WASHINGTON: Egypt’s trade minister on Tuesday courted badly needed US investment with a promise Cairo would maintain open markets, and said the Egyptian government was open to pursuing free trade talks with the United States.
"Let me emphasize that Egypt is still the most competitive business environment in the region, with a domestic market of 85 million people," Egyptian Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade Mahmoud Eisa said in a speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, a leading business group.
Eisa said the main purpose of his trip to Washington was to assure the US government and global companies Egypt would continue a business-friendly environment as it writes a new constitution and then holds a presidential election in June.
"No change in policies. No change in anything," Eisa said, referring to the country’s economic agenda.
Much of Egypt’s economy has been on hold since its military-backed government rejected a $3 billion finance offer from the International Monetary Fund in June.
Investment has largely dried up as a slide in foreign reserves threatens a currency crisis and as the policies of democratically elected government due to replace the army remains uncertain.
On Monday, Egypt began talks with the IMF on a new $3.2 billion dollar support package.
Those talks are expected to take two to three months to work out technical details and bring other donors on board, IMF regional director Masood Ahmed said.
The US Chamber of Commerce has urged the United States and Egypt to work toward a bilateral free trade agreement, similar to ones that Washington already has in the region with Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Bahrain.
Eisa, who will meet on Wednesday with US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, told reporters, "We are not asking for this. But we are not objecting if the United States asks to open this."
However, he stressed Egypt was only interested in a "purely economic" free trade agreement and not any pact that would impose political or social obligations on Cairo.
In the short term, the best thing Washington could do to help is to create new "incentives" for US companies to invest in Egypt, he said, without elaborating how.
Egypt already benefits from a special US trade preference program that provides duty-free access for Egyptian goods manufactured with inputs from Israel.
In a separate speech, Deputy US Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro said the United States was examining both short- and long-term initiatives to help Egypt.
It is critical that Egypt be able to quickly deliver "concrete results" for its people, as well as embark on longer-term economic reforms, she said.
She urged Egyptian companies to take greater advantage of opportunities to export to the United States under the Generalized System of Preferences program, which waives import duties on many goods from poor countries.
Last year, Egypt exported more than $50 million worth of goods to the United States under the program, but did not seek duty waivers for many eligible products such as car parts, carpets and fruit juices, she said.