An Egyptian trade official, Ibrahim Shahin, was here last week trying to dispel the myth that the only exports his country has to offer are sand, camels and harem girls.
He acknowledged that the products Egypt can deliver are not yet up to American standards. The Egyptians are too used to selling to other Arabs.
"Arabs don't insist on high quality," Shahin said. "But they pay good prices."
Even with the inflated prices some Arabs are willing to pay, Egypt still has problems reducing its $1.4 billion trade deficit. At the invitation of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which conducted a trade mission to Egypt last November, Shahin, chairman of the newly created Egyptian Export Promotion Centre in Cairo, came here to lay the groundwork for District and other American merchants to sell Egyptian goods and thereby reduce their trade imbalance.
As a result of the D.C. Chamber's November trade mission to Egypt, District firms are expected to gain about $200 million in contracts. Since the trip, one D.C. firm has returned to Cairo to firm up a contract and another is helping to build a housing project, according to chamber Senator Vice President Edward van Kloberg.
That trip was intended to drum up exports from District firms. So what can District business owners get out of importing from the Egyptians? "Money," Shahin laughed. "We are going to give (a business person) VIP visits when he comes, take trips to places he's interested, try to make it also not so much of a) business trip . . . the opportunity to see much of our treasures. This is what we can do."
But will American extrepreneurs want to sell Egyptian vegetables, citrus fruits, leather goods and "old style" steel and wooden furniture? This is one question Shahin said he is trying to answer.
Shahin said the Egyptian government wants to increase its world exports from about $1.5 billion now to about $3.5 billion by 1982 to help feed and shelter the country's 40 million citizens, many of whom mainly live on beans and bread. Sure, there are a few Mercedes careening down Egypt's dusty roads, but there are many more pushcarts rolling beside the Nile.
"We're trying to reach targets through different ways," Shahin said. His office is seeking "personal contact with U.S. buyers and Egyptian exporters" so that "they will definitely know each other's points of view." The Egyptians also will send a group of business people and government officials to the District this spring to help set up some business deals.
In addition, the Egyptians will conduct an international trade fair next month. It is expected to attract business representatives from about 45 countries, including some from the United States and the District.
The Egyptians also want American know-how to help them develop manufacturing capabilities and increase agricultural production, not only for their own direct benefit, but so that they can produce more for export. For example, one recent Washington traveler to the ancient Egyptian City of Luxor said he was startled to see a farmer plowing a small plot of earth with a wooden plow, a cow and a camel.
A list of imports and exports supplied by Shahin also tells part of Egypt's trade story. Although Egypt imports all types of raw and finished products from wheat to electrical generators and transformers, it exports oil and agricultural products such as cotton, onions, potatoes, oranges, beans and flax. Its finished products include white rice, refined sugars, cotton cloth, ready-made clothing, wine and beer, leather goods, furniture, and a relatively new commodity -- aluminum.
Aluminum is "a new export product that's going to be important later," Shahin said. By the beginning of the next decade, Shahin said he hopes Egypt will be exporting more aluminum, iron products for construction and electronics equipment along with more industrial goods.
The Egyptians said they are interested in small and medium-sized buyers rather than large corporations. Large firms are good for joint ventures, investments and large projects, Shahin said. But trade experts also say that large corporations are not very interested in the currently-low-quality goods that Egypt can supply.
"We would like to export cotton, but that's decreasing," Shahin said. American markets have enough of their own cotton, he explained. "We are trying to reach the takeoff stage with our textiles. Our textiles are not yet adapted to your specifications."
Shahin said he hopes to determine through a study with the D.C. Chamber what products would be suited to American consumers in particular areas of the country. The chamber also arranged for Shahin to meet with officials and business owners in Dallas last week and New York this week. In addition, the study will help the Egyptians determine how they can tailor their goods to American tastes.
In the last five years the Egyptian government has advocated more of an open-door policy toward trade, Shahin said.
As an underdeveloped country it has suffered from limited industrial development and training. Its exports have been growing at only about one percent a year, but United Nations guidelines have suggested that that figure should be about 7 percent, Shahin said.
Egypt's exports of petroleum are growing and are expected to bring in more than $1 billion by the end of the year, he added. That is up 50 percent from last year's level.
Before exports can drastically increase, Shahin said that the export center must develop incentives for Egyptians to export and remove some disincentives.