US business looks to support change in Egypt

Washington–Executives from Google, Citigroup, Boeing and other US companies visit Cairo this week to explore opportunities in post-Mubarak Egypt and urge the interim government to tackle problems that have discouraged foreign investment in the past.

"We are really looking at the range of possibilities for private sector-led growth" in areas such as tourism, transportation and infrastructure, Lionel Johnson, vice president for Middle East Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters before the trip starting on Monday.

The executives — the first US business delegation to visit Egypt since protests forced longtime President Hosni Mubarak to step down in February — will meet Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, other senior officials, business leaders and civil society groups.

They also plan talks with young Egyptians whose demands for better job opportunities and a greater voice have driven the change, said Johnson, a former US State Department and Treasury Department official.

"American companies for a long time have been welcome in Egypt by the government and by the people. But I think in terms of the issue of governance, there has been a lack of accountability and transparency," Johnson said.

As a result, "many companies were not prepared to make the kind of investments that would produce more job creation and economic activity. Now, with a new environment politically, perhaps the economic environment can be more open and transparent and provide greater benefits and opportunities for job creation for more Egyptians," he said.

The trip follows President Barack Obama's recent promise to support Egypt through its political transition by relieving it of up to US$1 billion in debt to free up funds to create jobs and foster entrepreneurship.

Obama also pledged up to US$1 billion in loans or loan guarantees through the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to finance infrastructure projects and support job creation.

The US Chamber of Commerce and the US-Egypt Business Council support Obama's plan to develop a regional framework to promote trade and investment in the Middle East and North Africa, an area of some 400 million people whose combined exports about equal Switzerland's with 8 million people.

"It's going to be the job creation that ultimately decides the success or failure of these societies," Johnson said, adding he will visit Israel before returning to the United States and then lead US business delegations to Iraq and Tunisia in coming weeks and months.

US Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Camunez is on an eight-day trip to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to promote increase trade and investment ties with those countries.

Representatives from IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Metropolitan Life and General Motors will also be on the trip to Cairo.

"Egypt's important because it's such a huge market but it's also a real bellwether for possibilities of the region so this transition absolutely must succeed," Johnson said.

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