BUSINESS SECTOR PRESSING CAIRO TO ACCELERATE PRIVATIZATION

BUSINESS SECTOR PRESSING CAIRO TO ACCELERATE PRIVATIZATION

Egypt is finally making headway in privatizing its bloated public sector, but the country's business community is calling for even faster reform.

Business executives and economists here fear Egypt will miss out as other countries move toward free-market economies."It's very important that we go and sell and privatize and that we do it very quickly. If we spend two years making legislation by that time I see (Russian) President Yeltsin selling 100 percent of everything Russia owns," said one Egyptian executive with a U.S. firm.

"A Saudi (investor) goes to Beirut and in two to three days he buys something. He comes here and in six months he leaves empty-handed," the executive said.

The government is expected in a month or so to appoint a board of directors and governing councils for each of the holding companies that will control 400 of Egypt's state-owned companies. One-half of the board members will be experts, the other half will be employees.

Each board will serve a three-year term, subject to yearly performance reviews. In the next two to three months, the new Public Enterprise Office will determine the value of public firms to prepare them for sale or restructuring.

Business executives and economists say more is needed, however. They argue the government should spend less time creating laws to sell off state companies.

In addition, buyers should be the ones to determine the real value of public companies, instead of waiting months for the government to do this, they said.

They urged the government to educate the man on the street about privatization, saying the public still fears losing jobs, pensions, schooling for their children and other state-induced benefits.

Some contend the government will never fully relinquish ownership of its public companies.

"I am afraid we are not of the same understanding of what is privatization," said one Egyptian business man, who declined to be identified. "From the point of view of the government, is it transferring the ownership of companies or just liberalization?"

The government claims, however, it is committed to fully selling public firms, but it must be done gradually.

"We are ready to make all public (companies private), but we need time," said one official. "We can't change people in a few years."

The government is afraid of the repercussions of thousands of people losing jobs as a result of privatization. Memories of the 1977 bread riots, where Egyptians protested a sudden increase in the price of bread are still vivid.

Ministers are afraid of losing power. The government is also moving slowly to ensure the first sales of assets are successful.

On the bright side, business executives concede that government attitudes are changing for the better.

"There is no question Egypt is serious about pursuing public sector reforms and privatization, and in my judgment political commitment is the key to any such program. This does exist in Egypt today," said T. Samir Helmy, a partner of the international law firm Baker & McKenzie.