* Qatar says "not yet"
* Top energy officials fired over supply problems
* Egyptians call on government to admit financial woes
* Analyst gloomy on economic, political outlook
By Regan Doherty and Yasmine Saleh
DOHA/CAIRO, March 11 Egypt's wealthy benefactor
Qatar dampened speculation on Monday of rapid extra funding to
help Cairo through a currency and budget crisis, as pressure
grows at home on the Islamist government to come clean about the
state of the economy.
With public anger rising over shortages of diesel fuel, the
Cairo government dismissed two top energy industry officials
over distribution problems, but sceptical Egyptians say they
think the state no longer has the money to import enough oil.
Cairo wants to negotiate a $4.8 billion IMF loan to rebuild
its dollar reserves and confidence in the Egyptian pound, but
analysts say a full deal seems unlikely for months as the
country endures protests, violence and uncertainty over the date
of parliamentary elections.
Speculation has been rife in Cairo that President Mohamed
Mursi would turn again to Qatar, which has already helped out
with soft loans and deposits at the Egyptian central bank in the
two years since the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
However, Qatari Finance Minister Youssef Kamal disappointed
hopes that more money was on its way soon. "We already announced
$5 billion," he told Reuters. Asked whether Doha expected to
provide more, he replied: "Not yet." He did not elaborate.
Qatar reveals few details of its financial transactions and
it is unclear if the $5 billion in help for Cairo it has
announced has been fully disbursed.
Egypt's needs are urgent. Qatar's money so far has failed to
reverse a slide in its foreign currency reserves to $13.5
billion at the end of February - enough to cover little more
than two months' imports.
In a sign of economic stress, Petroleum Minister Osama Kamal
dismissed the head of state-owned Misr Petroleum and a top
official in the petroleum authority on Sunday, blaming them for
a crisis in distributing diesel used by buses and trucks.
The state news agency MENA reported that Kamal had ordered
the supply of an extra million litres of diesel to military-run
filling stations, aiming to ease shortages which have been
dragging on for months.
Increasingly, Egyptians are unwilling to accept that fuel
shortages are due merely to official incompetence.
Prominent TV anchor Lamis el-Hadidy challenged the official
accounts. "Again, they are telling us that the problem lies with
the amount of fuel in filling stations, not with cash or that
the government has no money to import fuel," she said.
"They have to stop saying that and be frank with the
people," she yelled on air on the CBC private satellite station,
which is mostly critical of Mursi and his Islamist backers,
after reading the news of the dismissals.
International traders say Egypt has cut back on planned oil
imports, cancelling one crude purchase tender and reducing the
size of another for gasoil. "They need oil but they have no
money," said one trader last week.
Tensions are rising on the streets of Egyptian cities, with
protests and violence frequently erupting over a variety of
grievances. Behind the immediate causes lies a general malaise
as Egyptians struggle with falling living standards, pushing
ever greater numbers into outright poverty.
EGYPTIANS DEMAND HONESTY
Egyptians want Mursi's government to be more honest with its
people. "This is a failed government that is unable to face up
to its problems and challenges, and that is why it finds it so
difficult to confess them to the people," said Ahmed Mohamed, a
70-year-old retried private company employee.
"Soon it will have to admit the problems when it can no
longer buy the fuel. Given the recent economic signs, this stage
will come soon," he told Reuters on a street in downtown Cairo.
Inflation jumped to 8.2 percent in the year to February from
6.3 percent the previous month, with an even greater rise in
food and drink prices particularly hurting the poor.
The central bank succeeded in bringing the fall in currency
reserves almost to halt last month, but only by rationing the
supply of dollars to commercial banks.
This is crippling small and medium-sized private businesses,
which are forced to buy dollars on the black market at exchange
rates that often wipe out their profits. Long-term economic
damage is likely unless currency supplies improve rapidly.
The government is putting on a brave face, saying it has no
need of any bridging loans from the International Monetary Fund
to keep the state running until after parliamentary elections.
"The cure for the budget deficit needs broad structural
measures and the help we are requesting from the IMF is not
quick fixes," Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby said on Sunday.
Energy subsidies are putting a huge burden on the state
budget as the falling pound inflates the cost of oil imports,
and the government forecasts the deficit will hit 12.3 percent
of Egypt's entire annual economic output this financial year
unless reforms are made rapidly.
The IMF has yet to respond publicly to Egypt's invitation
for loan talks and analysts say it seems reluctant to negotiate
on a full deal during the current political chaos.
Last month Mursi called parliamentary elections to start in
April, only for a court to cancel his decree. Now no one knows
when voting will get underway.
This turmoil is hurting business. Telecom Egypt
reported a 12.8 percent fall in its full-year net profit on
Monday. This was partly due to customers switching from its
fixed line services to mobile phones.
However, the firm also blamed the economy, although Chief
Executive Mohamed Elnawawy said he was optimistic about the
long-term business and political outlook.
Samir Azmi, head of technical analysis at Blom Egypt
Securities, was more cautious. "Nothing keeps going down for
ever, but I can't see any other practical reasons behind such
optimism as long the status of the country remains unchanged,"