Restoring Egypt’s role

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 9 Jun 2020

Six years after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to office, Gamal Essam El-Din assesses his record

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was declared Egypt’s new president in May 2014 after winning 96.91 per cent of the total votes. The elections came after the 30 June Revolution of 2013 which ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi (photo: Reuters)

When former minister of defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was sworn as president in June 2014 Egypt faced two major challenges, terrorism and the threat of economic collapse.

Following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013, Egypt faced a wave of terrorist attacks. Between 2013 and 2017 bombs were detonated on the streets of Cairo and other major cities, and north Sinai-based Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and other terrorist groups targeted Christians, judges, police and military personnel.

Kamal Amer, head of parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly it took three years to restore stability.

“President Al-Sisi’s strategy moved into two directions. There was the upgrading of the security system in 2014, 2015 and 2016, culminating in the imposition of emergency law in 2017, and the launching of a comprehensive counter-terrorism operation in North Sinai in 2018. Hundreds of Egyptian citizens, including policemen and soldiers, lost their lives in the war against terrorism, but in the end security was restored and the country was able to move forward.”

Security expert Khaled Okasha says the years between 2014 and 2017 saw President Al-Sisi focusing on improving the performance of the security system, with an emphasis on information gathering and adopting a preventive strategy directed at foiling attacks.

“This strategy helped restore stability. Then two terrorist attacks targeted churches in Tanta and Alexandria, leaving 42 dead, and the emergency law was invoked.

“At the same time, the army bolstered security along the border with Libya in a bid to prevent terrorists from the conflict-stricken country infiltrating Egypt.”

By 2018 the vast majority of terrorist groups had been eliminated and the operational capabilities of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis were seriously degraded. The group’s leaders were either in detention or dead. The arrest of Hisham Ashmawi, Egypt’s most-wanted terrorist, in Libya in October 2018, signalled how far the anti-terrorism strategy had succeeded.

Meanwhile, Egypt was facing an economic crisis. Five years of political turmoil between 2011 and 2015 had left the country on the verge of economic collapse. Foreign exchange reserves fell from $36 billion in 2011 to $15 billion in 2016, and when a Russian passenger jet was downed in North Sinai in October 2015 the tourist industry, a major source of foreign currency, was decimated.

Egypt had no choice but to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help.

“The challenge was how to convince the people to accept an economic reform programme that would inevitably push the cost of living up,” says Amr Ghallab, a former head of parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee.

In a speech earlier this year, Al-Sisi said he had told the cabinet in 2016 that he would resign if the public rejected the IMF-inspired economic reform programme.

“It was a matter of life and death for our country. The programme was necessary to reform the national finances, cut debt, and boost economic growth. And thank God that though people suffered greatly, they approved,” said Al-Sisi.

The three years of the economic reform programme —between 2016 and 2019 — placed burdens on the majority of Egyptians, says Gallab.

“Inflation hit a record 33 per cent. Electricity, water and fuel subsidies were steadily reduced and a 14 per cent value added tax (VAT) was imposed, making life very difficult for citizens on limited incomes. But President Al-Sisi persevered, and by 2019 he achieved a number of remarkable economic successes.

“Growth reached 5.6 per cent, foreign exchange reserves hit $45.5 billion, and inflation was cut to seven per cent. The IMF described Egypt’s economic reform programme as one of the most successful in the world.”

In 2020, just as Egypt was set to reap the rewards of its painful reform programme, and economic analysts were predicting a boom year, the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“The virus has brought enormous challenges, and if a vaccine is not found soon the results could be very painful for countries like Egypt,” says Ghallab.

The pandemic could not have come at a worse time. Egypt is facing two existential threats, from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and from the ongoing conflict across its western border in Libya.

Al-Sisi has been very cautious in reacting to these two threats.

Al-Ahram political analyst Hassan Abu Taleb notes that since coming to office in 2014 Al-Sisi has worked tirelessly to restore Egypt’s international influence.

“In a very short time he was able to reverse the suspension of Egypt’s membership of the African Union,” says Abu Taleb.

“Then, when Egypt was elected president of the African Union in 2019, its relations with Europe, the US and Russia were greatly improved.

“Al-Sisi was able to forge close relationships with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Emmanuel Macron,” says Abu Taleb.

“Europe gave a lot of assistance to Egypt as it embarked on its reform programme, particularly in the energy sector, and after President Donald Trump came to office in January 2017, Washington was keen to forge a strategic relationship with Cairo.”

Meanwhile, Egypt joined the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in severing ties with Qatar over its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“President Al-Sisi’s decision to join this alliance was followed by repeated pleas that the world should punish countries that sponsor terrorist groups,” says Abu Taleb. “Under Al-Sisi, Egypt used its two-year membership of the Security Council [2016-2017] to shine a spotlight on the dangers of failing to stand-up to Qatar’s pro-terrorism policies.”

After six years in office, Egypt under President Al-Sisi has been able to forge good relations with the majority of states.

“President Al-Sisi is using these relations to pursue Egypt’s long-term economic and military interests,” says Abu Taleb.

“The only exceptions continue to be Turkey and Qatar, countries that form an extremist camp that remain determined to use the Muslim Brotherhood as a vehicle to sow internal instability in Egypt. Turkey and Qatar both sponsor television channels which launch sustained attacks on Egypt, and are the major backers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.”

Abu Taleb points out that Egypt’s growing ties with Cyprus and Greece — resulting in the three states reaching a new maritime demarcation agreement —seriously wrongfooted Ankara.

“By forging such close relations with Cyprus and Greece, President Al-Sisi was able to out-manoeuvre Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has responded by trying to cause trouble for Egypt through interfering in Libya.”

On the domestic front, Egypt ratified a new constitution in 2014 and then amended it in 2019 to alter the stipulations regulating presidential terms, and allow for a second chamber, the Senate. Al-Sisi is now allowed to stay in office until 2024, and has the option to stand for an additional term that will run to 2030.

“Amending the constitution reflected the need to maintain stability and introduce reforms to reinvigorate political life,” says Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, leader of the parliamentary majority Support Egypt coalition.

Al-Qasabi believes that despite the coronavirus crisis elections to the House of Representatives and Senate can be held by the end of this year.

“This will be a very progressive step. Political life in Egypt has been impoverished by the necessary focus on fighting terrorism and improving the economy. But once we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, and overcome the threats that have emerged from Ethiopia and Libya, Egypt will be able to move forward, and this time it will be on both the political and economic fronts.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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