* Sisi's main plan based on proposal from 1985
* Corruption, unemployment, budget deficit threaten economy
* Foreign investors want clarity on taxes, currency,
By Stephen Kalin
CAIRO, May 22 Days before a presidential
election he seems certain to win, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi released
a detailed, colour-coded rendering of "The Map of the Future",
designed to reassure Egyptians he is serious about attracting
investment in their battered economy.
But the idea is nearly 30 years old and was never
implemented because of its high cost.
Like much of the programme Sisi has hinted at in media
appearances, the map draws on practices from the era of
President Hosni Mubarak, prompting more accusations that the
former army chief is a product of the old regime.
Sisi, who was Mubarak's military intelligence chief before
ousting elected Islamist leader Mohamed Mursi last July, has set
out a bare-bones economic vision underpinned by age-old
dominance of state institutions, including the army, and the
hard work of ordinary Egyptians.
But voters and investors - even those supporting Sisi - have
been left mostly with vague plans to remedy the economy,
suffering from corruption, high unemployment, and a widening
budget deficit aggravated by fuel subsidies that could cost
nearly $19 billion in the next fiscal year.
The centrepiece of Sisi's platform - the map - involves the
state building cities in the desert to enable a burgeoning
population to live on 100 percent of the land. Egyptians
currently occupy six percent.
"The vision aspires to achieve unprecedented rates of
development and effect a quantum leap in the Egyptian economy
after the way is cleared by the new administrative and
investment maps for the provinces," his platform said.
Farouk El-Baz, a geologist who once worked for NASA, told
Reuters he drew up the plan in 1985 - in the fourth year of
Mubarak's 30-year rule when Egypt's population was 50 million
compared to the current 85 million.
The "development corridor" that Baz designed includes a
railroad, an eight-lane highway, water and electricity lines and
fully developed towns and cities on 10.5 million acres of
untouched land west of the Nile.
Sisi's project appears even larger, with 48 new cities,
eight airports, fish farms and renewable energy projects
generating 10,000 MW of power.
Baz told Reuters Mubarak was not initially interested in the
plan. Baz then spent years lobbying the government only to have
the plan dismissed in 2005 after a ministerial committee found
its $23.7 billion price tag exorbitant.
Days after declaring his candidacy for president in March,
Sisi turned to Baz and in four private meetings they discussed
the corridor, Sisi's keystone, Baz told Reuters.
Sisi has said he will rely on contributions from Egyptians
living abroad, foreign investment and continued Gulf aid already
at $20 billion to finance the project's cost, which he estimates
at $140 billion.
"They're almost suggesting that concerted state efforts in
certain realms will magically solve Egypt's problems," said
Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert at George Washington University.
"That's not a programme."
ECHOES OF NASSER
Sisi has consulted with international experts including
Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, World Economic Forum head
Philipp Roesler and Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
His outreach suggests he is aware of the magnitude of the
challenge and wants to rescue an economy hammered by street
protests and political violence since Mubarak's fall in 2011.
"The key to my vision is decisions and approaches that open
the doors to modernisation, labour, development and diligence
before all Egyptians equally. It is the first of its kind," Sisi
said in the opening to his electoral programme.
"You don't usually find the same person supported by the
extreme left and the extreme right at the same time, and by the
rich and the poor," said Abla Abdel-Latif, a member of the
committee that advised Sisi in preparing his programme.
"So he has the political will and the tools to try and do
things, and the programme that he's presenting is actually
taking care of things."
Contradictions between past and present statements makes it
difficult to pin down Sisi's intentions.
In 2006, he wrote that the Middle East's economic problems
had been made worse by attempts "to sustain government
controlled markets instead of free markets".
Nowadays Sisi has largely avoided using free market
rhetoric, referring to the private sector mostly in appeals to
help protect the poor and implement state-led development plans.
A national project on this grand scale draws comparisons to
the High Dam in Aswan, a legacy of President Gamal Abdel Nasser
to whom Sisi is often fondly compared.
Under Nasser in the 1950s, the state took on the role of
provider and protector, implementing a welfare state buttressed
by the Arab world's biggest army.
Subsidised food, housing, education, healthcare - and dreams
of Egyptian glory symbolised by the High Dam - won Nasser
legendary status, but lavish state spending proved
The public sector has since ballooned and the military -
with a budget shielded from oversight - has accrued a business
empire some estimate at up to 40 percent of the economy. Sisi
says it is more like two percent.
His map plays well with a domestic audience eager for
visionary leadership, though outsiders are less impressed.
"The general concern is that he believes the state can solve
a lot of problems, although part of the issue in terms of state
manufacturing is that it has problems of its own, so there is a
risk he could just be layering on more problems," said Ahmed
Badreldin, a partner at private equity firm Abraaj Capital.
Investors are unlikely to return to Egypt without knowing
what will happen to a weakening currency, a changing tax regime
and a huge subsidies programme slated for reform.
"We need to have a clear strategy in these three segments
... regardless of the change of government," said Ahmed El
Sheikh, PepsiCo's business unit general manager for North East
"So I know I'm going to take a hit in an evolutionary manner
instead of (a) revolutionary (manner)."
Although diplomats don't doubt that Sisi is determined to
improve the economy and create opportunities for Egyptians, the
lack of a realistic plan raises concerns.
Investors agree that the economic team Sisi puts in place
will be at least as important as any specific policies.
Given Sisi's long army career, he may rely on military
advisers. After all the military is believed to control a vast
economic empire ranging from automobiles to tablet computers and
has been seen as more efficient than Egyptian governments.
But some doubt that will be enough.
"Sisi is a child of cronyism and militarism, so will find it
hard to mount a convincing reform agenda," said Daniel Broby,
chief executive of investment boutique Gemfonds.
($1 = 7.1249 Egyptian Pounds)
(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Tom Perry; Editing
by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood)