Sisi’s New Egypt?
ast month, Abdel Monem Said Aly, an Egyptian writer, publisher, and well-known public figure, delivered a speech at the American University in Cairo, where he outlined the three narratives that make up the state of Egyptian politics today. The first — “The New Egypt story” — is one in which voters believe in a new future for Egypt, one embedded in nationalism, reliance on the army and a focus on security, stability and development. The second narrative — “the Republic of Fear” — is based on the liberal human rights view that Egypt is backsliding into something worse than a Mubarak-era autocracy and is at its political worst in modern history. The third — "the Rab’aa story” — is the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of what happened during and after the dismantling of their protest camp in 2014 by Egyptian security forces, leading to the death of 837 people.
These three narratives aptly summarise the political viewpoints present in Egypt today. They are a long shot from the story of the 2011 revolution that put forth a narrative of freedom, dignity, and social justice.
Seven years on, Egypt is nothing like its former revolutionary self. Last month’s uncontested elections were only an affirmation of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s continued rule, another four-year term that sputters the same cycle of hopes and challenges as the last. Despite Sisi capturing 97 percent of valid votes and 90 percent of the total votes, it is unclear how many votes were motivated by voter mobilisation or coercion such as food and cash handouts, fines imposed for failing to vote or the trucking of government employees to poll stations. Also, that 58.5 percent of eligible voters didn’t turn up to vote suggests a degree of apathy or a choice to boycott elections.
During Sisi’s next term, Egypt will face many national challenges relating to security, human rights and the stuttering economy, not to mention resolving the Nile water dispute with Egypt’s African neighbours, which is an immediate pressing issue. In confronting these issues, there lies a fragile balance between awaiting a whole new Egypt or devastating it further, and because of that, Sisi will have to tread carefully.
Highest on the president’s list is battling the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, locally, and elsewhere. Just a few days ahead of elections, a bomb hit the convoy of Alexandria’s security chief in the northern coastal city, leaving two policemen dead and five injured. Not to mention the large-scale and heavy-handed “Operation Sinai” launched in February to — according to a military communique — implement “a plan for comprehensive confrontation of all terrorist organisations and elements in Central and North Sinai along with other areas in the Egyptian Delta and western Nile Valley”.
The operation comes after a salvo of terrorist attacks at the end of last year that targeted 54 members of the security forces in an ambush in the Western Desert in October, a deadly attack on a Sufi mosque that left 305 worshipers killed a month later, and an assassination attempt in Sinai that missed the ministers of interior and defense.
Such attacks have not helped the regime’s argument for operating under a state of exceptionality, sacrificing human rights for national security, although it has fueled sentiments of nationalism among many Egyptians. Indeed, the country’s human rights situation has hit a record low. Opposition of the regime is out of bounds. Today, Egypt ranks among the world’s top three countries that imprison journalists, deport foreign journalists and legally seek to put some on death row.
Civil society organisations face closures and intimidation through scrutiny of their funding. Freedom of speech and the press is affected by the state’s blocking of more than 400 websites. There is also some unease as the Egyptian military begins to dominate all facets of governance (with a hint of cronyism) and even spaces of leisure such as sporting clubs. Limiting access to information and alternative media outlets has been a major affront to civil liberties, and the regime has to open up a space for opposition as well as political, social and cultural expression if it wants to survive.
Another priority will be fixing the economy. While macroeconomic indicators point to an economic recovery and an increase in foreign currency reserves, Egypt is falling hard on domestic and foreign debt, which has risen by 74 percent and 75 percent respectively since 2014. Moreover, the country is still reeling from the implementation of an economic reform package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in November 2016, which led to a series of unfortunate events, including price surges from currency devaluation, subsidy cuts, tax increases and a 2017 average inflation rate of 30.7 percent, up from 14.5 in the previous year.
Such austerity measures, although geared towards jump-starting the economy, have negatively affected the livelihoods of average Egyptians. Revenues from the Suez Canal has dropped while plans to build a new Egyptian mega-capital continue. The challenge will be to make sure growth trickles down to lower and middle classes, and to focus future economic schemes on development and improving the harsh and deteriorating standards of living. Otherwise, a return to a Mubarak-era resemblance of what economists call “unbalanced development” will expectedly take place.
Nile water dispute
A continental issue that will be at the top of Egypt’s national security concerns, at least for this year, is the Nile water dispute with Ethiopia and other downstream countries. The fight over Egypt’s share of the Nile River waters has recently intensified. Last November, talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the latter’s building of $4.8bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam faltered. The dam not only threatens Egypt’s water supply, but also redraws Egypt’s hydro-political relations with its African neighbours.
Sisi seems to be easing his tough stance. After warning that “no one can touch Egypt’s share of [Nile] water” and that “the waters of Egypt is not a subject for talk”, Sisi met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Cairo last January, where both put up a front of unity. Egypt’s longstanding hegemony over this issue seems to be diminishing, and a new hydro-political order among the Nile Basin countries is emerging. For Egypt, the major concern involves finding a solution with Ethiopia, especially as construction of the dam is nearing its end.
Of course, Sisi’s second term is constitutionally also his last term (the constitution limits presidents to only two terms). One thing to look out for are any political moves on the president’s part to amend the constitution, which will have to be put through a public referendum. The opening up or tightening of the political or oppositional space is something else to closely observe.
Although many Egyptians might be looking forward to a new Egypt, they must also contend with a set of issues and problems plaguing the country, a country which Sisi and his government will have to work hard to bring back from the brink.
(Main image: Corbis/NurPhoto/Getty Images)