The Egyptian government expects to run a budget deficit of $30 billion in 2012. The bulk of government spending is tied up in subsidies, which take up about a third of the budget, and public employee wages. The government subsidizes a host of staples, such as cooking fuel and bread, but energy assistance — primarily for petroleum products and electricity — is the largest outlay. An estimated 8.7 percent of Egypt's gross domestic product and about 27.3 percent of the government budget is spent on these subsidies, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Finance.
Subsidies create dependencies on expensive foreign commodities by keeping prices low and stimulating demand. Cutting subsidies could therefore reduce the budget deficit while also shrinking the trade deficit. However, curtailing funding for fuel and bread would risk exacerbating the already volatile social environment in Egypt. This means Cairo can make only slow, moderate changes to its budget.
Devaluation Risks and Benefits
Egypt's central bank has typically defended the Egyptian pound against the effects of capital flight by tightly restricting its value compared to the U.S. dollar. Between the first quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2011, the pound lost 9 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. Since then, it has devalued by only 1 percent despite Egypt's negative balance of payments. However, the bank currently holds $15 billion in foreign reserves — a number equivalent to roughly half of the budget deficit and enough to cover imports for about three months — down from nearly $21 billion in December 2010.
Ultimately, Egypt may be forced to consider devaluating its currency. Such a move would have a similar political impact to subsidy cuts — it too would make imports more expensive for Egyptians. The move would also put pressure on government finances already committed to subsidizing imported goods. Still, devaluation would help the central bank conserve foreign reserves by reducing what it spends on stabilizing the impact of the capital outflows — without immediately fixing Egypt's underlying structural challenges. This would not immediately fix Egypt's underlying structural challenges, but if done in a controlled manner, devaluation could help slow consumer demand and lower Egypt's reliance on foreign imports.
Moreover, while foreign aid will allow the bank to continue to stabilize the currency in the short term, substantial risks would remain. A sudden loss in investor confidence, a sharp decline in central bank reserves or a bout of social unrest — or some mix of the three — could force a sudden devaluation, regardless of the political consequences.
External Aid to the Rescue
In recognition of Egypt's challenges, offers of foreign aid have been pouring in — especially from other Middle Eastern countries. Qatar has promised to grant $2 billion to Egypt's central bank and invest $18 billion in the country over a five-year period (including $400 million to rejuvenate a stalled $3.7 billion oil refinery project outside Cairo). Saudi Arabia has pledged $4 billion in grants in addition to a $750 million line of credit to finance bilateral trade (primarily in petroleum products). Turkey has also promised $2 billion in aid. So far, of the promised funds, Egypt has received $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia and $500 million from Qatar.
Beyond the Middle East, Morsi has been courting investment from China and urging the United States to renew $1.5 billion in annual military and social aid. Though relations with Washington have been complicated by the recent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the United States is also considering forgiving $1 billion of Egypt's debt.
Most important are Egypt's negotiations with the IMF over a possible $4.8 billion loan. The organization is working with Cairo to establish an economic plan and, according to IMF officials, the two parties hope to reach an agreement by the end of the year. According to Egyptian officials, Morsi would then consult various sectors of Egyptian society about the plan in a sort of unofficial approval process. Any IMF plan would require Egypt to adopt more conservative fiscal policies, but the boost to international confidence in Egypt provided by the loan would be considerable. At that point, it might be possible for Egypt to use international lending to reconcile its short-term political pressures with its long-term budget needs.