Setback for Egypt recovery

Fresh unrest over football disaster convictions is bad for the county's fragile economy.

Al Ahly fans backed the sentences.  Photo / AP
Al Ahly fans backed the sentences. Photo / AP

Egypt was convulsed by fresh unrest, leaving at least 30 dead in Port Said following death sentences handed down over the country's worst football disaster, and further clouding prospects for stability and economic recovery.

In Cairo, jubilant football fans, known as the Al Ahly Ultras, celebrated the convictions against 21 people found guilty in the February 2012 riots which left scores of the Cairo club's supporters dead after a match in Port Said won by the opposing local team.

After the verdicts, groups of Ultras - who were prominent in the struggle against President Hosni Mubarak's security forces during the 2011 Egyptian revolution - converged on the Cairo Interior Ministry where they were tear-gassed by police.

But in Port Said, enraged friends and relatives of the defendants sparked the deadly clashes with police by attempting to storm the prison where they were being held.

The two days of street violence that have marked the second anniversary of the Egyptian uprising in January 2011 will further complicate the Government's crucial task of reviving the economy.

"Show me a faltering economy and I will show you a fractured society," Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt's opposition leaders grouped within an anti-Islamic National Salvation Front, has tweeted.

The Egyptian Gazette commented that a slump "is a natural phenomenon that fades away when the political upheaval comes to a halt. The problem is that no one knows when this chaos will end."

Angus Blair, president of the Cairo-based Signet Institute and a former investment banker, said that as a result of President Mohammed Morsi's inept economic management and failure to reach out to opposition forces to end the turbulence risked more problems.

He faults Morsi, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood, for putting an Islamist agenda ahead of the country's interests. "It's about religion, not about the economy, he's not focusing on Egypt." Blair's consultancy has clients across the Middle East and North Africa.

In the two years since the revolution forced Mubarak from power, the already fragile economy has spiralled downwards, caught in a cycle of debt with the budget deficit forecast to reach US$28.5 billion ($34 billion) in the 2012-13 financial year.

Tourism revenues are down by two-thirds - a disaster for a country dependent on tourism as a hard currency earner - and inflows of direct foreign investment have slipped by more than 90 per cent. The Egyptian pound has sunk to new lows against the US dollar.

And yet the Islamist Government has failed to introduce policies to counter the slide. Tax rises announced in December were abolished hours later. But the Government never notified the official gazette of the cancellation, leading to chaos and confusion for companies. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a US$4.8 billion loan are on hold until after parliamentary elections, expected in the northern spring.

The delay means that more months of economic uncertainty will continue. Any economic restructuring deal reached with the IMF is expected to hit Egypt's majority of poor people living below the poverty line and suffering from higher prices and unemployment. Rich Egyptians have also been hurt by the crisis, and while middle class Egyptians still go to suburban Cairo's opulent shopping centres, it is to look, not buy.

Blair says there is "no alternative" to liberal policies, and is critical of the Muslim Brotherhood's lack of vision. Yet some say the Muslim Brotherhood is not Islamic enough.

Trevor Naylor, whose office at the American University in Cairo Press is a stone's throw from Tahrir Square, has experienced the disruption from the turmoil first hand. He holds up an empty canister of CS gas to prove it. Naylor, AUC associate director of sales and marketing and responsible for world sales, says that AUC books on Egypt have taken "a huge hit" in the Egyptian marketplace. The drop in book sales reflects the decline in tourism, "that's 10 to 15 per cent of what it used to be," he said.

Since a shooting during the 2011 revolution outside the nearby Interior Ministry, his first floor office has been protected by corrugated steel. "We had to flee the office more than once, with tear gas getting in the windows."

- NZ Herald

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