by Jake Lippincott
It has been nearly three years since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected president. At the time of Morsi’s ouster, many Egyptians supported el-Sisi in expectation that his administration would end the years of political and economic problems that followed the unrest of 2011.
Many governments allied with Egypt shared this optimism. The E.U. and U.S., which had more-or-less supported Morsi, quickly congratulated Sisi after his inauguration. Last year the U.S. reinstated the military aid that Washington had previously cut off in response to the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Western support for Sisi’s administration has been based on pragmatism, the Gulf Arab states (with the notable exception of Qatar) have proven far more committed to Sisi’s administration and vision for Egypt’s future.
From the beginning of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, Saudi Arabia’s elite perceived the Egyptian revolution as a threat. King Abdullah blamed the initial protests against Mubarak on “meddling…. by those who infiltrated the people in the name of freedom of expression, exploiting it to inject their destructive hatred.” Officials in Riyadh saw Mubarak as a reliable partner, and they feared the potential instability and geopolitical realignment that could result from the overthrow of close strategic allies. When the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had a fraught relationship with the kingdom since the early 1990s, came to power in Egypt the Saudis were especially concerned about the kingdom’s own Islamists demanding political reforms as an outcome of such regional developments.
In 2013, the Egyptian military and police, who were also antagonistic towards the Muslim Brotherhood, supported mass protests against Morsi and overthrew him based on the instructions from Egypt’s “deep state,” the coalition of actors from the military, intelligence services, security apparatus, and judiciary who are pursuing a secretive and undemocratic agenda. Strong Saudi support came as no surprise. After pro-Sisi security forces killed over 1,000 demonstrators on August 14, 2013 in widely condemned raids on pro-Morsi protest camps, King Abdullah unequivocally supported the crackdown. The former king declared, “the people and government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stood and still stand today with our brothers in Egypt against terrorism, extremism and sedition, and against whoever is trying to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.” Shortly thereafter Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE assisted Egypt’s struggling economy with a donation of $12 billion. The aid did not stop there. Over the past three years, GCC members have given Egypt around $30 billion.
This massive outpouring of aid, diplomatic support, and direct investment by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies is more than just a simple effort to shore up one of the largest Arab economies. It represents a vote of confidence in the traditional Egyptian political elites, who are based around the military and interior ministry. In turn, these elites are increasingly indebted to the Gulf monarchies. Undoubtedly, their success or failure will have major implications for Saudi Arabia’s regional standing. Although President Sisi’s supporters in Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere hoped his administration would be able to revitalize Egypt’s economy and bring sustainable political stability to Egypt’s streets, such expectations may have been unjustified.
The Egyptian military’s campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) affiliates in the Sinai Peninsula shows no sign of significant progress. The downing of an airliner filled with Russian tourists last October severely damaged Egypt’s already weak tourist economy. IS fighters have not been alone in killing tourists in Egypt. Last September, after a miscommunication between tourism police and military, the Egyptian military bombed a tourist convoy in the western desert for three hours, killing 12 people most of whom were Mexican tourists. Beyond raising questions about the security forces’ basic competence and ability to minimize civilian casualties, these tourist deaths further hurt Egypt’s image as a tourist destination, deepening the country’s dire economic crisis.
Despite efforts by the Sisi administration to reform the tax base, reduce unsustainable subsidies, and improve Egypt’s infrastructure, foreign exchange problems, low productivity, and an inflation rate of over 10 percent continue to plague the Egyptian economy. Corruption also remains a major challenge for officials in Cairo. In March, Egyptian authorities dismissed the country’s chief anti-corruption auditor, placing him under house arrest after he accused high-ranking members of the judiciary and Sisi administration of graft. Under Sisi’s leadership, the actions against corruption have been unfocused, not just targeting Islamists and Liberals but also members of the establishment, leading to rumors that Sisi is increasingly unable to rein in competing factions within the security forces.
Although the GCC’s aid is keeping Egypt solvent, the country’s dependence on foreign donations is weakening Sisi’s legitimacy. Egyptians across the political spectrum have long muttered about Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies trying to buy Egypt’s sovereignty. But matters came to a head in early April after President Sisi’s cabinet announced the planned transfer of control over two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The islands were arid, uninhabited, and had been under Saudi control until 1950, but the transfer scandalized a wide spectrum of Egyptian society. Earlier, Sisi had used rumors that Morsi planned to cede Egyptian land to various foreign governments as a major pretext to launch a coup. Furthermore, shortly after he came to power Sisi introduced a new clause in the Egyptian constitution that prohibited the transfer of Egyptian land to foreign governments. After the handover of the islands, reliable allies of Sisi publically criticized him in the media, a move unheard of just months before. Scattered protests broke out across the capital, all of which security forces quickly broke up.
The Saudis and their fellow Gulf Arabs, like many Egyptians, have reason to be disappointed with Sisi. Does Sisi have the ability to meaningfully reform Egypt’s economy and making it self-sufficient? Can the state defeat the Sinai insurgency and prevent more terrorist attacks targeting tourists? How will Sisi deal with the anger among many ordinary Egyptians who believe that he illegitimately transferred Egyptian territory to Saudi Arabia?
Despite the uncertainty surrounding these questions and the widespread disappointment with Sisi, the Saudis – like the people of Egypt – recognize that they are likely stuck with Sisi for the foreseeable future. Although powerful and well-armed factions in the Interior Ministry likely have major problems with Sisi, a conflict between Sisi and any other faction of the security state would dwarf the bloodshed of Morsi’s overthrow by an order of magnitude and be a regional catastrophe. None of this would advance the GCC’s interests. Most likely, to prevent such an outcome, the Gulf Arab states will continue investing money in Sisi’s administration, both for their sake and for that of the region.
Jake Lippincott is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt).