Egypt entrepreneurs fear for future

As politicians and economists start drawing up plans to bring back Egypt's economy from the brink of a balance of payments crisis, the country's small business owners say they are unlikely to reap the benefits any time soon.

Vendors such as Tarek Fattouh, who sells tapestries, face an uphill struggle . Tara Todras-Whitehill
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CAIRO // As politicians and economists start drawing up plans to bring Egypt's economy back from the brink, the country's small business owners say they are unlikely to reap benefits any time soon.

The election of a new president, Mohammed Morsi,has put the country on a firmer footing on the path to establishing civil democratic rule.

But changes to the cabinet and delays on rewriting the constitution have kept the economic situation uncertain.

On the streets of Cairo, vendors and small business owners say they are facing an uphill struggle to make ends meet as prices of food and commodities increase. The worry is that the benefits will not trickle down to the neediest.

Tarek Fattouh, 47, has been in the tent-making business for 35 years, working near the Khan El Khalili market, a tourist hotspot. He says before the revolution that removed Hosni Mubarak last year he had five times more customers than today - now he has four or five a week, compared with 15 to 20 before the revolution.

"The work is not easy. [The tents are] handmade and can take up to two or three months to make one piece. If I go to an exhibition [abroad] I need to take at least 10 of these really hard-to-make pieces.

Mr Fattouh voted for Ahmed Shafiq, regarded by many as an experienced businessman who would offer a firm hand in helping the country return to stability.

With the election of Mr Morsi, however, Mr Fattouh is still hopeful but sorry his candidate lost. "Shafiq, well, he understands everything, he knows business and he knows the street.

"Not a lot of people know where we are, the street has to be closed for cars and we need better-quality streets", Mr Fattouh says, looking out at a road riddled with potholes.

Over the past year and a half, Egypt's economic growth has virtually ground to a halt, with real GDP growth forecast at 1.5 per cent this year. Official unemployment has increased to 12.4 per cent from 9 per cent before the revolution.

But the problem is especially acute for the estimated 20 per cent living below the poverty line.

Aliya, a widow and mother of four, depends on a fruit cart for her daily wage. The rising price of foodstuffs has made it more difficult to source the best produce and sell it at a competitive price, she says.

"A watermelon now costs 10 Egyptian pounds [Dh6.06] or 15 pounds, it was 3 or 4 pounds before the revolution", she says. "The poor people get the scraps and the good stuff gets exported".

Egypt's desperate economic state in the aftermath of the revolution has driven urban inflation to a little more than 8 per cent and the unemployment rate to 12.6 per cent, the highest in more than a decade.

The public is pinning its hopes on Mr Morsi's grassroots "renaissance" campaign, which he says will focus on the economy first. It envisions a more equal distribution of wealth by encouraging small and medium-sized business and increasing investments in health care and education.

Hisham Fahmy, the chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, says it would be too optimistic to expect a quick recovery in the short term. Businesses have been forced to change strategies to cope with the political turmoil by storing more goods to protect against strikes or disruption at ports, and reassessing wages for employees, he says.

"But when you talk about "relaxed", that's a bit too optimistic, it's going to be a couple of years before that," Mr Fahmy adds

"For now, it's all about waiting for stability."

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