Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Country Unapologetic about Its Perpetual State of Cash Shortage

On his way out of Egypt, the author goes to the foreign exchange counter at Cairo Airport to get his Egyptian Pounds changed into Jordanian Dinar for the next leg of the journey.  It is a transaction that cannot be any more mundane for banks at the international terminal of a country’s main international gateway.  As the author goes up to the bank counter in the departure, he gets a blank stare and from the guy behind the counter.  Before the author opens his mouth, the guy harshly says, “No."  

"Sorry, I would like to change some Egyptian Pounds..." the author, caught unprepared, inquires timidly.

"Only have Egyptian here, nothing else."  The guy states, without a slightest hint of apology.

"Where to get foreign exchange then?"  The author is a bit agitated.

The guy just shrugs, "Nowhere else around here.  No exchange inside (i.e. beyond immigration counters), and none outside.  There is no foreign cash anywhere around here."  He remains nonchalant, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that not being able to get rid of local cash would pose how big of an issue to the average international traveler.  "Go use Egyptian pounds at the duty-free shops, they might give you some foreign cash in change."  With that statement, he waves the author off, going back to counting the stacks of Egyptian pounds in hands.

Dismayed, the author follows the advice of the foreign exchange guy.  Making a purchase priced at rather odd amounts, the author hands over a 50 pound note for something that cost 36 pounds.  As change, he gets a 10-pound note back from the poker-faced girl behind the counter.  "Sorry, no change," the girl tersely states before moving to the next customer, again, without the slightest sense of apology.  The guy immediately after get the same treatment, much to his surprise.  Trying to argue back, he simply gets a blank look from the girl, obviously she is not in the mood for argument.

As horrible as this turn of events is from a customer service perspective, it is more or less the norm in Egypt.  Even in daily life, the shortage of petty cash, in Egyptian pounds or otherwise, is quite grave.  Foreign exchange bureaus in town frequently have nothing that can be given, and shops even refuse service when the shop-owner finds out the customer has no exact change for products or service purchased.  Locals, individuals and shops, break up big bills at every opportunity while hoard valuable small change, often resorting to lies just to keep them in possession.

What is more bothersome than the fact that change is frequently not available is how this reality is routinely used as a convenient way to overcharge.  It is already bad enough that tourists are hassled for often exorbitant sums of money as tips for petty services, but when those tips are given in larger bills because no small change is available, the receiver simply keeps the whole thing, citing how small bills for change is hard to come by before quickly walking away.  It simply adds to another layer of unseen costs for daily transactions. 

The frequency of small cash, even when it is truly genuine, being unavailable is so great that the cynical side of the author is somehow led to believe that the Central Bank here deliberately limit the amount of small bills printed.  It is hard to understand why that would be the case (it could be ludicrous to think how it will increase consumer spending or keep limited foreign currency within the country's borders) but it is also hard to understand, how, after living amongst the people, the monetary policymakers of the country cannot notice the problem.

Either way, the lack of small change has become sort of an accepted norm in the country.  Unlike more cosmopolitan Beirut, Cairo is not a city that gladly accept US dollars in daily usage.  And given the economic issues that the country is facing after the Revolution, it is hard to see how even locals with their stagnant incomes will be consistently okay with persistent lack of small money for daily use.  Petty as the issue seems, it could amplify itself to become a significant economic, and by extension, political issue for the general public over time.  

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