Egypt lawmakers, government disagree on IMF loan

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By AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) — An International Monetary Fund team was due to leave Cairo Wednesday without securing an agreement over a $3.2 billion loan to help boost the nation's battered economy.

Holding up the deal was political wrangling between the Islamist-dominated parliament and the government, an arm of the ruling military.

Economists say Egypt needs to sign the loan agreement within six months to shore up confidence in an economy hit hard by the effects of political unrest following Hosni Mubarak's ouster last year.

The IMF has made broad political consensus a condition for the loan, but both the country's powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the second most powerful party, Al-Nour, said Wednesday they will not support accepting the loan as long as the government's plan remains vague.

The $3.2 billion dollar loan is about a quarter of what the government says Egypt needs to prop up reserves and external financing in order to avoid an uncontrolled devaluation of the Egyptian currency.

The stand-off leaves Egyptian politicians and officials with just a few months to quibble, since Cairo will eventually have to sign the deal with the IMF, according to the London-based consultancy Capital Economics.

"In the near-term, uncertainty is never a good thing for financial markets," said Neil Shearing, a senior economist at Capital Economics.

"Two months is probably the maximum we can wait," he said. "It's not the case that the deal needs to be signed and delivered and done in two months, but Egypt cannot go for six more months without some kind of assistance."

Egypt elects a new president at the end of May, and the winner is to be announced a month later. Then the military pledges to hand over power, putting a time frame around the contacts over the loan. If the military leaves it all for the new civilian government, the six-month target might not be met.

The chief economist of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Abdel-Hafez al-Sady, told The Associated Press that the Cabinet has put forth a plan to request the money, but it has not said how Egypt would spend the funds or repay the loan.

On Monday, Al-Sady and other Brotherhood leaders met with the head of the IMF delegation, regional director Masoud Ahmed. The IMF team had meetings with members of parliament on Tuesday and wound up its three-day visit Wednesday.

Finance Minister Mumtaz al-Said told the Al-Ahram daily that the IMF did not object to the government's economic program. He blamed the dispute on the Brotherhood and other parties that want to see the government replaced.

The Brotherhood's party, which controls nearly half of seats in parliament, wants transparency, al-Sady said.

"The Brotherhood does not trust the current government, because ministers are not giving us correct figures," he said.

The party has been in a power struggle with the ruling generals, who took power after Mubarak was forced to step down last year in a popular uprising. The Brotherhood's lawmakers have recently stepped up calls for the current government, appointed by the military, to be fired.

Al-Sady said that the government has promised to review its economic program for the loan, but that so far "we are just hearing words and not seeing action."

Similarly, the head of the ultraconservative Islamic Al-Nour party, which controls 25 percent of seats in parliament, said his party rejects the government's plan and said that corruption under Mubarak persists under the new government.

"All the various committees in parliament have rejected the government's political platform," Emad Abdel-Ghafour told the AP.

The year of political uncertainty and unrest have decimated tourism and driven investors away, and a persistent wave of strikes and protests have badly hit productivity. The government has used foreign currency reserves to protect the local currency from collapse.

The country's net international reserves were down 50 percent year-on-year by the end of December, leaving serious questions about how the country can raise new funds to cover a widening deficit.

Aid packages from the EU, oil-rich Arab Gulf states and elsewhere are contingent on Egypt signing off on the IMF loan.

A newly launched grass roots campaign called "Drop Egypt's Debt" is lobbying for loans taken during Mubarak's era to be written off as "illegitimate debts."

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