March 1, 2019

Egypt: Going Forwards or Backwards?

Blondet Eliot-POOL/SIPA/Scanpix
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Egypt’s military leader lacks experience to move the country ahead

Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, took office in 2014. He previously served in the mechanised forces of the Egyptian army and as the Commander of the Northern Military Region. In 2010, he became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces as the Director of Military Intelligence, and was Minister of Defence from 2012 to 2014. After the political changes that began with the Arab Spring, he was promoted to field marshal following the June 2013 revolution.

The Arab Spring was a long-awaited change for the people of Egypt—both Muslims and Christians—that happened without much planning. Until 2011, 25 January had been celebrated in Egypt as Police Day and a national holiday, but it has now acquired a whole new meaning. On that date in 2011, young Egyptians decided to spend their day off expressing their opinions on Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo. The idea was shared on social media and the result was unexpected: the Arab Spring, which reached Egypt in 2011, turned the country’s political perceptions upside down.

In 2012 Egypt held its first free presidential elections, which were won by Mohamed Morsi, a radical Muslim and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He hoped and believed that most Egyptians were and would continue to be true believers in the Muslim faith according to their birth records. Unfortunately, Egyptian Muslims are relatively moderate when it comes to matters of religion. Egyptians certainly practice their religion differently than some other Arab Muslims, especially Saudis. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religious organisation that, among other things, holds education and charity in high regard. President Morsi underestimated the fact that the Brotherhood had never run a country or even been in power before. Egyptians soon realised that the new president’s governing style was different from what they hoped, because it tried to implement fundamental Islam according to the Wahhabist model of Saudi Arabia. The Muslim Brotherhood had a political programme and an extensive network covering the country’s villages and cities, but no practical knowledge of how to implement its policies. Egyptians were soon disappointed and took to the streets once again. President Morsi would enjoy his position as the leader of Egypt for a little under a year; the people elected his vice president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to replace him.

What Next?

Under Egypt’s constitution, the country has both a president and a vice president. Al-Sisi had sworn allegiance to the people and the president and everything seemed fine—but only on the outside. Since the 1952 revolution of the Free Officers, Egypt has been more or less a military state. The army came to the assistance of the new vice president this time, too, and this led to a change of power in the country. In July 2013, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced president Morsi’s removal from office. After extraordinary elections, the former vice president became the new president of the Arab Republic of Egypt on 8 June 2014. President Morsi was arrested and tried. Things could have turned out for the better—voters had expressed their view about the Muslim Brotherhood government. The people got a new president and the current incumbent came to power with a popular mandate. In the most recent elections in the spring of 2018, al-Sisi was re-elected with 97% of the vote.

In reality, Egypt has witnessed a sharp increase in inflation in recent years, which is reminiscent of the tumultuous situation during the Arab Spring. The people have no hope of or faith in the quality of life improving. There is a common understanding in Egypt that the socialist rule of president Gamal Nasser (in office from 1956 to his death in 1970) was the country’s Golden Age, which is still used as a basis for comparison today. President Nasser and other Free Officers placed great emphasis on good Egyptian education and at the time this gave many residents in rural areas the opportunity to acquire formal education and the most determined students even made it to university. Today, education has largely lost its value. President Nasser’s promise that the state would guarantee jobs for everyone with an education no longer applies.

The population Egypt has rocketed and the government is unable to secure a future for every graduate. Despite the government’s efforts, the Egyptian economy is relatively closed to Western markets, the share of foreign companies is modest and interest in Egypt’s huge market low. The black economy plays a substantial role in the country. Only a few Egyptian brand names are known around the world. Egypt is one of the largest Arab countries where agriculture plays a big role, but its agricultural exports are small.

The largest sectors are tourism and services (about 47%), while agriculture accounts for around 29%, followed by the industrial sector at around 23%. National subsidies for the economy and social sphere are minimal. President al-Sisi has explained to his people that improving the quality of life will take time, because previous presidents had been profligate in the use of economic resources and it would now take a lot of work to remedy the situation. So far, this explanation has worked. New protests are kept under control, but the security situation is complex. Some Egyptians have lost hope and joined ISIS to seek their fortune there. Unfortunately, one does not have to go far to understand that, in desert areas, ensuring security isn’t often in the hands of the state, which only tries to maintain stability. In reality, the situation in today’s Egypt is considerably more complicated than it was before the Arab Spring because, despite setbacks, free media have now also arrived in the country.

Everyone can understand what is going on by communicating with local people on different levels. Among other things, the incumbent president recently told international journalists that Egypt did not have any political prisoners, nobody was imprisoned for their ideas and the state cooperated fully with its partners. At the same time, Human Rights Watch has confirmed on the basis of verified data that there are some 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt, some of whom have been imprisoned for an indeterminate period.

Forwards or Backwards?

On 7 January 2019, a new religious centre—the Cathedral of the Nativity, a Coptic church that stands alongside the Al Fattah Al Aleem mosque—was opened in Cairo. Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II and the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, both participated in the inauguration ceremony. This large ceremony, which took place during the Coptic Christmas, was significant in several ways. President al-Sisi and the head of the Coptic Church demonstrated a clear wish to unite the country because, despite the fact that Christians have accounted for only around 10% of the population during the last century, Egyptian presidents and governments have tried to integrate citizens on all levels.

Egypt has historically been a multi-faith country (it has been inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews) and there have been attempts by law to employ representatives of different religions at all levels of the state based on a quota system, but these have not always been successful. The government has tried to enter into agreements, including one in 1981 after president Mubarak took office, by which the parties—the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood—promised to retain their positions and avoid clashes. For instance, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that nominated Mubarak in 1987. Although the Brotherhood was officially illegal, the government was aware of the organisation and allowed its members to infiltrate universities, non-profit organisations and the public service extensively. The bilateral relationship led to the Brotherhood’s representatives gaining seats in the Egyptian parliament in the 2000 general election. President Mubarak understood that keeping the country as stable as possible was paramount.

One objective of the Arab Spring was to draw attention to human rights. This remains one of the most important issues in Egypt, because speaking out about and fighting for human rights may lead to a prison sentence.

Egypt’s decline during president al-Sisi’s time in office had been faster than under previous regimes and, if anything, the economic policy of the current government has taken the country backwards. Egypt’s strategy has been shaped and implemented by the army, using the same method both at the local and the regional level. It is known that al-Sisi has tried to learn from his predecessors; he has emphasised Arab nationalism as well as skills and opportunities for the authorities to improve the country’s situation.

Even though al-Sisi and other presidents of the Arab Republic of Egypt have worn suits and tried to look like civilians, they have in fact been active servicemen. They have taken on civilian tasks in which they are not sufficiently experienced (and the economy is not their strong suit), but the duty of the president and government is to manage all sectors. They are used to leading the army without anyone asking questions, and they have managed the country’s economy the same way. Unfortunately, this “Sisinomy” has pushed the country into both economic and intellectual decline. Many of the great nation’s big dreams have been crushed.

It seems that the future may call for the Egyptian president to make several important decisions if he wants to keep his job. President al-Sisi claims the relationship between Israel and Egypt has never been as good as it is now. This, however, makes people ask: in whose name were all those Arab-Israel wars fought and why did so many fathers and sons have to perish in battle? According to several observers, Egypt is likely to change in the near future. The key question is whether and how Egypt can be developed to save it from the fate of present-day Yemen and Sudan. Egypt’s current economic condition does not help in finding an answer.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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