The IMF is very interested in spreading its money and influence in Egypt, but concerns remain over US-style policies and Morsi’s legitimacy
Egypt is on the front line in the International Monetary Fund’s battle to remain relevant despite the rapidly shifting balance of power in the 21st century global economy. IMF officials are in Cairo, haggling with the Muslim Brotherhood government about the conditions of a proposed $4.8bn loan.
During the eurozone crisis, the IMF has frequently been regarded as a voice of reason, forcing Europe’s policymakers to face up to the scale of the financial disaster. But many ordinary Egyptians see the Washington-based institution as a stalking horse for the US-backed policies they sought to overthrow by occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab spring. Abolishing costly food and fuel subsidies is on the IMF agenda, for example – a controversial issue in a country with a history of “bread riots”.
Egypt desperately needs cash. Its foreign currency reserves are running low and it risks being unable to afford essential fuel and food imports. But some campaigners argue that the tax rises and subsidy cuts the government is negotiating with the IMF in return for a loan are strikingly similar to reforms drawn up by the reviled Mubarak regime.
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said earlier this year: “The IMF needs to have the commitment of the political authorities that can actually endorse the programme, own it, and propose it to the population as theirs.”
But Mohga Kamal-Yanni, an expert on Egypt at Oxfam, disagrees: “The IMF prescription for the Egyptian economy is going to be really, really damaging. They don’t want to accept that there are other ways to raise government income.”
She argues that the cash squeeze is being caused by the fragile legitimacy of new president Mohamed Morsi, with the associated turmoil unsettling investors and markets. The IMF blames the crisis on the economic situation, she says, but it’s actually caused by the political situation. Egypt’s allies, including Qatar, have come to its aid with bilateral loans.
However, Sargon Nissan of the Bretton Woods Project thinktank says the IMF is determined to extend its reach in the countries where the Arab spring has brought democracy. “The IMF is desperate to lend to them,” he says. “Europe is a quagmire; eastern Europe is not a good place to lend; and the Middle East is a hugely significant region, in which the IMF’s major sponsor, the US, has major geopolitical interests. The IMF is very clearly prioritising support for this region, and Egypt is the key country.”
He argues that the IMF should be cautious about entering talks with a regime whose legitimacy has been widely questioned since Morsi granted himself sweeping new powers last year. These powers were later repealed, but elections under a new constitution are not due until later this year.
“The really disturbing thing is that they’re willing to work in Egypt and in a number of the transitional countries without those countries necessarily having a sufficient democratic mandate,” he says. He says the IMF should instead be making a short-term, emergency loan, with few conditions – an option the Egyptian government declined in 2011.
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