Expats from the United States, Europe or elsewhere should find little difficulty in opening a personal bank account in Egypt. It's a matter of producing the required official documentation – passport, work visa and residence certificate. A letter from the bank back home should also help in the application process as will a couple of recent bank statements. And that's about it. Of course, you'll need to be earning a decent monthly salary; too, otherwise the application is likely to end up in the waste paper bin.
Sadly, for the great majority of Egyptians, a simple bank account remains well out of reach. At first glance, that may seem surprising given the large number of bank branches and cash machines visible in the major cities, towns and major tourist attractions. Appearances, however, are a little bit deceptive. The truth is the handsome salary you may – or may not – be earning is likely to be unusual when compared to the earnings power of most of Egypt's citizens, especially those living and working in the remoter rural communities.
For there the average monthly wage earned is likely to be well shy of $100, and therefore representative of a market considered much too small to invest in and to develop by the major banks. So there are no branches to serve Egypt's rural citizenry. Given the political and economic challenges faced by the country over the last year or two, it's a situation that appears hardly likely to change any time soon. Or is it?
Recently, the Egyptian banking sector has come in for some criticism over its reluctance to lend to institutions other than large corporate firms or government entities, both areas regarded as traditional safe havens. Understandable, perhaps, given all that's happened since the January 2011 revolution.
According to John Beck, writing in The Banker, the world's premier banking and finance resource which is read in over 180 countries around the world, conditions have not been easy for Egypt's banking sector. Currency woes and a flight of foreign capital have inevitably impacted an industry that had been enjoying several years of double-digit growth up until early 2011. But the industry has also proven remarkably robust and a number of banks have continued to perform strongly.
However, the conservative nature of the banking sector's portfolios has led some to criticise its reluctance to lend outside the large corporate or government arena and its traditional disregard of a sector that could drive growth in the Egyptian economy – small-scale business.
Hoda Selim, an economist with Cairo-based Economic Research Forum, is quoted in The Banker article as saying, “The financial sector is just lending to the government. It prefers, in general, to invest in Treasury bills than in the private sector.”
And Dalia Abdel Kader, head of sustainable banking and director of marketing and mass communication with Arab African International Bank, says lending to businesses outside the top tier of corporates could help the rest of the economy climb out of a rut, boosting growth and employment levels.
Egypt's small businesses are not the only ones to be under-served by the banking industry. Less than 15% of its 80 million population have bank accounts. Here too, says Ms Kader, benefits are multi-faceted. Catering to a population that has been largely ignored by the banking sector boosts financial inclusion, but also unlocks many potential customers from what she describes as “the bottom of the pyramid”.
Editor's note: I am happy to share the information provided by my guest writer today. Information about Egypt and the ways of life always interest me. I had a friend, years back, who was laid off from his 9-5 job, and decided to make a big leap. He moved to Egypt for several years and taught English to Egyptian young adults. His stories were eye opening, and it was always interesting to see the differences in the way of life, including many of the things that we take for granted. Like a bank account.