The three-day Economic Conference which had promised to draw up a new economic roadmap for Egypt ended on Tuesday with promises of a greater role in the economy for the private sector.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that the conference had been fruitful. He instructed the government to take the actions necessary to implement key recommendations made during the conference and to provide him with a quarterly report of progress made, and requested the conference become an annual event in order to maintain momentum.
“We are serious about reform, and even if the government faces obstacles in implementing recommendations we should all agree on the measures taken to overcome the obstacles,” he said.
Positing economic reform as a priority for the state, Al-Sisi said it will be high on the agenda of the National Dialogue which will also address political and social issues as it draws up a vision for the future of Egypt.
“The National Dialogue should lead to a restructuring of state institutions. All issues will be on the table for discussion during the dialogue in a transparent way. We have to listen to each other in an atmosphere of political and media openness.”
President Al-Sisi promised the conclusions of both the Economic Conference and the National Dialogue will be taken on board by the government. There is also room, he said, for a third open consultation, a religious dialogue conference, to be held in the near future.
Al-Sisi told the General Coordinator of the National Dialogue Diaa Rashwan that “Muslim and Christian clerics should gather to discuss religious issues of mutual interest in a transparent way and respond to those who attack us on religious grounds and describe us as untrue Muslims.”
Embracing “a new kind of cultural, constitutional, and intellectual” dialogue is necessary for the country to move forward, said the president.
Addressing participants at the Economic Conference, he noted that “following the turbulent [summer] of 2013 Egypt was about to descend into civil war.
“When I took office in 2014 conditions were so difficult that many economists declined to accept offers as cabinet ministers. Now, after seven years of achievements the picture has completely changed and the media should focus on highlighting these.”
In remarks made during the opening of the conference, the president reviewed the political and economic measures already taken and the ways they have enhanced political stability and economic growth despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.
Al-Sisi said that as of 2015 he had invested much of his political capital in a programme of reform and reconstruction. He listed a number of key breakthroughs since he took office in 2014, including work to end the electricity shortages that had dogged the national grid.
“See how people in Europe are now suffering from high prices of electricity, while in Egypt we offer electricity to 17 million people at half price,” he said.
The discovery of the giant Zohr gas field in 2018, he continued, saved the country from power blackout.
“In 2014, before discovering the field, we were importing natural gas for $2 billion a month to operate electric power stations” a figure that, were it not for the speed with which the Zohr field was brought online, would have grown exponentially.
According to figures cited to the conference by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, “Egypt is currently producing an average of 58.5 billion cubic metres of natural gas every year and is exporting $2 billion worth annually.”
Al-Sisi said the political turmoil Egypt lived through between 2011 and 2013 came at great financial cost which has been estimated at LE477 billion. At the same time, the threat of terrorism added yet more burdens.
“We were on the verge of collapse and chaos,” said the president. “Friendly countries which wanted to help Egypt said they couldn’t because the country had no potential for reform.
“When Egypt was able to stand on its feet, however, these friendly countries came forward and offered help.”
Al-Sisi cautioned that Egypt cannot continue to rely on external help and must now move forward.
Addressing one of the most sensitive issues, the president said that when he took office he had to count on the army for missions beyond their traditional role. The Armed Forces were needed not only to fight terrorism but also to help rebuild the country.
“To rebuild the country and embark on the necessary development process while depending on the state budget was unfeasible so I turned to the army to seek help,” said Al-Sisi. Today, he added, “both state and army-owned companies — like the diesel-filling stations of Wataniya and the bottled water company Safi — will be put on the market as part of a package to stimulate private sector investment and raise its contribution to the national economy.”
The development role of the army will continue, the president said, in view of its efficiency and reliability.
“Whenever I want to build a project in record time, I ask the army to do it. The army will play a leading role in building ports given that constructing a network of modern ports could cost LE50 billion.”
Acknowledging the far-reaching economic impacts of the war in Ukraine, the president said the government will “do its best to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected from the fallout”. Social protection programmes will be expanded, and employment opportunities will be generated.
President Al-Sisi also reflected on the strains placed on the state budget by social services.
“We need at least LE250 billion a year to build 60,000 schools and recruit teachers and raise the quality of education in general,” said Al-Sisi. “The state also needs more than LE150 million a year to reclaim one million feddans to meet the country’s growing food needs, and LE50 million for each new hospital we build.”
Echoing the final recommendations of the economic conference which underlined the need to adopt measures to facilitate the role of the private sector and expand local and foreign investments, Al-Sisi said he hoped to see the private sector playing a much more prominent role in the health and education sectors.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.