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Al-Sisi’s New Egypt

After the fires of the Arab spring had died down it became obvious that the changes that the protesters had hoped for in their respective countries were still a long way to come and for several others their situation became worse than they could ever imagine. Devastating conflicts still rage in Syria and Libya and threaten to spill over into neighboring countries. Even in Tunisia, which arguably had the quickest and cleanest transition of power, it seems the government is returning to its corrupt ways. Egypt, however, is a unique case. After weeks of protesting Mubarak, who had been in power for three decades, stepped down. By midsummer of 2012 Mohamed Morsi was freely elected by a majority to be the new president of Egypt. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that had been involved in terrorism and was banned by Mubarak. The military has always been suspicious of the Brotherhood and the former Minister of Defense, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, lead a coup that overthrew Morsi and the Brotherhood from power in the summer of 2013. Many Egyptian are also wary of the brotherhood and generally supported the move. Al-Sisi then stepped down as defense minister and ran in the 2014 presidential election where he won by an almost suspicious majority, close to 97%. He assumed the presidency in early June 2014.

Since al-Sisi has taken office he has been a magnet for controversy. His tough stance on extremist groups and his economics-focused policies have earned him praise from the U.S. and many other Middle Eastern and Western Nations. However his human rights violations and treatment of the Brotherhood has earned him equal amounts of criticism. In this entry I will examine his actions as president and determine if his policies have positively or negatively affected the people of Egypt.

After the events of the Arab Spring Egypt still faced many of the same economic problems it had before. High youth-unemployment, high prices on commodities, and lack of investment both foreign and domestic. In addition the turmoil from the Arab Spring and the coup negatively impacted the tourist industry. Arguably one of  al-Sisi’s greatest accomplishments is his effort to improve the economy through federal investment and by cutting spending in certain sectors which in turn has boosted the interest of private investors.

One ambitious project is the expansion of the Suez Canal. For decades the Canal has brought billions to the economy and is a source of pride for many Egyptians (1). The expansion promises to bring 2 to 5 billion USD in revenue over the next two to three years and encourage the investment of 220 billion USD over the next fifteen years (1). What is unique about this project is that a large part was publicly funded by the purchase of investment certificates. In what was thought was going to take months Egyptians bought 61 billion Egyptian pounds worth of certificates in just 8 days (2). It was not just the promise of a return on the investment that fueled this, many Egyptians strongly supported al-Sisi and also wanted to once again feel pride for their homeland (1)(2). He has also made some unpopular cuts to fuel subsidies in order to attempt to balance the budget and opponents have used this against him. However at the same time Egypt is fairly stable and this has renewed interest from foreign investors. An Israeli firm, in a 4 billion USD seven year deal, will supply natural gas to Egypt and is the largest economic deal between the two countries (3). This sort of deal would have been impossible if Israel was not confident in the stability of Egypt. Furthermore al-Sisi’s more secular government is much more equipped to negotiate with Israel compared to the Muslim Brotherhood which many nations still consider a terrorist organization. Domestic investment is also up in Egypt. SODIC, a real estate investment firm based in Egypt, is investing 2 to 2.5 billion dollars in developing downtown Cairo. This following the government’s recent goal of boosting investment 14% to increase economic growth by 3.2% (4). Once again all this would not have happened if the firm was not confident in al-Sisi’s ability to keep the peace. After all developing downtown Cairo would be a risky endeavor if there was still the danger of mass protests or another major shift in power.

ISIS is a new a frightening player in Middle Eastern politics and security. The presence of ISIS is so impactful that not only has the focus on the Syrian Civil war shifted away, but some are wondering if Assad was right all along. Egypt has long been viewed as a pillar of regional stability. Egypt has strong ties to many Middle Eastern nations and the West, in addition they harshly crackdown on extremists in their own country. Particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian security forces aggressively root out extremist groups (5). The United States’s relationship with Egypt is still as close as ever and Secretary of State John Kerry has affirmed that Egypt will be a key player in the struggle against ISIS (6). Other Middle Eastern countries recognize the important role Egypt has against ISIS. Qatar and Turkey back the Muslim Brotherhood which puts them at odds against al-Sisi’s Egypt. Qatar in particular has failed to honor a deal with Egypt designed to patch up relations after Morsi’s ouster. This was primarily done under pressure by Saudi and the UAE (7). Forcing Qatar to bend to Egypt shows how important Egypt as an ally is to the Middle East in the struggle against ISIS.

Political realists like al-Sisi are excellent at security and the economy but they can falter when it comes to human rights. Al-Sisi has faced criticism for the ouster of Morsi, mistreatment of protesters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood , and the restrictive laws he has enacted. Are these laws required to maintain stability or are they just al-Sisi consolidating power? There are many opinions on this question but an objective interpretation is that al-Sisi is definitely a restrictive president with a questionable human rights record.

When I first started following al-Sisi’s activities he was preparing to address the UN following his first 100 days in office. There were ongoing hunger strikes over the protest law which kept thousand of protesters in prison, some of whom had been incarcerated since the 2011 protests against Mubarak (8). Ahead of his address al-Sisi released a few high profile prisoners inspiring hopes that his tough stance on protesting would soften. However this was not the case and before the Egyptian school year started there were mass door-to-door arrests of students suspected of being involved in protests and anti-government activities (9). In early November, ahead of a UN human rights review, Egypt promised to abide better by its 2014 constitution and to look at the treatment of prisoners, the disabled, and the problem of sexual assault. However the locking up of protesters and the protest law were left off the table (10). In addition to his government’s stranglehold on public demonstration he has banned criticism of the government, going so far as to banning a musician from a private radio station, something Nasser and Mubarak had only done for public stations (11). This has created a culture of fear in Egypt that should not exist in a democratic society. In her editorial for the New York Times, Egyptian Journalist Sara Khorshid describes how she and her friends were detained for several hours after being reported to the police by a fellow cafe patron for conspiring against the government (12). Khorshid writes that this was something she would expect from Nasser’s Egypt in the 60s not from a present day democratic government.

In response to these abuses there have been calls for cutting US military and economic aide to Egypt (13) and calls from those saying the US should not (14). The main argument for cutting aide is that it would send Egypt a message that the US does not support oppressive regimes. Those against cutting aide point out that the US does not even give a majority of aide anymore and that oppressive regimes in the Gulf are giving 10 times more than the US. The US should keep giving aide so that it has more diplomatic leverage and maintain a Western influence in Egypt.

Overall I think al-Sisi has been a positive influence on Egypt but I still disagree with many of his actions. As a political realist he has kept all his promises by securing Egypt and boosting the economy. I can understand keeping the protest laws. His main goal is stability and mass protests can easily hurt his economic and security goals. He has to keep the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members at bay who would jump on any chance to take back power. However jailing journalists and banning any criticism of the government will only incite people further. One thing is for certain, as long as ISIS remains the threat it is, human rights reforms in Egypt will be a secondary concern for the West and the more moderate Middle Eastern countries. When the time does come for free elections will al-Sisi give up power if not reelected or will he become another Nasser or Mubarak? Personally I would not be surprised if he did not give up power. Either al-Sisi is too much of a political realist to give up control to someone who he believes would not be fit to lead Egypt or he simply does not want to relinquish his power.

kobkirc

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