Egypt’s descent into even deeper political turmoil will almost certainly put a multi-billion dollar international bailout on hold and lead to an even more painful economic crisis with worsening fuel shortages and higher prices on basic goods.
After protracted negotiations that have stretched for more than a year, Egypt had been inching closer to securing a critical $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
The military’s overthrow Wednesday of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi will likely put the implementation of austerity measures needed to secure that loan into a dangerous limbo.
The military moved in after four days of huge demonstrations against Morsi. Much of the anger grew from the country’s dismal economic situation and the ever-growing burden it projects on already strapped Egyptians.
Analysts said Egypt could be moving toward a worst-case scenario economically — from increasing fuel shortages and blackouts, a sudden and sharp depreciation of the currency that will make everything more expensive, and a depletion of foreign currency reserves so severe it could make importing critical oil and food items difficult.
“I think they are sort of entering uncharted territory,” said Caroline Freund, an analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“Without political stability and policy predictability, investors and tourists are not going to come back,” Freund said.
Since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has sunken deeper and deeper into economic malaise.
The uprising against Mubarak was driven by hatred of the heavy-handed police state, but also by deep-seated social and economic discontent in a country where nearly half the population of 90 million live below or near the international poverty line of $2 a day per person.
That discontent is still evident today on the streets of Egypt, where ordinary citizens lament the hardships.
Gihan Ibrahim, a 40-year-old mother of four filling up her shopping cart in a Cairo supermarket, said her impression was that prices had surged over the past year.
“There is no longer a middle class. They all became poor,” she said. “I think this period of instability is going to be long.”
Protracted fuel shortages are another source of anger and frustration. A common sight in the capital in the days before Morsi was overthrown was long lines of cars snaking around gas stations and blocking main roads in the city of about 20 million which already suffers from horrendous traffic jams.
A shortage of diesel, used by trucks and imported, is attributed to Egypt’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. Other fuel shortages have been linked to corruption and sabotage. The shortages contributed to anger against Morsi.
Government officials have blamed nervous hoarding and black market diversions for the shortages. Ahead of the latest wave of protests, Egyptians stocked up on staples, including fuel. And heavy government subsidies on fuel distort the economy, encouraging some to make quick profits by illegally reselling gasoline and diesel.
To secure the IMF loan, Egypt is under pressure to phase out $14.5 billion a year in fuel subsidies that are a heavy drag on the budget. The government spends an additional $4 billion to subsidize food, most of it going to bread.
The IMF sees fuel subsidies in general as wasteful and highly inefficient because they disproportionately benefit those wealthy enough to afford cars and fuel.
Still, Morsi’s government has repeatedly delayed implementation of politically unpalatable austerity measures, such as cutting those subsidies, likely out of fear of adding to unrest and losing votes in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Ahmed el-Sayyed el-Naggar, an economic expert at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said there have been virtually no developments to improve economic conditions, and there will not be any until the political conflict is resolved.
“Morsi and his government have failed bitterly throughout this year to achieve any of the revolution aims of social justice and economic growth. It is essential to regain the political stability for the economy to move on,” he said.
“Fighting unemployment and poverty is one of the essential aims of the new wave of revolution.”
In the absence of an international rescue package, Egypt has relied on tens of billions of dollars of loans from wealthy Gulf countries such as Qatar and even oil-rich neighbor Libya to shore up fast-depleting foreign currency reserves, used to pay for imports and to prop up the value of the local currency.
An Associated Press compilation in April found that Egypt had sought or was in talks for more than $30 billion in cash injections from other countries since the fall of Mubarak — the vast majority since Morsi was inaugurated in June 2012.