The Monitor's View

Why Egypt now deserves world's help

Helping Egypt fix its economy is now as important for the West as helping it fix its democracy. The protests that led to the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi were driven as much by economic suffering as political anger for his undemocratic ways.

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    People line up for subsidized bread at a bakery in Alexandria, Egypt. Egypt is trying to stave off a crisis in its subsided bread program as imported stocks hit historically low levels.
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One gauge of the West’s compassion as well as its strategic interests is how easily a poor country can get a loan from the International Monetary Fund. On Thursday, for example, the West-dominated IMF gave Pakistan an initial green light for a $5.3 billion bailout. Two-thirds of Pakistan’s 180 million people live in poverty. The country is beset by terrorists and critical to Afghanistan’s future. It is, in short, a country too important to fail.

Is Egypt now also deserving of such foreign assistance?

Without quick aid, the Egyptian economy could implode, creating yet another political upheaval like that the world witnessed in the mass protests leading up to the July 3 military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi.

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As much as many Egyptians disliked Mr. Morsi’s antidemocratic behavior, they also sought his ouster because of a worsening economy as well as his focus on seeking political gain more than economic reform. Half of the country’s 80 million people are either living below the poverty line or near it. The ouster was a revolution of the hungry.

The numbers now argue for foreign help. While the Muslim Brotherhood was in charge, more than 1 million Egyptians lost jobs. Inflation shot up from 3 percent to more than 13 percent. An amazing 78 percent of workers have only temporary work. In May, a Pew poll of Egyptians said living in a good economy was more important to them than living in a good democracy.

Vital tourism has dried up. More than 1,500 factories have closed since 2011. Egypt can barely pay for imports of fuel and wheat, creating long lines for both. It carries a debt burden worse than Pakistan’s.

Helping Egypt fix its economy is as important for the West as helping it fix its democracy. Like Pakistan, it is a strategic country within the Muslim world as well as in the Arab Spring. Its peace with Israel is a bulwark for Middle East peace.

During Morsi’s tenure, Egypt received about $3 billion from Qatar, a sheikhdom friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, with that Islamist group dislodged, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may provide cash to help Egypt pay foreign debts. That could stem the suffering of Egyptians but it is not a long-term fix and may come with the wrong strings attached. The West needs to step up, with the IMF in the lead.

Lest it be forgotten, a diverse range of Egyptian groups displayed unusual unity last Wednesday during their backing of the military putsch. Leaders of youth activists, the conservative Salafi Nour party, the moderate Al-Azhar Islamic learning center, Coptic Christians, and others stood with the Army. This rare unity should now be used in a drive for economic reforms. Egyptians need to be informed of the structural changes needed, such as shifting the cost of fuel subsidies.

The IMF has held back on granting a $4.8 billion loan to Egypt until it sees enough stability and reform. Yet if the IMF offers a loan now, billions more in money would flow from the European Union and other sources. Investors may be ready to step up. The Egyptian stock market went up after Morsi’s removal.

The IMF has shown unusual generosity toward a few Middle Eastern countries over the past year. It approved a $1.8 billion loan to Tunisia and gave assistance to Jordan, Morocco, and Yemen. Giving its nod to a loan for Egypt will give hope to that country’s people and signal that the world’s democracies are on their side.

The Arab Spring in Egypt could use a nourishing rain right now.

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