By TAREK EL-TABLAWY, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's benchmark stock index fell over 2 percent Thursday, paring an earlier plunge stemming from deadly soccer riots the night before that left 74 dead and rekindled fears of fresh instability akin to the unrest that has battered the country and its economy in the year since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
The benchmark EGX30 index shot down about 4.6 percent within minutes of the start of trade, but rebounded as bargain hunters stepped in. The index closed down 2.2 percent, at 4,584 points.
The declines halted a rally in the market over the past week that had been fueled by newfound optimism after the peaceful passing of the one year anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising that pushed Mubarak from power. Investors had also found cause to cheer in the convening of the country's first post-Mubarak parliament — a legislature that was seated after Egypt's freest elections in decades.
But the riots by football fans late Wednesday in the Mediterranean city of Port Said reignited simmering criticism of the country's military rulers, with witnesses saying the police stood idly by while the violence broke out after the match. Parliament convened an emergency session — a move also mirrored by the Cabinet.
"There are a lot of fears, a lot of concerns, a lot of potential clashes," said Mustafa Abdel-Aziz, senior broker with Mideast investment bank Beltone Financial's brokerage division. "But we're seeing the market react much better than it should" given the night's violence.
Abdel-Aziz said that the early sell-off triggered buying interest, with investors stepping in to snap up deals.
In a market that ended 2011 over 45 percent below its level at the end of 2010, the recent gains have offered a measure of optimism as the country pushes ahead with a rocky transition to democracy that has been defined by continued protests and a growing mistrust of a military that had been hailed at the start of the uprising as heroes.
The violence in Port Said, however, reflected how fragile the gains could be at a time when Egypt's economy is reeling from the overall effect of the uprising. The protests and associated violence have hammered the country's chief foreign currency sources — foreign investment and tourism.
Meanwhile, Egypt's net international reserves were down 50 percent year-on-year by the end of December, leaving wide open questions about how the country will raise new cash to bridge a widening deficit and worries over the balance of payments. It is now discussing with the International Monetary Fund a $3.2 billion loan.
The Finance Ministry on Wednesday said it would secure $1.1 billion in aid from the European Union and the World Bank. While Egyptian media have reported the loans appear to be a done deal, an EU financial official in Cairo told The Associated Press that the EU portion of the aid — known as Macro-financial Assistance — was predicated on Egypt securing the IMF loan.
An EU team was scheduled to come to Cairo on Feb. 22 for discussions, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
The World Bank said Thursday that Egypt had asked for $1 billion in aid and that discussions would begin with the government on the request.
Separately, the Egyptian Central Bank held its benchmark interest rate unchanged, in a move London-based Capital Economics said appeared to reflect the government's confidence in securing the IMF loan.
But Capital Economics said in a research note that while there have been indications that investors are more optimistic, the country continues to face risks from devaluation pressure on the pound and continued political instability.
For investors, the macroeconomic concerns appear to have been factored into their investment strategy, said brokers.
But what's "not quantifiable is the extended tension between the police, the protesters and the army," said Abdel-Aziz. "Definitely, if there's an extended tension in this relationship, you could see another wave of selling."
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