Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt is full of tensions and contradictions

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt is full of tensions and contradictions
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At the core of Egypt’s paralysis is the paradoxical blend of Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi politics that define the new system. A guest post by Larbi Sadiki, professor of international affairs at Qatar University.

Sclerosis rules Egypt. At the core of the paralysis is the paradoxical blend of Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi politics that define the new system. In Egypt today, the resulting tension and contradictions are a salient feature of a system defined by atrophy and incompleteness.

Egypt’s January 25 Revolution that ousted Mubarak more than five years ago vies for attention with the language, agents, and claimants of another uprising, June 30 Rebellion (Tamarrud – or revolution). On paper, Mubarak and his former National Democratic Party (NDP), dissolved in April 2011, have vacated their positions of power and privilege. In practice, dozens of former NDP deputies have made a come-back to parliament and its committees through a quasi ‘surrogate’ NDP mechanism, ‘For the Love of Egypt’ list, the current regime’s list.  

Nearly three years since the July 13, 2013 removal from office of the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is in the throes of multi-layered crises, some of which helped spark the January 25 Revolution – sluggish economic growth, corruption, injustice, marginalization, authoritarianism, exclusionary politics, and excessive executive power. As if the interim period between Mubarak and el-Sisi, being now erased by all means, never existed.

Simply put, el-Sisi’s pictures which adorn the walls of stores and official buildings with frequent ubiquity tell the story of a president molded in the image of the former dictator and, like him, is well coached into preserving the army as Egypt’s uncontested guards and rulers.

El-Sisi is not in immediate danger of losing grip on the reins of power. He has a fixed and amorphous following made up of anti-Morsi forces, including from within the Azhar religious establishment, civil society, the public at large, and of course the army, his natural constituency. His most cardinal sin, which will haunt him in the long run and most probably lead to his downfall, is his over-reliance on coercion indiscriminately. He has alienated secularists and Islamists, and elites and ordinary people. Thus, his opponents are today so diverse and are united only by common grievances committed by the regime.

Happenings during the month of May illustrate the point. The regime opened up the month by storming the Journalists’ Union to arrest two journalists. This never happened under any of the previous five presidents before el-Sisi. Journalists protested chanting slogans that “free speech is not a crime” in front of the office of the Attorney General. On May 4 Security forces surrounded a meeting of the General Assembly of Journalists’ Union, closing roads to it.

Almost during the same period the security forces and the Interior Ministry were using similar draconian methods against a satirical band, ‘Street Children’. The band whose satires have spread like wildfire on Facebook has been critical of exaggerated arrests of regime opponents. Its members are now facing heavy fines and possible imprisonment when they go to trial.

On the economic front, no immediate panacea appears to be on the horizon for an Egypt plagued by a series of crises at home and bogged in the Middle East’s geopolitical rivalries. El-Sisi was a notable absentee from the April 14 Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) meeting in Istanbul. Instead, el-Sisi sent his foreign minister. The OIC aimed to resolve differences among its member-states, and his absence sends the signal that his regime is stubbornly convinced of its policies despite the lack of progress in a number of areas.

An already enfeebled tourism sector experienced a big blow in a precarious security situation, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. The industry is struggling badly and the deadly crash of the Russian passenger jet in the Sinai Peninsula in November 2015, believed to be caused by a device planted by still unknown terrorists, has not helped the situation. Dogged opposition to the government in this region has sparked an armed conflict that has seen hundreds dead including judges, police, soldiers and militants. Cairo’s apparent inability to undertake an urgent juggling act of maintaining security, resolving economic problems and steering the country onto a convincing democratic path is testing its claim of competence.

Revenue from the Suez Canal has proceeded to decline from 5.3 billion dollars in 2013 to under 5.2 billion dollars in 2015. Dwindling foreign reserves have only just stood still at $16.56 billion, perhaps simply a temporary development, at a time when the expanding gap in Egypt’s balance of payments deficit has directly resulted from a string of intractable problems.

Constant invocations of patriotism by el-Sisi himself and his government have proven to be no substitute for a comprehensive and coherent set of policies to tackle the interdependent problem areas of genuine democratic transition, precarious domestic security, regional instability and economic recovery.

Cuts to longstanding government subsidies, which have been deferred due to the drop in global oil prices, may soon once again be enacted with a great fanfare of patriotic fervour to stem Egypt’s deficit. Tens of billions of dollars in loans, agreements and deposits from wealthier neighbours such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) also appear to be unable to buy el-Sisi’s government time to resolve the sharpening contradictions generated by its policies. 

For now, el-Sisi seems to be content with continuous reliance on Gulf (mostly Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait) aid hand-outs. This funding comes at a high political cost – ‘there is no free lunch’, as it were. On one level, el-Sisi’s Egypt seems to be gravitating towards complacency to if not compliance with Saudi regional hegemony. In mid-April, el-Sisi angered the public by handing over two islands to KSA. Following meetings between el-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the Egyptian government ‘returned’ Tiran and Sanafir, in the Red Sea, to Saudi sovereignty. The move was justified on the basis of findings by the National Committee for Egyptian Maritime Border Demarcation, which affirmed that the two islands were part of Saudi territory.

Saudi aid hasn’t stopped the dwindling of foreign reserves, which Egypt badly needs to keep its economy afloat. Moreover, despite el-Sisi’s best efforts to woo foreign investors, such as through the greatly publicized Sharm el Sheikh forum held in mid-March 2015, the Egypt Economic Development Conference, investors are not convinced. This must be understood against the background of claims that el-Sisi and the army would bring security and stability to Egypt. No improvement in security has also had a knock-on effect on the failure to generate jobs and spur economic growth

El-Sisi’s Egypt is a place of tension. It is not a case of democratic tension. Rather, it is the contradictions that are pulling the country into different directions, all of which point to uncertainty and growing disaffection. The felool or remnants of the Mubarak regime, in media, business, and politics, have made an unabashed comeback.

‘Neo-felool’, the likes of parliamentarian Mustafa Bakry, an el-Sisi loyalist, and popular preacher Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen, are all rooting for el-Sisi. Today they are making noise about amending the constitution to give the president more power – and may even extend him in office. However, their actions and el-Sisi’s are stirring anger, particularly among a restless youth who feel alienation. All one would wager is that neither el-Sisi nor his security forces and spies enjoy sleepless nights.

Larbi Sadiki is a professor at Qatar University, where he teaches international affairs. He is the author of Rethinking Arab Democratization and an editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring.

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This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.