In August 2016 The Economist magazine published a leader article titled “The ruining of Egypt;” it spoke of a dangerous mix of repression and economic incompetence and the likelihood of still another uprising. Since then, former Army General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has tightened his grip on power in that manner he now seems unassailable.
As the president begins his seventh year in office, Egypt’s 102 million citizenry will quite rightly be wondering what happened to the human rights, democratic rule, and development which they were promised back in July 2013.
Alas, they were all thwarted. Fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression were not denied to the Muslim Brotherhood only, as some expected. Even the cheerleaders of the 2013 coup have themselves been excluded from the political arena.
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When Sisi’s army comrades, Sami Anan and Ahmad Shafiq, announced plans to contest the 2018 presidential elections the former was detained and the later was forced to withdraw. The only other candidate allowed to participate was Moussa Mustafa, leader of El-Ghad Party, who instead of campaigning for himself, actually campaigned for Sisi. Such could be the state of Egypt’s democracy.
After announcing his intention to stand down in 2022, the Egyptian parliament approved a constitutional amendment in April 2019 extending Sisi’s term until 2024 and allowing him to operate again in 2030.
In hindsight, The Economist seemed supremely naïve and idealistic if they appealed to Sisi “not to stand again for election in 2018.” Indeed, just a few days ago a call was raised in parliament for Sisi to keep president forever.
Since seizing power Sisi has given the country’s military a better role in managing the civilian economy. Senior officers were appointed to managerial roles in most sectors of the state, maybe not because they had the technical know-how or competency, but because Sisi wanted to secure their loyalty.
At present, the Egyptian army manages 25 % of total government shelling out for housing and infrastructure. In fact, its economic arm – the National Service Projects Organisation (NSPO)– has at least 30 companies engaged in business activities ranging from cement and fertiliser production to ownership of petrol stations, transport, fisheries and poultry farms.
Belatedly, opposition to the military’s dominance of Egypt’s economy is becoming more vocal. Private sector organizations are growing increasingly restive because while they are burdened with heavy taxes and customs duties, military companies are exempt.
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In an endeavor to allay these concerns the NSPO earlier this season offered 10 of its companies for domestic and foreign investors. However, the military is renowned for keeping its accounts secret and is off-limits to inspection from any source. It remains to be observed, therefore, who and just how many entrepreneurs will require the risk to purchase companies which are not audited.
In a report published in April 2019, the World Bank estimated that 60 % of Egypt’s population is either poor or susceptible and that inequality is on the rise. Poverty levels and inequalities in many cases are linked to regions; hence while poverty rates are as little as seven % in cities like Port Said, it rises up to 66 % in areas of Upper Egypt.
During the time July 2013 to August 2016, the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait pumped an estimated $30 billion in aid in to stabilising the Sisi regimen. This was done largely through deposits with the Central Bank of Egypt and the supply of petroleum products as grants. Then when oil prices begun to fall in the second half 2014, the flow of Gulf finance to Egypt began to trickle thus forcing the regimen to seek a $12 billion loan from the IMF in 2016.
In spite of the bailout by international agencies, Egypt’s economy remains closely linked to the Gulf through trade, investment, tourism, and remittances. All of the have declined significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Normally, Egyptian workers in the Gulf remit about $25 billion annually. According to the World Bank, remittance flows are expected to fall by 19.6 per cent this season across the Middle East and North Africa. Already, Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) has reported that 73.5 % of families have suffered a reduction in their income because of the pandemic.
Throughout the past seven years Egypt’s military has mishandled the economy and sensitive problems of national sovereignty. The next “uprising” which The Economist forecasted in 2016 has not materialised but it might not be far off.
When President Sisi ceded sovereignty of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in 2016 many Egyptians felt a profound sense of hurt to their national pride. They are now watching closely to see how the Renaissance Dam controversy with Ethiopia will pan out. The prospects do not look good for the Sisi regimen. No quantity of threats and appeals have now been enough to dissuade the Ethiopians from asserting sole control of the dam. The regimen may have gotten away with the cessation of the Red Sea islands however for Egypt’s people, the Nile is different. It is their lifeline. As the Greek traveller Herodotus once said, “The Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile.”
Clearly, if Egypt is always to emerge out of this current cycle of chronic poverty and dependency it deserves an even more competent leadership that is in a position to uphold the rule of law, respect human rights and create equal opportunities for all its citizens.
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