Is Sisi pushing Egypt off a cliff?

Is Sisi pushing Egypt off a cliff?
Comment: Egyptians' anger is growing and if another wave of protest engulfs the country it will be more radical and destructive, and will challenge all state institutions, writes Alaa Bayoumi.
6 min read
21 Jun, 2017
Sisi's lack of economic vision and wasteful spending have sent the national currency tumbling [Getty]

Since coming to power through a military coup in July 2013, Egypt's dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been blackmailing the West with fears over Egypt's security and stability.

He never misses an opportunity to remind his western counterparts that the Egyptian state is facing an existential threat, and that Europe could be flooded with millions of Egyptian refugees if his rule is weakened or undermined.

In return, Sisi was rewarded with international recognition and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid from Europe, the US, and international financial institutions. The last chunk was a half billion US$ in economic aid from Germany, announced during a visit by Angela Merkel to Egypt in March.

Sisi was also able to convince the West to turn a blind eye to his anti-democratic rule, and his regime's severe human rights abuses.

Over the last four years, Egyptian authorities have killed hundreds of Egyptian opposition activists, jailed thousands, and forced many others to flee the country fearing a similar fate.

The regime has imposed severe restrictions on the work the media and civil society organisations, and independent and opposition media outlets have been banned by the dozen. Draconian laws have been adopted to virtually ban NGO work and the right to public protest.

Political life has been severely circumscribed, especially after banning main opposition groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, whose party has won all free elections held in Egypt since the January 2011 revolution, and the 6 April youth group - Egypt's main youth activist group.

He met public dissent with an iron fist that made it too costly for people to protest

In this context, Sisi was able to nominate himself for his ability to secure and stabilise the country.

He effectively weakened all political opposition groups and crushed the mass protest movement generated by the January 2011 revolution. He met public dissent with an iron fist that made it too costly for people to protest.

However, there is a major difference between security and stability on one side, and oppression and silencing dissent on the other. In fact, a closer look at Sisi's record shows how he committed numerous blunders that raise serious doubts about his ability to rule the country.

On the economic side, most of Sisi's development projects, such as the expansion of the Suez Canal and the construction of a new capital, proved to be a wasteful spending on secondary projects. His lack of economic vision and wasteful spending have sent the national currency tumbling.

Egyptians protest the decision to limit the distribution of subsidised
bread to holders of a new system of digital cards, March 7,
2017 [Getty]

The price of the US dollar against the Egyptian pound has more than doubled since he took office. Poverty, inflation and unemployment have reached record highs. The regime has also failed to show any serious attempts to fix Egypt's structural economic problems, especially its weak export capabilities.

The country is also facing a growing security problem. Over the last six months, Islamic State group (IS) has been able to expand its activities to Egypt's mainland and launch some deadly attacks against the country's Christian minority.

Homegrown violent groups, such as Hasem and Revolutionary Punishment, are on the rise, benefiting from the growing political tension and human rights abuses.

More threatening still, Egypt is facing an unprecedented political trust crisis.

Traditionally, Egyptians have been known to be a conservative people, respecting all state institutions, such as the military, the judiciary and Al-Azhar - the country's main religious university.

Read more: Sisi's back to the wall

Yet, continuous and widespread repression over the last few years coupled with an official political culture of hate directed by pro-regime media which fully dominates Egypt's airwaves, appears to have weakened Egyptians' traditional respect for their state institutions.

The military is increasingly seen as the main backer of the regime and its abuses. The regime uses judges to deliver extreme verdicts to thousands of regime opponents in sham trials. Public religious institutions, such Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, have been forced to keep quiet on the regime's oppressive measures and human rights abuses.

Egypt is facing an unprecedented political trust crisis

Al-Azhar also came under growing attacks by pro-regime media when its leaders showed some signs of independence.

People's distrust for state institutions may have reached record levels, and it is now undoubtedly much higher than the 2011 levels when people revolted against the regime of president, Hosni Mubarak. At that time, the country's problems were blamed on a small circle of close advisors around Mubarak.

The military was widely respected and its intervention in politics in the immediate aftermath of the January 2011 revolution was welcomed by the people. Judges enjoyed a good reputation among the political and intellectual elites for their role in supervising elections, and challenging attempts by Mubarak's party to rig the vote.

Religious institutions were more respected because of the powerful religious political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, who dominated the scene.

Recently, there has been plenty of evidence that this culture of trust has evaporated. The political opposition has been severely weakened as well as its ability to channel or control people's anger.

Read more: Arrests in Egypt as opposition calls for islands protest

They have become united only in their loathing of the regime. Political religious groups blame the regime for killing hundreds and jailing thousands of their followers.

Secular parties - often motivated by strong nationalistic ideas - are increasingly talking of the regime as a traitor, especially after its recent efforts to give up control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

They have become united only in their loathing of the regime

They feel that giving up the two islands will only one benefit Israel, and will waste the sacrifices of thousands of soldiers who gave up their lives defending Egypt's eastern borders.  

In fact, many ordinary citizens have lost their trust in regime and opposition alike. They are getting poorer by the day and flooded with dark political propaganda full of hate and tension.  

In this context, Egyptians' anger is growing and if another wave of protest engulfs the country it will be more difficult to channel or control. It will be more radical and destructive in nature, and will challenge all state institutions.

At this moment, Egypt may look more stable compared to Syria and Iraq, for example. But the country is being constantly pushed by regime oppression towards a worrying future.

Oppression might build strong regimes but it cannot build stable countries. The Sisi regime could use sheer force to stay longer in power, but it will simultaneously undermine the laws, traditions, and institutions required to build a stable state.

Domestically, Sisi is counting on the support of the military, top bureaucrats, and the business elite. He also has the backing of the Trump administration, Israel and Arab dictatorships, especially in the Gulf. However, such support is delaying reform and distracting the regime from addressing the growing concerns of its own people.

This leaves many in Egypt and aboard with the fear that excessive oppression could lead to a sudden explosion of public anger that will be impossible to contain or control this time.

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

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.