New billboards across Egypt's capital extol austerity

FILE -- In this Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2016 file photo, a man looks at a women's boutique with discounted prices attached to the clothes in downtown Cairo, Egypt. Hundreds of giant billboards and street signs have gone up in Egypt’s capital bearing messages of austerity and hope seemingly designed to prepare Egyptians for sweeping economic reforms. Witnesses say the advertisements, which are concentrated in the heart of the capital and on its main artery roads, went up on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)
A motorist drives past a government billboard in Cairo, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, which reads in Arabic: "We sure can ... boost our exports and increase our resources. Oh, Egypt, With bold reforms, we shorten the road." Billboards and street signs have gone up across Egypt’s capital extolling austerity and hope, part of a pro-government public relations campaign aimed at preparing Egyptians for sweeping economic reforms. (AP Photo/Hamza Hendawi)

CAIRO — Billboards and street signs have gone up across Egypt's capital extolling austerity and hope, part of a pro-government public relations campaign aimed at preparing Egyptians for sweeping economic reforms.

The advertising blitz follows last month's provisional agreement by the International Monetary Fund to give Egypt a $12 billion loan over three years to help President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government overhaul the ailing economy.

The agreement has yet to be ratified by the IMF's executive board, but the first installment of the loan is expected to be disbursed later this year.

The campaign's main slogan is: "Oh, Egypt, with bold reforms, we shorten the road." Other messages include "Fear and skepticism lengthen the road," as well as "Rationalize our consumption, reduce our imports."

Egypt is expected to gradually lift state subsidies on fuel, basic services and food items as part of its reform program. It is also expected to devalue or float its currency, the pound, to bolster exports and stamp out a flourishing black market in U.S. dollars.

Such moves would help wean Egypt off of billions of dollars in foreign aid -- mainly from Gulf countries -- which has propped up the economy since el-Sissi led the 2013 military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, an elected Islamist.

The decision to take the government's message to the streets reflects concern that the reforms, which are likely to trigger a surge in prices, could spark popular unrest. Past governments have faced protests, strikes and violence when they have sought to curb subsidies.

El-Sissi has repeatedly warned Egyptians in recent weeks that "difficult" economic decisions lay ahead and vowed to introduce measures to protect the neediest from price increases. El-Sissi partially lifted fuel subsidies in 2014 without sparking any significant unrest. Last month, his government partially lifted subsidies on domestic electricity.

"There must be appropriate solutions to achieve reform even if they are temporarily painful," el-Sissi told the editors of three state-owned newspapers last month. "But we are working to lighten the burden on those with limited incomes and the middle class."

On Thursday, scores of Egyptian mothers with crying babies in their arms protested a severe shortage of subsidized baby formula. The Cairo protest, though small, offered a glimpse of what authorities may face if subsidies on main items are reduced or lifted.

The shortage has led to allegations of corruption as well as suggestions that the military's planned intervention to resolve the crisis was designed in part to enhance its image as the nation's savior.

The chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Sameer, rejected the allegations, saying on his Facebook page that the armed forces and the Health Ministry were working together to break the "greedy monopoly" of baby formula importers and would import the formula directly.

Egypt's economy has been battered in the five years since an uprising toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. Its vital tourism sector has been decimated and remittances have declined. Inflation and unemployment rates are in double digits and the pound has been steadily losing value against the dollar.

The government has meanwhile waged a far-reaching crackdown on dissent since 2013, jailing thousands of protesters and other dissidents while battling Islamic State-linked militants in the Sinai Peninsula.

Pro-government talk-show hosts are already seeking to link any unrest over price increases to foreign conspiracies, without offering any evidence, and warning that Egypt could meet the same fate as war-torn Syria or Iraq.

Others have pushed back against such rhetoric, arguing that the government should lead by example if it expects ordinary Egyptians to tighten their purse strings.

"It is not possible to convince a hungry man to endure his suffering so the state can get on its feet again when he does not see one state institution adopting austerity, any measures to ensure a fair distribution of the burden among the businessmen, the middle class and the poor or any showdown with institutionalized corruption," prominent columnist Abdullah el-Sennawy wrote Friday.

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