Egypt’s debt burden spurs Muslim Brotherhood call for austerity

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is campaigning for September’s parliamentary elections on a platform to trim the country’s budget deficit.

The group, which formed the Freedom and Justice party to compete for as many as half of the parliament’s seats, says in its economic plan that it will help bring investors back after an uprising that killed at least 846 people and toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February. The Brotherhood was the biggest opposition group under Mubarak, who routinely warned its ascent to power would frighten foreign investors.

“It’s always better for any country to build on the basis of investment and not loans,” Khairat el-Shater, 61, deputy leader of the Brotherhood, said in an interview in Cairo.

The average yield on public debt is forecast to rise to 12.5 percent in the fiscal year that started 1 July, from an estimate of 10.7 percent last year, according to the Finance Ministry. Interest payments of 106 billion Egyptian pounds (US$17.8 billion) account for 22 percent of spending, up from 20 percent last year, making it the third-biggest item after subsidies and wages.

The extra yield investors demand to hold Egypt’s international debt over US Treasuries narrowed 3 basis points to 286 on 1 July, after surging to as high as 398 basis points on March 16, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Global Emerging-Market Index. Middle Eastern debt yields are on average 328 basis points more than Treasuries, the data show.

Egypt’s spending on debt exceeds the combined budgets for education, health care and housing. The Finance Ministry estimates interest payments will jump 23 percent in the current fiscal year, even after reducing its budget gap target to 8.6 percent of gross domestic product from about 11 percent.

Founded in 1928, the same year Mubarak was born, the Muslim Brotherhood has influenced Islamist movements across the globe. As conditions change in the Arab world’s most-populous country, the group is emerging from almost six decades of suppression to offer its vision on how to govern.

“A lot of investors have been very nervous of the prospects of a government with a strong Brotherhood representation,” said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group research group. “The Brotherhood is aware of this and they are trying to reassure foreign investors by saying ‘look, we are businessmen, we are business owners and professionals.’”

The Finance Ministry aims to cut the debt-to-GDP ratio to 81 percent this fiscal year. The ratio probably rose to 83 percent in the fiscal year that ended in June, from 79 percent the previous year, according to ministry figures. That compares with 55 percent in Jordan and 49 percent in Morocco, according to International Monetary Fund data.

“The wide budget deficit has impaired the state’s ability to spend on basic services, a matter that affected the quality of those services in a way that has increased the misery of the poor,” the Freedom and Justice party says on its Facebook page.

Egypt has already decided to lower international borrowing, turning down a US$3 billion loan from the IMF — a move that was applauded by the Islamists. Finance Minister Samir Radwan has said the government will finance the deficit through domestic borrowing and aid from Arab countries.

The United Arab Emirates on Monday pledged to support Egypt with US$3 billion. The funds will be earmarked for small- and medium-sized companies and housing projects, the UAE official WAM news agency reported.

The turmoil that accompanied the end of Mubarak’s three- decade rule pushed yields on one-year treasury bills up by 254 basis points, or 2.54 percentage points, to almost 13 percent, compared with a yield of 0.19 percent on similar US Treasuries, according to data on Bloomberg.

The debt and deficit are “outliers among peers and a key rating weakness,” Fitch Ratings said in a report on July 1. It cut Egypt’s rating one level in February to BB, two levels below investment grade. “The policy stance of the new government on fiscal consolidation and structural reforms will be the key to Egypt’s future credit profile,” Fitch said.

The cost of protection against an Egyptian default was unchanged at 315 basis points today, according to data provider CMA, which is owned by CME Group Inc. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market. Credit default swaps on Morocco are at 170 and at 234 points for Bahrain, CMA data show.

The yield on Egypt’s 5.75 percent dollar bond maturing in April 2020 fell 1 basis point on Tuesday to 5.69 percent, according to Bloomberg prices. It has risen 24 basis points since Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country on Jan. 14, triggering Egypt’s revolt 11 days later.

The economy may expand 3.2 percent this fiscal year, according to the Finance Ministry, the slowest pace in about a decade.

The Brotherhood used to field candidates in elections as independents. In 2005, it formed the biggest opposition bloc in parliament after capturing about a fifth of the seats. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on 30 June that the US was “re- engaging” with the group in an effort to promote democracy. The group said it was ready for talks based on “mutual respect.”

Parties formed after Mubarak’s ouster, including one set up by Coptic Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, have been campaigning to delay the elections, saying holding the vote in September will only benefit the well-organized, 83-year-old Islamist group. The military, which has taken interim power from Mubarak, has rejected these requests.

The Brotherhood is also proposing to cut spending, sell state-run media, link subsidies to job creation and slow inflation. Mona Mansour, co-head of research at CI Capital, a Cairo-based investment bank, points out that the government under Mubarak also planned to adjust subsidies. “What is key is how these goals and objectives will be implemented,” she said.

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