The moral dilemma of Egypt’s President al-Sisi

The moral dilemma of Egypt’s President al-Sisi

If the world wants to accept the economic successes of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it must also accept the terrible cost in human rights.

Since winning last year’s election with some 97% of the vote, al-Sisi has proven to be quietly popular with global and regional leaders alike. With his appetite for economic reform, stability and a belief that markets will deliver a better life for millions of Egyptians, it’s not hard to see why. After years of economic crisis, Egypt’s economy looks to be getting back on track.

Starting in September, al-Sisi has led a veritable cavalcade of encouraging economic announcements: a new Suez Canal will more than double yearly revenue up to $15bn. Energy subsidies, long decried, have been slashed as part of a multi-year plan to redirect funds towards healthcare and education.

Over $150bn worth of pledges and new deals from international partners were made at an economic summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. There’s a new investment law on the books, export subsidies, plans for a value added tax, offshore oil exploration, infrastructure projects worth billions, a partnership with China as part of that nation’s new Silk Road trade initiative — the list goes on.

Consensus is not unanimous, but the measures seem to be going a long way towards boosting growth and returning confidence to the nation. A bond sale, the nation’s first on international markets in five years, outperformed expectations. Moody’s upgraded the nation’s credit rating in April and GDP growth has shown sparks of life: The Financial Times cited an estimated 4% growth for the year ending in June. The World Bank suggests it could reach 4.2% for 2015 – double the anemic growth seen during the crisis years.

Economic growth vs. Human rights

Indeed, praise for al-Sisi’s policies has come in from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to IMF chief Christine Lagarde, to Secretary of State John Kerry, to name a few. It’s only when you turn to the President’s record on human rights that the picture becomes less rosy. Considerably so, in fact.

Celebrating al-Sisi’s first year in office, Human Rights Watch released a damming report on the new President’s treatment of his citizens since he overthrew his democratically-elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi. HRW stated that tens of thousands of people have been detained under al-Sisi’s direction, 41,000 between May 2013 and June 2014 alone.

Hundreds have been killed, foreign journalists have been held, and sexual assault has risen. And none of these sad facts will bring millions to Tahrir Square as they did in 2011, as protests have been all but outlawed.

The Economist points out that all these actions make al-Sisi a more violent authoritarian than Hosni Mubarak ever was. He certainly does not fit nicely into Western notions of what leadership and state governance should look like. He’s a military general forging a modern state, perhaps on track to lift millions out of poverty while crushing dissent both secular and Islamist. He’s invited world leaders to invest and share in the bright future of the country, scant months after orchestrating a coup d’état.

The Benevolent Dictator

Al-Sisi knows what other global leaders know – that Egypt’s path to economic stability and modernity will run significantly more smoothly if managed via the top-down of authoritarianism than the messy and inefficient bottom-up of democracy.

Left to people-power and the voting booth, it might have taken decades, if at all, for Egypt to get on the same track that al-Sisi’s benevolent dictatorship has done in a few months.

Analysts still holding on to a more rosy, post-Soviet worldview might insist that getting Egypt’s economy on a proper long-term growth track hinges on the western values that we’ve all been brought up on: ensuring due process and an impartial judiciary, universal rights for citizenry to express their opinion and gather freely, and end to arbitrary detention and government suppression of dissent.

Those things are nice, to be sure. But the truth is that, in order to reach full growth-potential, or even return to pre-Arab Awakening levels, al-Sisi will stay the course for several more years at minimum.

To maintain the even keel of state, he’ll continue to clamp down on dissent, work to further crush the Muslim Brotherhood’s 90-year (mostly peaceful) history in the country, and be the agent of repression of ordinary Egyptians whose only desire is to have the freedom to choose their leaders. He will do all this, and international partners will let him.

Al-Sisi’s suggested goal is stability at any cost. If this sounds ominous, it perhaps need not be. If successful, he’ll transform Egypt into a wealthy and diversified regional powerhouse, a lighthouse of stability in an ever-unstable region. Millions of Egyptians, the vast majority, will be the better for it.

While the verdict is still out for the Egyptian people, global leaders and financial institutions seem to agree with the President: in an unstable and challenging time, in the service of millions, the brutal repression of thousands is an acceptable cost.

About Author

Adam Taylor

Adam Taylor is a former energy market analyst for the Canadian government currently working for a high-tech firm in Israel. He holds degrees in biology, sociology and an MA in International Affairs from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs (Political Economy) at Carleton, Ottawa. You can follow Adam on Twitter @ajaygraytay.