It's the economy, Sisi: Change is coming to Egypt

It's the economy, Sisi: Change is coming to Egypt
Egypt's economic disasters make change at the country's helm inevitable. The question is just what form it will take.
6 min read
02 Nov, 2016
Egypt is suffering, but change will come [Getty]
Even staunch supporters of Egypt's strongman Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi are finding it hard these days to find credible arguments to defend his administration.

It is not difficult to stumble upon anti-Sisi dissent among once pro-Sisi folk or even Egyptians who had been on the fence since he toppled an elected - but in many circles unpopular - Islamist president in a "revo-coup-tion", to quote Middle East expert Juan Cole.

There are audible whispers in the Gulf capitals that have sponsored Sisi, meanwhile, criticising the Egyptian president's failures on the most pressing issues facing the Mother of the World, but most importantly the economy.

Behind closed doors, leaders in both Egypt's military - the co-drivers of the Egyptian "Deep State" - and in the Gulf are purportedly thinking of what, up until recently, has been unthinkable: replacing Sisi - perhaps with another, more competent, general.

Israeli leaders, always concerned for and by Camp David - arguably their most important investment in the region - cannot be feeling much complacency either.

First, we have to be fair. Although there is little to admire about Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a long-running grievance held by both hardcore Sisiyists and On-the-Fencers is that his critics do not respect the agency of the supposed millions who have endorsed his often-brutal actions either through denial or collusion.

To them, Sisi aborted an obscurantist conspiracy to create a theocracy, which would forever have altered Egypt's identity - whatever that may actually be.

Sisi's apologists, assuming they are not paid propagandists, say the international media's hostility to his regime is tantamount to "Egypt-bashing". The man, they say, has been judged too quickly and too harshly, despite having restored some modicum of stability and certainty to the country ravaged by revolutionary fervour.

Of course, the jihadist insurgency in Sinai and weekly violence in Cairo are an easy counter point to this claim.

Visitors to Egypt report pockets of stability, and there is data to suggest this may be true. However, the price paid for this ounce of security has been a vengeful comeback of the police state: thousands of prisoners of conscience, state-sponsored killings and truly Orwellian laws and measures.

While crime may have decreased, the threat of terror has only risen.
Large segments of citizens are gambling on populist strongman figures, in the belief they might succeed where other recipes have failed

A global trend

Perhaps the Sisi apologists are fine with paying this price. Many countries seem to be following Egypt's path.

The Philippines, for instance, has opted for a president who is using death squads to prop-up stability, and who, like Sisi, is experimenting with geopolitics to shore up personal legitimacy, realigning his country to authoritarian China and pivoting away from the US. And Rodrigo Duterte's defenders on social media sound an awful lot like Sisi's.

Authoritarian, protectionist, inward-looking or outright xenophobic leaders could be the feature of the coming decade, as the globalised world economy leaves hundreds of millions behind. Even the US could go down this road, if Sisi's friend Donald Trump is elected.

Rightly or wrongly, large segments of citizens are gambling on populist strongman figures, in the belief they might succeed where other recipes have failed. But this is arguably the result of misdiagnosing the problem, which brings us back to Sisi.

His regime has failed to understand that, at the heart of all Egypt's woes, lie the neo-liberal policies ushered in by Anwar Sadat, expanded by Hosni Mubarak and then sustained by Mohamed Morsi.

Egypt's version of neo-liberalism handed over the trickle-down post-Nasserist economy to the army, now an empire whose turnover rivals the GDP of nation-states; and a class of oligarchs with close affinity to the regime's ruling apparatus.

The January 25 revolution against this order was as much about "bread" as it was about "dignity" and "democracy".

Yet Sisi's response, apart from his fixation with the Muslim Brotherhood as the root of all evil, was yet more neo-liberalism, more economic power for the army, and more dangerous liaisons with oligarchs.

Sisi's grandiose projects, touted as a panacea and the precursor to a new Egyptian rennaissance, proved to be bridges to nowhere; some were soon even abandoned with haste.

And amid irreversibly falling hydrocarbon prices, the Egyptian president's wager on some Gulf Arab states forever replenishing his coffers, like an oil-rich Sisyphus, has been thwarted. Many of these countries themselves now face the prospect of penury if not outright bankruptcy.

It may be said that Egypt's problems were so systemic that no one could have fully broached them anyway. However, Egypt did have some options at its disposal that Sisi's regime decided to ignore, essentially because they would have come at the expense of his own power base.
An economic catastrophe of biblical proportions has indeed arrived in Egypt
Cutting losses before it's too late

Despite the leap of faith by Sisi's enablers, it was clear to most observers his choices would lead only to disaster. And now, an economic catastrophe of biblical proportions has indeed arrived in Egypt.

Most indicators, from growth to employment figures, are in free fall. There is a fully blown currency crisis. Tourism is all but dead, in part due to Sisi's policies, and staples such as sugar have nearly disappeared from the market.

And Sisi's answer? More debt. More IMF-sponsored austerity. And more ridiculous oversimplification and denial - and not of the river variety, which, incidentally, is also under unprecedented threat from upstream nations without no credible response from Cairo.

As Sisi has failed on stability, and utterly failed on the economy, Egyptians have become once again restless.

"Day of the poor" protests are planned on November 11, ahead of which the regime has already launched pre-emptive measures - including a new cybercrime law - to stifle online dissent and any ability to organise mass demonstrations via social media.

The protests are not likely to mount a real challenge. The general Egyptian mood is still not ready for a new uprising, despite some hype from media outlets. Many Egyptians, at least those who are not in prison or exile, perhaps out of fear or misplaced hope, are still willing to cut Sisi some slack.

Change may not come Cairo's way just yet. What is most likely is that the army and the regime's regional backers are drafting plans to cut their losses and protect their gains, if things get to a point of no return, which appears now fast approaching.

To many the question now is not whether Sisi will remain in power after his term expires in 2018, it is whether he will serve the remainder of his term at all. But unless the economy is fixed, replacing Sisi with a more competent figurehead will only delay the second wave of the Egyptian uprising, which could be set off by another Bouazizi event, or an Egyptian version of the crushed Moroccan fishmonger.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's game is to play all sides to remain in power, including his backers, and he is willing to upset his allies to show them how "indispensable" he is. Sooner or later, however, Egyptians and friendly nations will realize that he is a liability who cannot lead the needed reforms needed to ensure their investments would not disappear down the drain.

Only then could a "Marshall Plan" (democratisation and economic stablisation) begin in earnest and have any chance to work in Egypt.