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Cablegate: Subsidy Reform Progressing Slowly - Goe Looks To


DE RUEHEG #2309/01 3511348
P 171348Z DEC 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L CAIRO 002309



E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/17/2014

REF: 08 CAIRO 2279 Classified By: Econ-Political Minister-Counselor Donald Blome for Reaso ns 1.4 (b) and (d).
1.(SBU) KEY POINTS -- The GOE is debating proposals to reform the subsidies for bread and bottled gas for cooking and heating. -- Proposed changes to the bread subsidy would get the GOE out of the bread business in favor a cash transfer program with significant savings for the government, though policy makers are extremely wary of touching one of the most politically-sensitive subsidy programs. -- Butane subsidy changes would eliminate diversion of subsidized gas from its intended household beneficiaries. The likely first step is a paper-voucher program. -- Though the government's cost of subsidies dropped by over 40% this year as a result of lower commodity prices, the bill will inevitable grow quickly as the world economic situation recovers. If the GOE doesn't act now to reduce the fiscal burden of subsidies, it may face less even less palatable choices in the future. ----------------------- Plans, But no Consensus -----------------------

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2.(C) In a December 13 meeting, Noha Kaptan, Information Infrastructure Advisor to the Minister of Social Solidarity (MOSS), told us that as of yet there were no clear plans to implement reforms for either bread or energy subsidies. Kaptan, who is the Minister's primary advisor on deployment of new subsidy IT infrastructure, confirmed that the GOE is continuing to see a 20% savings in the cost of food subsidies as the move from paper ration cards to smart cards eliminates supply-chain inefficiencies. The rollout of smart cards is progressing, she said, but the GOE is about six months behind on its implementation schedule (ref. A). Kaptan said that the smart card or "family card," which replaces the paper ration cards that have been used by Egyptians for decades, are now being used by seven million families in 20 governorates. The remaining five million families in the other 9 governorates are expected to have smart cards by the end of June 2010. Following the 2009 expansion of the food subsidy program to cover Egyptians born between 1988 and 2005, 80% of Egypt's population is eligible for subsidized food products. --------------------------- Reforming the Bread Subsidy ---------------------------

3.(C) Kaptan told us that the GOE had made no decisions regarding a possible conversion of the bread subsidy program from an in-kind subsidy to cash transfer. The current proposal most often mentioned and which has been covered in the Egytian press would replace the massive state-run network of granaries, millers, and bakers with a cash subsidy of approximately LE13.50 (US$2.47) per month for every Egyptian. (Note: this calculation is based on an average consumption of 3 loaves per person per day at 15 piasters (US$.03) per loaf. End note.) According to its 2009/10 budget, the GOE will spend LE 10 billion (US$1.83 billion) on the bread subsidy in the current fiscal year.

4.(C) Kaptan said that there is some concern among policy makers about the inflationary effect of a cash-transfer system and that it was being weighed against the savings generated by eliminating a large and hugely inefficient bureaucracy. Reforming the bread subsidy has been talked about for decades, but the GOE fears serious public backlash against changing a system which most Egyptians feel is their right and the clear responsibility of the government to maintain. The bread riots of 1977 are never far from the minds of policy makers looking at subsidy reform, and more recently, in March 2008, the military was called in to bake and distribute bread when shortages emerged as a result of high quantities of subsidized flour being diverted to the black market. ----------------------------------------- Small Steps Toward Energy Subsidy Reform? -----------------------------------------

5.(SBU) The GOE continues to look at ways to tame the energy subsidy budget, which most analysts, as well as many in the Egyptian government, see as increasingly unsustainable. According to the official budget, the GOE will spend LE 33.7 billion (US$6.16 billion) on direct petroleum subsidies in its current fiscal year, down from LE 58.6 billion (US$10.71 billion) last year. (Note: Any reduction is spending is entirely driven by the fall in global oil prices this year. Actual consumption volumes continue to increase. In addition, some industry experts believe that direct petroleum subsidies both last year and this year are significantly higher than official GOE figures. End note.)

6.(U) One of the areas that the GOE is looking to drive cost savings though increased efficiency is in the supply of bottled butane gas to consumers. Of Egypt's 15 million households, only two million have access to piped natural gas, and the remaining families use butane cylinders that are distributed locally by cart. The butane is heavily subsidized, with the GOE paying LE40 (US$7.31) for each butane cylinder that it sells to the public at LE2.5 (US$.46) (Note: despite the LE2.5 official price, most distributors actually provide the butane at LE4-5 as they try to recoup their costs and generate a small profit. End note.). The butane subsidy will cost the GOE approximately LE7.7 billion (US$1.42 billion) in 2009/10. This subsidy is not means-tested and is available to all Egyptians. Many of these cylinders are not used for their intended purpose, but are instead diverted to businesses, restaurants, and farms.

7.(C) The current proposal, according to Kaptan, though still in the discussion phase, would be to convert the butane subsidy to a paper voucher system. Under this system, each family would receive 18 vouchers per year (based on an average family consumption of 1.5 cylinders per month) which would entitle them to purchase cylinders at LE5 (a price that builds in cost-recovery for the sellers). Any additional cylinders would have to be purchased at market prices. Unused vouchers could be kept for the future or, according the Kaptan, sold to others. Under the new proposal, there would still be no means testing and all Egyptian families that do not have access to piped gas would be eligible for the vouchers. Though it might be a future option, using the smart card infrastructure to deliver this subsidy is not likely in the near term since, unlike in the grocery stores that deliver subsidized commodity products, butane sellers have no fixed infrastructure or capacity to handle a smart-card implementation. ------- Comment -------

8.(C) Despite stories in the press and a number of ideas being floated regarding subsidy reform, there appears to be only halting progress toward reform. Though the continued smart-card implementation will result in some increased efficiency in distribution, real savings will not come until the GOE moves to better targeting of its subsidies and movement away from government-run subsidy delivery in favor of a cash-transfer system. The commodity, bread, and butane cylinder subsidies together only represent about 30% of the government's total subsidy spending, and we have not seen any serious proposals to tackle other areas, such as subsidies for diesel fuel and gasoline which will cost the GOE in excess of LE23.3 billion (US$4.26 billion) in fiscal 2009/10.

9.(C) The global decrease in oil and commodity prices has helped Egypt lower its overall subsidy bill from LE132.81 billion (US$24.28 billion) in 2008/09 LE 73.39 billion (US$13.42 billion) in 2009/10. (Note: even this lower subsidy bill exceeds the GOE's combined spending on health and education. End Note.) Despite this, shortfalls in revenue have driven up the Egyptian fiscal deficit to 8% of GDP in the current fiscal year, up from 6.9% in 2008/09. As both oil and commodity prices recover in tandem with the global financial situation, the fiscal stress of the subsidy bill for a growing Egyptian population will be exacerbated. It is unclear at this point if the political challenges of taking on entrenched entitlement programs heading into an election season will outweigh the necessity of taking prudent measures in the near term before the subsidy burden becomes so fiscally unsustainable that drastic and perhaps badly-planned action will be forced on policy makers. Scobey

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