Egypt’s 1980s Ponzi schemes
The biggest businesses in Egypt in the 1980s were pyramid schemes. You had the likes of El Rayan, El Saad, and El Sherif offering over 25% “guaranteed returns” on savings in an age when the risk-free rate was closer 9% — and people bought-in en masse. As the market was liberalized, following Sadat’s trade liberalisation policies in the 1970s, Egypt started to expand and had its investors searching for profitable and flexible financing solutions, which were not yet available at the time. The 1974 investment law, still the law of the land at the time, did not provide the solutions needed to capture and promote this wave of investment. The schemes at the time that tried to fill that gap operated as wealth management funds, claiming to invest in local projects and promised high returns (not interest, because of the religious tinge they decided to give their schemes).
The cautious avoidance of the word “interest,” and its connections to usury, gave El Rayan and company a crucial competitive advantage. While commercial banking was still trying to loosen the shackles of socialist policies, they were facing the headwinds of religious opposition to charging or receiving interest. These funds pounced on this opportunity and fomented support from religious scholars, who showed them some love, gave them positive PR, inaugurated their projects, sitting on their companies’ boards, and even investing their very own money with them.
It took a while for the state to take action, but they eventually investigated the “funds” and their managers, and later prosecuted them for fraud. As it turns out, the pyramiding was rife. The funds were paying the unimaginable returns using new deposits, while successfully siphoning leaked money abroad for an escape plan. El Ryan was caught trying to escape and slapped with a 15-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, Ashraf El Saad had successfully managed to flee and lived in exile.
El Ryan was released in 2010 to have a popular soap opera made based on his short-lived success story — and had enough time to be interviewed by CBC’s Lamees El Hadidi and ONTV before his death in 2013.