I was asked to communicate President al-Sisi’s impact on Egypt by a journalist, who said he intended to put my responses into an article for the Wall Street Journal (9/8/16). As far as I know, it wasn’t printed, but there were a few other similar pieces which came out at that time which were highly critical, if not condemnations of Egypt. I assumed that my responses did not please the editors, but I thought they might interest you!
– President Sisi’s most important and potentially lasting effects on Egypt are:
- Imbuing in Egyptians the sense that their President (and therefore their other officials and institutions) must be accountable to them; justify policies and meet their needs. The President began a series of public addresses which were essentially follow-ups/report cards on specific issues. This was despite the fact that he cannot (and one would not expect him to be able to) summarize all of the forward and retrograde currents; and the fact that in certain instances those dealing with fraud were then prosecuted by the state.
- As Defense Minister and then President, he moved – at the public’s and the military leadership’s behest — against the oldest, strongest Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, Freedom and Justice. Here, Egypt’s path diverged from other nations impacted by the Arab Spring. It would be grandstanding to say that Egypt has by these means chosen a secular state, because its legal system is only semi-secular and one must acknowledge the support of certain salafi groups for the current government. This meant there is a check to the Muslim Brotherhood/Freedom & Justice Party’s longstanding animosity to Egypt’s Copts, and ambiguous attitude toward’s women’s rights and other human and intellectual rights. It meant that President Morsi’s language which indicated that his tribe or ‘people’ were Islamists and Brethren and not all Egyptians was unsuccessful. This course of action meant his presiding over a purge which impacted liberals and youth as well as Islamists, and however popular with an internal majority, has been sharply criticized outside of the country.
- Sisi has presided over the most active counterterrorism campaign(s) in the country’s history for some decades, and the main impetus of that campaign — in the northern Sinai — has been fiercely fought. By and large, the situation in the rest of Egypt has been stabilized.
As a response to this problem and the resistance funded or supported by the Islamists discussed in (b), he has unfortunately curtailed Egyptians political rights by not altering the so-called protest law (107 of ’13 approved under acting Pres. Mansour). Parliament’s upholding of this law, and approval of many laws and edicts introduced in the absence of a legislature is one of the obstacles impeding better relations between Egypt’s highly divided liberals and government supporters. In the long term, a movement towards expressions of political freedom (which do not endanger others or destroy property and cause havoc as was seen on campuses and in the streets) and away from the use of military courts would be highly desirable. It seems that Egypt was unable to establish a direction for its policies free of these political limits despite the revolution, and admission that Egyptian political rights prior to it were insufficient.
- President Sisi faced a huge challenge in stabilizing and selecting projects and policies to move the country forward economically. His oversight of several grand projects – the ‘second’ or additional Suez Canal, the new administrative capitol city, and the medical city, among them — will at least temporarily employ many Egyptians in their construction. These should help improve Suez trade and decentralization in the future; the more immediate economic stabilizer is the $12 billion IMF loan. Other imperatives to ameliorate the rising cost of living, un- and under- employment and failing public utilities and service have presented challenges. Foreign direct investment may rise, but it is still a difficult road for investors, and President Sisi’s government has reviewed the exchange rate policy and adjusted currency rates (another adjustment may be required); and tried, but not yet addressed ambiguous tax policies. Foreign direct investment still presents many obstacles and restrictions to would-be investors.
Leveling austerity measures on Egypt’s large poor and almost-poor population is very unpopular. Such measures were unpopular in the UK, but the public’s safety net is stronger. Outbursts on social media show the strength of popular resentment that the current government has neither brought “bread” – nor dignity, freedom and an end to corruption (the ideals of the January 25th, 2011 revolution).
- Pres. Sisi impressed me and others as knowing and understanding how far Egypt had to travel to democracy and wrote, as you know in his SRP in 2006, some observations about the potential to and obstacles in the way of democracy in the Arab Islamic world. To this end, I personally was hoping he would make good his promises to improve Egypt’s educational system, which is in very dire straits, and to address the hype and problems with academic and intellectual freedom in Egypt. The latter is not helped by the conspiratorial tone of the media seeing “foreign hands” here, there and everywhere. But the media reflects a lack of critical thought, which in turn, can only be addressed with standards of tolerance, which must be introduced in and throughout the educational system.
If he does so, I hope that new policies will not direct thousands of low-income students to vocational schools as seems to have developed out of the not-fully-realized state socialist policies of the past. I believe Pres. Sisi himself is an egalitarian, but much depends on who may advise and craft reform of that nature.
- President Sisi has upheld the framework of the Camp David Accords. A further large-scale war would be disastrous for Egypt, but on the other hand it remains to be seen if he can move forward peace between the Palestinians and Israel. He had encouraged meetings between Israel and the Palestinians to be hosted by Russia, and presented a plan to President Abbas recently which offers land in the Sinai to add to the PA territory in Gaza. Abbas has rejected this plan outright, and Sisi has run the risk of being accused of giving away Egyptian land (as in the Tiran/Sanafir islands uproar). But the offer indicates a proactive dimension to President Sisi’s leadership which might bear more fruit on this issue in the future.
On other regional matters, Egypt’s government has engaged with Ethiopia since the building of the Renaissance Dam – which could threaten the Nile’s water supply which is crucial to Egypt and the Sudan– began. It has rather inexplicably and irrationally backed Assad’s government in Syria, but stated that its support is for fighting terrorism. However, since the huge numbers of Syrian casualties and displacement indicate that the rebellion is not, in fact a matter of terrorism, but a strongly supported aim at regime change — one must be aware of Egypt’s fear that a post-Assad government would bring to power Islamists unfriendly to it, or more specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood. President Sisi’s generally good relations with Saudi Arabia have been ruffled by their differences on Syria, and current economic problems in the Kingdom, but Saudi-Egyptian ties are likely to remain close.