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Minister: Egypt open for business

Analysts express caution about nation emerging from revolution

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Egypt's top economics minister came to Washington this week with a plea for renewed U.S. investment and support amid the country's uncertain political future after the Arab Spring.

"Egypt is still the most competitive business environment in the region," Mahmoud Al-Said Eisa, Egyptian minister of industry and foreign trade, told business and government leaders at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "I invite the American business community to come explore."

In an effort to draw more foreign direct investment, Egyptian leaders are trying to convince the world that their economy is recovering from last year's revolution, and that economic policies of the new government will keep markets free and open.

While the business community and the Obama administration have issued expressions of support, many private analysts say it is a risky time to invest in Egypt and don't expect any significant growth in the country for several years.

"I think things are pretty grim there right now," said Mohsin Khan, a senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "In any sort of economic indicator that you want to look at, things are really down."

The biggest problem is Egypt's uncertain political future. The country is still waiting on elections for the parliament and president that could uproot the same government ministers who are promising stable economic policies.

"It's very unclear," Mr. Khan said. "As an investor, I would be in this wait-and-see mode, until I know what the new government's economic policies are going to be."

Egypt announced late last year that economic growth slowed in the first quarter of its new fiscal year to 0.2 percent, down from an already anemic 0.4 percent the quarter before. Revenues from tourism, a mainstay of the economy, reportedly fell 30 percent in 2012 compared to 2011.

Bryan Plamondon, senior manager for MENA economics at IHS Global Insight, said foreign investors face a number of questions about investing in the country.

"Under the new government, what will foreign investment policies be?" he asked. "Will they stay the same? Will there be changes? There's that type of uncertainty that has just put the breaks on incoming capital."

Egypt also continues to deal with protests and strikes.

"The hardships are still there," Mr. Plamondon said.

Mr. Al-Said Eisa tried to calm these concerns.

"I'm confident Egypt will be able to resolve all these challenges in the near future," the minister said. "We are committed to democracy and are open for business."

The minister promised to stabilize economic policies. "No change in anything other than to keep everything the same," he said.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro said the U.S. has a "strong desire" to support Egypt as it rebuilds its economy.

"The United States stands ready to help," she said. "Our two countries could do great things together to boost trade with and in Egypt."

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