As we approach the end of 2019, we need to take a look at politics in Egypt during the year and try to arrive at a cumulative analysis of the political scene.
2019 was the year that witnessed the beginning of the second term for the president after the elections in the summer of 2018. This meant that there had to be a course of action undertaken during the first year in order to inform citizens about upcoming plans, both politically and economically.
The government tried throughout the year to take measures to inform citizens of the projects being implemented for the future. However, we need to differentiate between domestic aspects of politics and regional or international ones. And we also need to pay attention to the need to counter terrorism, which constitutes a major part of Egyptian politics.
On the side of domestic politics, few things changed. First of all, there was a state of inactivity or even absence for the political parties, either those who support the regime or those who oppose it. Egyptian politics saw a falling back in the performance of the political parties.
These are present in parliament, but they have no real existence on the ground or in the streets of the country’s various cities. In parliament, the political parties did not come up with political or socio-economic initiatives but were rather more concerned to discuss bureaucratic legislation without actual contact with the public. The internal challenges that the political parties face have led to a phase of stagnation within Egyptian politics, which could lead to parliament itself losing credibility because of its non-engagement with society, with the same thing applying to the political parties since the majority of them cannot recruit new members.
We can conclude that 2019 saw a state of de-politicisation, with a lot of the youth who were politicised in 2011 after the 25 January Revolution turning away from political activity.
The government also had a hard time during 2019. The agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forced it to cut what it pays out in the form of subsidies, including on food, oil and electricity. The IMF agreement has also caused inflation and a depreciation in the value of the Egyptian pound. However, it cannot be ignored that the US dollar decreased in value against the pound in 2019. In 2018 one dollar was worth almost LE18, but today it is worth almost LE16, which should be considered as an achievement for the government.
However, there are still problems between citizens and the government, largely owing to the continuation of inflation. This will mean that new political strategies need to be developed and a new phase of contact begun in 2020 to explain further the economic reforms being undertaken in the current phase.
Still on the domestic level, some demonstrations with limited participation broke out in 2019 due to the YouTube videos published by the expatriate figure Mohamed Ali. Those who took to the streets were very few in number, which reflects the fact that Ali does not have any significant influence in mobilising the streets, specifically since he was never part of them and has never played a role in the public sphere. However, through his stories that lack any proof and his failed attempts to make Egyptians take to the streets, he managed to create a new lobby of opposition, specifically outside of Egypt, which we may call the diaspora opposition. In my opinion, Ali is not significant enough to induce unrest in Egypt. However, he does constitute a form of negative influence on some citizens.
On foreign policy, Egypt was quite active during 2019. The revival of Egypt’s role in Africa through leading the African Union and using its tools of soft power to expand its influence in the continent were among the main gains Egypt managed to secure in foreign policy. The president made visits to several African countries in 2019, and he managed to renew relations that had become inactive.
Such acts prove that Egypt is starting to have a longer-term vision of its presence in Africa and the range of influences it has with the African countries. The real challenge now is how these efforts can be used to secure Egypt’s interests regarding the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia. Water security in Egypt is theoretically under threat, and this will be a paramount priority for Egyptian foreign policy in 2020.
There are also regional issues in the Arab world that Egypt is engaged with. Libya is at the top of the list due to its proximity to Egypt as a neighbouring country and the security threats this could pose in the context of the ongoing military confrontations. Egypt’s position towards the Libyan conflict did not change in 2019, and it is governed by principles that also determine its wider foreign policy. These principles are opposing any international intervention in the Libyan crisis, insisting on a Libyan-Libyan solution, and keeping up communication with all the legitimate parties in the conflict.
The agreement signed recently between Turkey and the Libyan National Accord Government regarding Turkey’s intervention in maritime and land security will indeed bring potential threats for Egypt in 2020. Egypt does not want to see any military escalation within the Libyan conflict through the involvement of foreign forces, and certainly it does not want to see a Turkish military presence on its western border.
2019 was rather a year for instilling and implementing existing policies than for creating new ones. This concept could be applied to the strategies used for countering terrorism, which did not really change this year, though the level of activity and the frequency of operations did increase. It is true that the threat of terrorism is not over, but there is a committed political will in Egypt to counter terrorism through policies that have been formerly developed.
Perhaps the last question we need to raise here is how politics in Egypt can perform better in 2020 compared to 2019. The government is indeed required to perform a better role next year than it did in 2019. New state policies must be implemented, or at least conceptualised, in order to counter the negative effects of the economic reforms on the middle and lower classes. Bringing back the political parties to the public sphere, meaning the legal and institutional ones, could also help in creating further cooperation with civil society. A lot of decisions that have to do with foreign policy remain vague, specifically where the zones of conflict will likely be, and these will remain a challenge for foreign policy in 2020. The situations in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Sudan will have to be closely monitored in the coming year.
2019 witnessed gains for Egyptian politics, but that does not mean that a lot does not still need to be done in 2020. There are plans afoot for both political and economic reform, but these need to be more vital and better explained to citizens in 2020.
*The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.