A Guide to Egypt's Challenges: The Economy

Bassem Sabry , Thursday 16 Aug 2012

Bassem Sabry provides a multi-pronged overview of the political, economic and social challenges facing Egypt's first post-Mubarak president, with an emphasis on the everyday problems facing average Egyptians

A staff member of Egypt's stock exchange follows a monitor at the trading hall (Photo: AP)

Egypt has an economy with a GDP of upward of $230 billion based on official exchange rates, coming in the early 40s in many 2011 GDP world rankings. While that is roughly the size of the GDP of Ireland (with 4.6 million residents) and Portugal (with 10.6 million), and is higher than that of Qatar, Egypt’s relatively large population and population growth rates have kept most Egyptians from experiencing the benefits of high growth of over five per cent in recent years.

Per capita nominal GDP is under $3000, according to many estimates (the IMF ranked Luxembourg first in the same year, with around $113,500 per capita), and Egypt is ranked in the 120s globally according to this method of calculation. For comparison, South Africa had a nominal GDP per capita figure of a little over $8000, while Turkey's stood at around $10,500.

Even if taken by purchasing power parity (PPP), whereby local costs and inflation rates are taken into account, Egypt’s per capita GDP jumps only to around $6500. This figure is put in check through comparisons to Qatar's at nearly $103,000, followed by Luxembourg at $80,119, while South Africa's stood at around $11,000 and Turkey's hovered a bit over $14,500. For reference, US per capita GDP stands at $48,387 in both nominal and PPP terms.

Furthermore, Egypt's exports and imports need a seismic shift in direction. In nominal terms, Egypt exported nearly $28 billion (ranking 64th globally) in 2011, down by 20 per cent from 2010 due to internal and external turbulence. Meanwhile, according to World Trade Organisation (WTO) figures, exports had grown 11 per cent in 2010. In the interest of regional contrast, the United Arab Emirates exported $265 billion (ranking 23rd, though oil exports do play a dominant role), while Germany — a country whose population is close to that of Egypt’s — exported nearly $1.41 trillion.

Two other interesting regional non-oil contrasts are Israel and Turkey which export $62.5 billion and $133 billion with populations of under eight million and under 80 million respectively. Conversely at a global rank of 50 according to another nominal estimate, Egypt imported more than $57.4 billion worth of goods — around double its exports — while both the UAE and Germany varyingly imported less than their exports. In addition, Israel imported around $70.62 billion while Turkey imported around $212.2 billion. Egypt’s exports substantially remain primary and basic products, including textiles, agriculture and foodstuffs, and fuels, significantly lacking in the multi-layeredness of modern economies.

Egypt was ranked 94th in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index, down from 81st a year earlier, which was in turn down from 70th the year before last. Also, largely as a result of the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, Egypt ranked 110th out of 183 in the World Bank’s “Ease Of Doing Business” Index (down from 96th a year earlier.) Further, growth is widely expected to be less than two per cent this year in comparison to prior optimistic government expectations. And in 2011, Egypt had foreign direct investment outlows of $482.7 million in 2011 compared to inflows of $6.4 billion a year earlier. The nine-month current account deficit for 2011/2012 rose to $6.4 billion (compared to $4.7 billion for the same period last year), balance of payments deficit increased to $11.2 billion for the same period (up from $5.5 billion a year earlier), while the trade deficit widened to $23.5 billion - reported Al-Ahram Weekly and Bloomberg.

Egypt’s public debt at the end of 2011 stood at 85.7 per cent and is rising. Local debt has risen to its highest level ever at LE1.183 trillion at the end of March 2011. External debt at $33.4 billion in the same period. The balance of payments deficit reached some $8 billion at the end of 2011, and foreign currency reserves have dropped to nearly half of the $36 billion of January 2011 (the recent three-month stabilisation has largely been a result of T-bill sales and international support). The Fitch rating agency recently downgraded Egypt to B+ from BB- with a negative outlook, dealing another blow to the country’s economic profile.

In addition, official estimates put unemployment in the second quarter of 2012 at 12.6 per cent. The figures also put the number of women who are unemployed at 24.1 per cent, significantly higher than the male percentage at 9.2 per cent. The recent CAPMAS estimates also state that the ratio of unemployed between the ages of 20-24 stood at 41.4 per cent, while for those aged between 25-29 being at 25.3 per cent. Real unemployment and underemployment are higher according to other unofficial estimates, while the number of Egyptians working in the informal sector is estimated to be 40 per cent, more than all combined employees of legal establishments according to an earlier study by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

Official July 2012 inflation figures are around 6.4 per cent, the lowest since Mubarak was toppled in February 2011, while unofficial estimates put overall inflation figures at higher rates. However, given expected significant impending rises in international food prices, the inflation figure is expected to increase. Current food inflation rate was estimated at 8.1 per cent in July, down from 10.8 per cent in May.

Official estimates put the number of Egyptians living in poverty at around 20 per cent while external estimates have claimed the percentage to be varyingly higher. For example, a 2009 news report cites a study by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights claiming that 55 per cent of Egyptian live under the international poverty line, while a 2012 report cited a study by the Egyptian Food Bank claiming the figure was 42 per cent. The phrase “beware the revolution of the poor” is not uncommon in the media.

Note: this article was updated with several further indicators since its initial publication.

See also:

Subsidies & the Budget

Food Security

Fuel & Electricity Shortages


Slums and random housing

Religious Freedoms, Minorities

Judiciary & Education

The Interior Ministry

Freedom of Speech, Media & the Arts


Women's Rights, Street Children

The Public Sector & Privatisation



Saving Cairo!

Healthcare & Hepatitis

National Reconciliation


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