Wednesday, November 12, 2014

US trade mission upbeat on Sisi leadership; vows investment

Largest-ever US business delegation to Egypt eager to invest in light of recent economic reforms, practices 'economic diplomacy' while skirting around civil liberties issue

Sisi

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egypt's Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb speak with U.S. businessmen and representatives of U.S. companies at the Presidential Palace in Cairo

The largest-ever US business mission to Egypt concluded its visit to Cairo on Tuesday with praise for Egypt’s reform-minded government and promises of future investment.

Senior officials and representatives from over 65 US companies arrived in Cairo on Sunday as part of “the largest trade mission in the entire history of the Chamber of Commerce,” according to mission leader Ambassador David Thorne, Senior Advisor to the US Secretary of the State.

The delegates met with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Monday and were upbeat about his leadership of the most-populated Arab country.

“There is a quiet confidence from President El-Sisi to the ministers, that they’re going to make this work, and I share that confidence,” said G. Steven Farris, Chairman of the US-Egypt Business Council and Chairman and CEO of oil and gas giant Apache Corporation.

Egypt’s government has embarked on a series of economic reforms in recent months, including a politically-charged cut of energy subsidies as well as raising taxes to combat a ballooning budget deficit.

"The fundamental structural adjustments that Egypt needed to put in place at the macroeconomic level and increasingly at the microeconomic level have been instituted," said Khush Choksy, acting head for Turkey, Middle East, and North Africa Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce.

Choksy said his department was advising companies about investing in Egypt: "The answer is to go now...given that it provides them with competitive advantage to get in early or to enhance their investments, if they're already here."

Aid Freeze

The US temporarily froze annual military aid to Egypt last year in protest over a bloody crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in August 2013 while El-Sisi was minister of defence. The $575 million in military aid was released in June, soon after El-Sisi retired from the military and won the presidential race.

Another point of contention between Washington and Cairo is a new draft law governing the operation of non-governmental organisation in Egypt and the protest law, which was repeatedly criticised by US officials.

“While we would certainly like to see support of an open and vibrant civil society here in Egypt, that’s up to the Egyptians to organise for themselves,” said Ambassador Thorne about a government deadline for NGOs operating in Egypt to register this week under a law they deem restrictive or face criminal prosecution.

Egyptian authorities say the law is meant to ensure transparency in NGO funding and activities.

Last month, the Carter Center, founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, closed its Egypt office, claiming that the country is "unlikely to advance a genuine democratic transition."

Contracts Signed

But the US trade delegation was upbeat about business opportunities in the country, which has seen Foreign Direct Investment dry up since a 2011 popular uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

“Contracts have been signed, particularly on the Suez Project,” Thorne said without giving more details.

Egypt is planning a mega development project along the Suez Canal, at an estimated cost of $220 billion over fifteen years, according to Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman, the blueprint for which has yet to be publicly revealed.

US companies with an established presence in Egypt “are actively considering expansion,” said Greg Lebedev, senior member of the US Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, predicting that news of these plans would emerge “in the coming weeks and months.”

Newcomers

There were also newcomers to the Egyptian market in the mission, such as renewable energy firm First Solar, which has a presence in the United Arab Emirates and more recently in Jordan.

The solar energy company is planning to build a solar power plant in Egypt with a capacity of 50 megawatts, Vice President and Region Executive for the Middle East Ahmed Nada told , though the cost and exact location of the project has yet to be determined.

The mission vowed to whip up support for an economic summit through which Egypt plans to present projects to international investors in March 2015.

"We certainly plan to promote it to American companies; through the US chamber's federation we reach three million American companies," said Chosky.

"We will participate in a twofold manner: we will bring companies, support them coming to the conference, and then if there are certain sectors Egypt is targetting while preparing the agenda, we will try to bring companies that bring the technical expertise to speak to the type of projects that Egypt seeks to promote," he added.