dunyia” or the “Mother of the World”.
In mid-March Al Sisi hosted the Egyptian Economic Development Conference, a three-day gathering of international and regional investors and officials that aimed to signal that after four years of tumult Egypt was again open for business. It was held in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El Sheikh. A creation of the Mubarak era, Sharm is far from the urban grime of Cairo, but still the authorities deemed it in need of a makeover. Attendees at the conference speak of the town’s taxi drivers being kitted out in new – thought often ill-fitting - suits.
Much rides on the conference’s success. The roots of the popular discontent that gave rise to the 2011 disintegration of the Mubarak government were largely economic. Decades of economic mismanagement had bequeathed Egypt with persistently high unemployment and inflation, a bulging but unproductive public sector, inadequate and ageing infrastructure and an education system ill-equipped to endow young Egyptians with the skills required by employers. Many felt they had little to lose by taking to the streets. Four years on, exhaustion with Egypt’s short-lived and at times violent experiment with popular democracy has tempted many to protest again, but those Egyptians we met are giving Al Sisi the benefit of the doubt. They seem willing to overlook political repression, human rights abuses and the cooption of the judiciary so long as the government can improve living standards. But with life no better than in the Mubarak years, Al Sisi and his ministers seem acutely aware that the goodwill they have generated will not last without tangible economic results.
Al Sisi’s efforts at kick-starting the economy have so far received mixed scores. Economists have praised early measures such as his cutting of fuel subsidies, which were regressive in their effects and represented an unsustainable burden on the budget. Al Sisi has also made efforts to improve operating conditions for foreign energy firms in Egypt. But there has been little sign of fundamental reform or of a change in mindset. On offer at the conference was much welcome but politically-directed investment from the Gulf - the UAE was virulently against the Muslim Brotherhood and is the Egyptian military’s chief patron - which will take the form of grand Dubai-style projects rather the investment in human capital the country so needs. Most eye-catching of the initiatives announced was a £30 billion plan for a new administrative and financial capital of Egypt, the construction of which is expected to create more than a million jobs. Such projects have a long history in Egypt but most, such as the city commissioned by Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s, have failed. Today even affluent areas of Cairo such as the island of Zamalek are poorly maintained and the rubbish piling up on the streets is a testament to the authorities’ continuing preferences for grandiose dreams rather than less glamorous action. Will the government’s efforts at boosting the economy yield results before another wave of protest sweeps through Cairo?