2016 has not been a good year for Egypt. Terrorism continues to pose a serious threat, as shown by the suicide bombing which targeted worshippers next to the country’s main Coptic cathedral on 12 December, killing at least 25 people and injuring dozens more. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Islamic State, to whom the most active armed group of Sinai Bedouins engaged in an insurgency against the authorities pledged allegiance in late 2014. But IS is not the only armed Islamist organisation operating in Egypt. Groups with suspected links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, such as Liwa’ al-Thawra and Hasm, regularly launch attacks against the security forces. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of soldiers and policemen have been killed since 2011, most in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
Attacks in broad daylight in downtown Cairo expose the current approach to confronting terrorism as inadequate and ultimately counterproductive. Fighting Islamic extremism was the chief justification for the July 2013 coup led by then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to depose President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s despotism and incompetence during his year in office had alienated much of the population, prompting mass demonstrations demanding his resignation. The Army stepped in, ostensibly to fulfil the will of the people, and in the presidential elections the following year Sisi’s rule was legitimised when he obtained almost 97% of the vote – although turnover was low, with more than half the electorate staying away from the polling stations. Many Egyptians feared the country might go the same way as Syria or Libya and felt a strong hand was needed to bring it back from the brink.
Cheered on by the sycophantic Egyptian media – including most private outlets, controlled by businessmen close to the State –, Sisi has dealt ruthlessly with the Muslim Brothers and their supporters, demonised as terrorists and enemies of Egypt. However, legislation like the draconian anti-protest law has been used against all opposition, Islamist and leftist. Tens of thousands have been arrested, and human rights organisations denounce widespread use of torture and enforced disappearances. The regime has also clamped down on press freedom: according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt was one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists in 2015, second only to China – in 2016 both have been eclipsed by the post-coup crackdown in Turkey. In addition, last November the government passed an extremely restrictive NGO law which threatens to do away with what is left of independent civil society in Egypt.
As well as a shaky security situation, Egyptians are suffering a deep economic crisis in the form of high unemployment (especially among the young), soaring inflation, cuts in state subsidies, periodic shortages in subsidised foodstuffs… Foreign investors and tourists scared off by the 2011 Revolution and subsequent instability have failed to return. Two other major sources of revenue, the Suez Canal and remittances from the Gulf, have been affected by the global economic downturn and low oil prices. Sisi is hoping the low-interest $12 billion loan granted by the IMF last November will help turn the economy around, but it came with familiar conditions attached: floating the Egyptian pound, introducing value-added tax, further subsidy reductions… That means more pain for ordinary Egyptians – over a quarter already live under the official poverty line, unable to meet their basic needs.
There is little doubt that some of those measures were overdue: The Egyptian pound was hugely overvalued, trading in the black market for around half its official value. The subsidies system is wasteful and riddled with corruption, and resources would be better used by targeting those who need it most. Fiscal reform is urgent in a country which collects in taxes a paltry 12% of its income, although it is questionable whether a regressive tax such as VAT is the best option. But Sisi is unlikely to tackle the central problem of the Egyptian economy, namely crony capitalism, even if he was so inclined; he cannot afford to alienate the Army (which controls anywhere between 15% and 40% of the economy) and the business tycoons who support his rule. Instead he is keen on grandiose projects of dubious merit but which provide new opportunities for graft, like the widening of the Suez Canal and the building of a flashy new administrative capital.
In foreign policy, Sisi faces a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, he has been relying on the financial backing of the Gulf monarchies – particularly Saudi Arabia, which has injected an estimated $25 billion into the Egyptian economy since the 2013 coup. In exchange, the president returned to the Kingdom two uninhabited but strategic Red Sea Islands, Tiran and Sanafir, leased to Egypt in 1950 to protect them from Israeli aggression. But the deal attracted much criticism, with thousands demonstrating in Cairo and Alexandria last April in defiance of the protest law. The slogans chanted included the revolutionary favourite, “The people want to overthrow the regime.” In the aftermath of the mobilisations, hundreds were handed jail terms of between two and five years and hefty fines – although as in previous mass sentences, dozens of convictions have been overturned on appeal. The decision on the islands has also been contested in court; the government has appealed against a judicial decision declaring it void, and a final ruling is expected in mid-January.
On the other hand, Sisi sympathises with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against an Islamist-dominated rebellion championed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. In addition, Western criticism of the 2013 coup and the human rights situation in Egypt has pushed him to deepen ties with Russia, whose intervention in Syria turned the tide of war. The two sides are negotiating the establishment of Russian industrial zones in Egypt, and Russian company Rosatom has signed an agreement to build the first nuclear power plant in the country. Increased cooperation extends to the military domain, including a $3bn arms deal and joint military exercises last October. That same month, Egypt voted in favour of a Russian-backed Security Council resolution which urged a cessation of hostilities in Aleppo but made no reference to airstrikes, in a move the Saudi delegate to the UN described as “painful.” As a response, Saudi company Aramco interrupted exports of cheap oil to Egypt. Undeterred, Sisi reportedly sent helicopters and pilots to Syria to take part in the fighting.
Given all the above, how secure is Sisi’s position? Last October the Egyptian public opinion research company Baseera published a poll putting his approval rating at 68% – impressive by usual standards, but a significant decline from 91% three months earlier. Among those unhappy with Sisi, almost three-quarters cited price hikes as their main grievance. As in previous polls, the under-30s were the most critical of the president; only 41% declared that they would to vote for Sisi if there was an election tomorrow, whereas for those 50 and over the figure was 77%. Such drop in popularity must be hard to stomach for the notoriously thin-skinned leader, who has cultivated the image of the benevolent father of the nation. However, he must draw some comfort from the knowledge that most Egyptians have little appetite for further revolution and no alternatives on the horizon. Moreover, he has found an ally in US president-elect Donald Trump, who has expressed support for “Egypt’s war on terrorism” and is unlikely to bring up awkward subjects like democratisation and human rights.
Photo 1: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Ismailia, 06/08/2016.
Photo 2: Protest against al-Sisi in Cairo, 15/04/2016 (photo by Amr Nabil/AP).
Photo 3: Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (L) and al-Sisi (R) meeting in Egypt, 08/04/2016.
Photo 4: al-Sisi (L) and Russian president Vladimir Putin (R) in the Sea port of Sochi, 12/08/2015 (photo by Alexei Druzhinin/AFP).