Egypt's president boisterous after billions of dollars in deals signed at economic conference

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – Egypt’s president claimed broad support from the international community for his vision of the future on Sunday, in a boisterous speech to an investor conference that saw billions pledged to boost the country’s battered economy after four years of turmoil following a popular uprising.

A jubilant Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi acknowledged Egypt’s road to recovery will be long and costly, but described the three-day summit as an overwhelming success, recognizing companies and governments for their vote of confidence.

“I would like to thank you all who came to the event — envoys, deputies or prime ministers, and of course monarchs and kings and princes,” he told a packed auditorium in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where crowds gave him several standing ovations. “You have no idea how happy you’ve made the Egyptian people.”

At the meeting’s closing, a teary-eyed Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said the conference had netted $36.2 billion in investments that had been signed and were ready to be implemented, thanking allies for the support.

Many questions had lingered in the run-up to the conference — whether it would meet expectations for billions in investment, whether companies would be ready to overlook political risks in a country with a lingering militant insurgency, and whether political leaders would be willing to set aside concerns over human rights and vocally back the leadership of el-Sissi, who overthrew his Islamist predecessor in 2013.

“It’s a great show of support from investors and world leaders, and an excellent way to hold the government to account for the ambitious policies it has announced,” said Angus Blair of investment advisory firm Signet.

Besides major Gulf backers United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who kicked off the conference by announcing over $12 billion in aid and investment, Western powers including the United States, France, Britain and Italy also praised the steps el-Sissi has taken over the past year, a message that was echoed by those from international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

El-Sissi has staked his legitimacy on fixing the economy and restoring security to the Arab world’s most populous country, and the three-day conference had sought a clear sign of international confidence in its political stability, after a 2011 revolt that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, followed by military rule and the one-year reign of an elected but divisive president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi.

Since Morsi’s ouster, led by then-army chief el-Sissi, the government has cracked down hard on his Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists and secular and liberal activists, with hundreds killed and thousands imprisoned.

The country is also fighting Islamic militants in a corner of the Sinai Peninsula a few hundred kilometres (miles) to the north, a long-running insurgency that picked up after Morsi’s overthrow.

In recent weeks, militants have shifted their focus to a campaign of small bombings aimed at local and foreign business interests in Cairo and other cities, including an American fast food chain, a branch of an Emirati bank, French supermarket chain Carrefour and foreign mobile phone service companies.

While the government’s fierce crackdown on Islamist opponents has killed hundreds, landed some 20,000 people in prison, and brought heavy criticism over the last 20 months, none of that prevented global players from attending the conference, reaffirming their commitments to the country and boosting investments.

“With 22 heads of state and 3,500 delegates, it’s the largest summit of CEOs and world leaders I’ve ever seen,” said event organizer Richard Attias, who has also arranged the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

For his Sunday speech, a jubilant el-Sissi invited young Egyptian organizers to join him at the podium, where several took photos of themselves with him, joining in a chant of his oft-used slogan “long live Egypt!”

Smiling wide and belting hearty laughs in the 35-minute address, el-Sissi joked about how he drove hard bargains with top multinational executives to reduce prices, deliver ahead of schedule and allow longer grace periods for loan repayments.

He singled out Germany’s Siemens, which signed a $10.5 billion agreement to boost Egypt’s deficient electricity generation, and the United States’ General Electric for special praise, saying they had done service for the country.

“When somebody stands beside us they will not be forgotten, he said, applauding Siemens for securing financing for the deal, and adding that Egypt needed as much as $300 billion in investments to rebuild and give the country’s 90 million people a genuine hope to live well.

“We are behind, and those who are late must either speed-walk or run,” he said, imploring his compatriots to “never underestimate your capacities to work for the sake of your country.”

Authorities said investors committed $10.7 billion to other projects on Saturday, including a $6.5 billion deal with Egypt’s Orascom group and the Abu Dhabi-owned International Petroleum Investment Co. to build a coal-fired power plant over four years. Announcements continued throughout the day Sunday, including initial agreements for a $4 billion investment by British Gas.

The summit has been dominated by a common theme agreed upon by both government and private sector participants: the need for broader privatization and a much larger role for private companies than during the Mubarak era, when Egypt was booming but windfall profits failed to reach the country’s most needy.

Leaders agreed that “inclusive growth” should be the goal going forward, as a way to alleviate discontent and prevent a repeat of 2011. In one panel discussion, Investment Minister Ashraf Salman said “the bureaucratic system needs to be totally destroyed.”