Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, who is probably the second-richest man in Egypt and whose business interests span the globe, made three suggestions in late March on how to deal with the financial havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic. “Divide your workers into two groups, with one working on even days and the second on odd days,” he said. The second suggestion was that workers should sleep in the factories and not go home to avoid contagion, and the third was to import personal coronavirus testing kits so that workers could diagnose themselves and stay home if they test positive for the virus. Sawiris also decided that only one percent of those who catch the virus will die from COVID-19.
Sawiris made his proposals in a live TV broadcast, in which he swore that if the government-imposed restrictions on workplaces and the movement of workers continued past April 8, he would commit suicide. The restrictions remained in place and Sawiris hasn’t killed himself yet. But his remarks sparked a storm among trade unions and human rights groups.
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“Sawiris’ remarks are an expression of the true face of capitalism and greed at the expense of millions of workers,” Egypt’s socialist movement said in a statement. Columnist and human rights activist Khaled Mansour suggested that the government impose a special 10 percent tax on anyone whose net worth exceeded 10 million Egyptian pounds ($635,029), allocating the tax revenue to education and health care. “The Sawiris and the Mansours (another one of Egypt’s richest families) alone could donate some 25 billion Egyptian pounds,” Mansour said.
That’s an idea that could actually find favor with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, whose authorities were expanded this month by new legislation granting him the right to impose new taxes, delay the payment of taxes and fees, prevent gatherings, and determine work plans and the scope of aid to the needy. Sissi now has the power to decide on all the aforementioned issues without requiring further legislative procedures or submitting his decisions for legislative or judicial reviews. All of this is done in the name of Egypt’s battle against the coronavirus, of course.
As part of the exemptions and benefits package for those affected by COVID-19, the government decided last month on a serious of steps to relax the payment of taxes, delay debt payments to government institutions and transfer grants totaling some $33 a month to Egypt’s most impoverished population. But these benefits cannot fulfill the needs of the more than one-third of Egyptians living at or below the poverty line.
Egyptian news outlets show the distress of those who reside in rural areas and forced to commute to big cities to sell their agricultural wares without any protection, without being able to maintain the required distance from others on public transportation and without a health system that could provide them with proper treatment if they catch the virus. This agricultural economy supports more than half of Egypt’s population, and without it, millions of people would plummet from poverty to acute scarcity to starvation. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, those millions have been joined by hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their jobs – particularly in tourism and the service industry – as well as small business owners who are not permitted to open their shops at night because of the government-imposed curfew, bus and taxi drivers and tens of thousands of teachers.
On the other hand, Egypt is the only Arab country for which the International Monetary Fund is expecting growth this year. It may not be the almost 5.5 percent growth the government was hoping for before the pandemic erupted, but even 2.8 percent growth is more than even what’s predicted for the Persian Gulf countries.
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The American credit rating agency, S&P Global Ratings, has maintained Egypt’s B ranking, based on its estimate that the country’s economic reforms that began in 2016 will help it overcome the coronavirus crisis with relative stability.
Currently, Egypt's main concern is its foreign currency reserves, which plunged in March from $45.5 billion to $37 billion after the mass exodus of investors from the Egyptian stock market. The existing reserves, according to S&P, can fund imports for about five to six months. To this one must add the drop in money transfers from Egyptians who work in the Gulf States, the freeze in tourism – which brings in around a billion dollars a month – and the diminished income from the Suez Canal amid the reduction in international trade.
Fears of the public violating coronavirus restrictions during the month of Ramadan and the dangers posed by large gatherings during the holiday are lurking around the corner. The religious adjudication department in Egypt, the official body that oversees religious conduct in the country, has ordered worshipers not to pray in mosques or gather at the holy places. The adjudication states that anyone afraid to fast for fear of the coronavirus is permitted to eat because “Allah doesn’t want worshipers to observe their commandments while fearing for their lives.”
But overseeing the coronavirus restrictions is much more difficult in rural areas, where traditional customs are much stronger than the orders and regulations written in the government offices in Cairo. These are the same areas where medical services are much scarcer and the lack of investment in medical infrastructure over the years has led to severe gaps in quality and quantity in comparison to urban areas, where the authorities are also facing difficulties in providing the needed services.
The relatively positive forecasts from international institutions are presented proudly for everyone to see in the Egyptian media, but they have still not yet trickled down to the middle and lower classes. The expectation is that Egypt will change its priorities and channel a larger share of its revenues to public services, especially the health and education systems. With his new powers, Sissi can now easily decide to do so.