Egypt's Sisi: guns before bread

Egypt's Sisi: guns before bread
Comment: Egypt is spending billions of dollars on arms when its economy is at the brink of a crisis. The farcical financial policies hide a grim reality, writes Ibrahim AlSahary.
6 min read
29 Mar, 2016
Egypt has so far signed multibillion dollars contracts for fighter jets and warships [Getty]

They say guns make men look taller and stronger. But, in reality, 3 in 10 Egyptian children under the age of five are stunted because their families have less or no bread to feed them.

But, as George Orwell said in his masterpiece, Homage to Catalonia, “A fat man eating quails while children are begging for bread is a disgusting sight, but you are less likely to see it when you are within the sound of the gun."

Echoing this farce, President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi continues to the import yet more weapons when the country is on the brink of severe shortages in many essential goods, including medicine and food.

Last week, the French La Tribune newspaper reported that "Egypt is preparing to buy French warships and a military satellite in deals worth more than 1 billion euros […] The deals are expected to be signed during a visit to Egypt by French President Francois Hollande on April 18.”

Militarised economy

Egypt has so far signed multibillion dollars contracts for fighter jets and warships with France and Russia, and more deals are expected to be signed this summer.

In one year, Egypt moved 4 places up the ladder in the world’s top arms importers list, from 16th to 12th biggest importer, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database.

Egypt’s arms imports increased by 37 per cent between 2006–10 and 2011–15, primarily due to a steep rise in 2015. According to SIPRI, Egypt’s arms imports grew more than three times in 2015 to $1475 million compared to $368 million in 2014. Also, last year witnessed the highest level of Egyptian arms imports in twenty years.

The independent international institution that was established in 1966 keeps track mainly of the weapons that are delivered to purchasing countries depending on open sources. This means that Egypt could have actually spent more money on weapons that researchers and observers cannot keep track of.  In fact, local media reports last year's purchases to be more than $10 billion.


Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database

Buying legitimacy

So why does Sisi spend so much on weapons?

Some political analysts say that this arms supply would help Egypt’s military combat the spiking insurgency in Sinai and secure the nation’s borders.

In fact, an army does not need a warship to combat militants hiding in mountains or between inhabitants, the Egyptian army is already one of the largest armed forces in the Middle East. In 2011, it was ranked the 16th most powerful in the world, according to the annual ranking made by Global Firepower

Since the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, "the United States has provided Egypt with nearly $70 billion in funding, nearly half $(34 billion) of which has gone to purchase American-made military equipment. At $1.3 billion per year, U.S. security-assistance grants account for 80 percent of the Egyptian military's annual procurement budget ".

Ties with the United States plummeted after the army ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, with Washington freezing its annual $1.3 billion in military aid. But at the end of March 2015, Washington unfroze its military assistance once again.

So, Cairo's purchase of Western and Russian weapons could seem unnecessary, right?

Wrong. The generous arms deals with the West and Russia are Sisi’s source of legitimacy, particularly in the international arena.  For instance, in an opinion piece in Le Monde newspaper written by Jean-Marie Fardeau, the director of Human Rights Watch France, French president François Hollande is accused of "burying the diplomacy of human rights". Fardeau particularly criticised France’s cosy relationship with Sisi. Hollande participated in the opening of the new Suez Canal, President Sisi’s mega project.

In 2015, about 47 percent of Egypt's arms imports were French-made. Egypt came third among the largest importers of French arms with 9.5 percent. The French president is expected again in Cairo in April.

Paying the price

Every deal has its own conditions that define methods and timetable of payment. While many of these conditions are not known due to the lack of transparency, it is clear, from the little we know, that the state budget will have to survive the burden and it is not the army that will pay for these deals from the disproportionate profits of its business projects.

In mid-March, Egypt’s parliament has voted for the approval of $3.3 billion euro of French loans which will be used to finance buying military hardware, from fighter jets to warships form France, without parliamentary discussion.

"The total value of ‎this equipment is estimated at 5.6 million ‎euros, with Egypt to pay the remaining 40 ‎per cent," Ahram Online revealed. The loan will be guaranteed by ‎Egypt’s finance ministry.‎

It seems that Egypt’s poor will pay the price for Sisi deals.

Guns before bread

When Egypt's workers and revolutionaries took to the streets in 2011, they called for bread, freedom, and social justice.

More than five years since the January 25 Revolution, Egyptians are still pleading for bread, knowing that food security - a basic human right - remains a dream for many.

With more than 50 percent of Egypt's children living in poverty, according to the lower and the upper national poverty lines, Egypt is still facing a series of economic shocks that are particularly affecting the poor.


Source: statistics agency CAPMAS, UNICEF Egypt

The country’s poverty rate increased to 26.3 per cent of the population in 2012-2013, compared to 21.6 per cent in 2008-2009. This rate has worsened since Sisi took power in the mid-2013.

To make Egypt a more attractive home for investment, Sisi made tackling unsustainable food and energy subsidies a top priority. In July 2014, Sisi's government allowed the price of energy for households and businesses to increase by as much as 80 per cent, with the goal of allowing prices to continue rising by about 20 per cent every year until 2018.

The World Bank has estimated that the upward adjustments to energy prices in July 2014 may have pushed some 400,000 people below the poverty line. Moreover, the government is planning to reduce subsidies by 10 per cent in the new budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and consequently push more people into poverty.

In Egypt, as the fat men eat quails, children are begging for food and the people are desperate for justice. The regime, its media and entourage are justifying spending yet more money on weapons while crying out against a war that, under poverty, could in fact only be between the state and the impoverished people.

Ibrahim AlSahary is an economist and former executive chief editor of Egypt Independent.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.