by Emile Nakhleh
The crash of EgyptAir flight MS804 with 66 passengers and crew in the Mediterranean, presumably due to a terrorist act, is yet another sign of misfortune for Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. If it turns out that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has brought the airliner down, it would be another example of the terror group putting Egypt in its crosshairs, which will only add to Sisi’s troubled leadership and Egypt’s shaky future under his rule.
Since Sisi toppled the previously elected President Mohammad Morsi in a military coup in 2013, he has ruled Egypt with an iron fist, curtailing opposition and detaining thousands of dissidents. Mass protests since April have raised Sisi’s transfer of the two Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, presumably in return for several billions of dollars in Saudi aid, in order to challenge his oppressive, arbitrary, and inept rule. The protests focused on Egypt’s poorly managed economy, endemic corruption, unbridled repression, a wealthy and unaccountable plutocracy, and a rudderless and clueless regime. Over 150 people, including dozens of journalists, were convicted last month in sham trials for demonstrating against the Sisi regime.
Although the two islands used to belong to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom transferred their sovereignty to Egypt in 1950 in fear of their potential occupation by Israel. The optic of Sisi’s decision has harmed his standing for several reasons. First, Egyptians who are 66 years old or younger know the two islands only as a part of Egypt. Most Egyptians weren’t born when Egypt took possession of the islands.
Second, since ousting Morsi, Sisi has made it very clear, including in a constitutional amendment, that no part of Egypt, “not even one grain of sand” shall be given away. Yet to some critics, his giving away the islands so cavalierly and without a national debate smacks of hypocrisy. Third, what’s most appalling to opponents of the transfer was that Sisi gave back the islands in exchange for Saudi riyals. Some dissidents maintain that Sisi’s decision was a response to the lavish Saudi aid and gifts that King Salman bestowed upon him and his coterie in the Egyptian military and civilian leadership.
According to media reports, Sisi was baffled by the large demonstrations denouncing the transfer. If these reports are accurate, the Egyptian dictator must be tone deaf and has no clue of Egypt’s current state of affairs. He can’t seem to understand that some Egyptians could oppose the transfer even though none of them has ever visited the islands.
The recent arrests and convictions of dozens of journalists, including the security forces’ storming of the Journalists’ Syndicate in order to arrest newsmen Amr Badr and Mohmoud El-Sakka, are ominous signs of Sisi’s loss of control and rapidly diminishing legitimacy.
The regime seems to have broken with Egyptian media, which heretofore has been an unabashed mouthpiece of the regime. In the past three years, Sisi has relied heavily on compliant Egyptian journalists to spread his propaganda against the Muslim Brotherhood and to defend his policies. Losing the media severely undermines his credibility and ability to use “soft” power to garner popular support. He is more isolated now than at any time since he grabbed power in 2013.
Sisi’s Rule Adrift
Domestically and regionally, Egypt’s posture is in dire straits. The economy is on the verge of collapse. The birthrate is high, unemployment among the youth is unsustainable, poverty is endemic, the tourism industry has tanked, and the revenues from the Suez Canal have been dropping. Despite the billions in Saudi and Gulf aid, which the Sisi regime has received since 2013, the economy has not seen real structural improvement. Job creation remains anemic at best, and foreign investment has a minimal impact on the overall economy. Egypt’s population is expected to double in the next 30-40 years, reaching almost 160 million by 2050.
The military controls nearly one third of the Egyptian economy. The income from this opaque and totally non-transparent economic activity, however, does not trickle down. The unholy alliance between the senior military officer class and the well-connected wealthy business elites is detrimental to the future of Egypt.
For years, the Egyptian military has been viewed as the symbol of stability in the country and the Praetorian guard of the Egyptian state. Yet, as a wealthy, unaccountable class, the military has gotten richer while poverty has soared. Over half of the Egyptian population lives on less than $2 a day. Like any institution with power and wealth, the military is invested in the status quo—politically and economically. Although an inept, weak, and autocratic Sisi is not good for Egypt in the long term, he does serve the interests of the military well in the short term.
Regional Marginalization and Loss of National Pride
Many Egyptian nationalists who have opposed the islands’ transfer to Saudi Arabia are not focused on the islands per se but on what they perceive as a loss of their national pride and the marginalization of their country as a serious regional player. For decades Egypt was the most significant Arab state, the symbol of Arab nationalism, and a pivotal player in matters of war and peace in the region. Before Sisi came to power, Egypt had a relatively independent press and a vibrant cultural tradition in art, music, filmmaking, and book publishing. It also boasted an active civil society environment. Egyptians believe that when Egypt acted, the rest of the Arab world responded, mostly following the Egyptian line.
Egypt had no democracy, but Egyptians, especially the political elite, were actively engaged in political discourse. Although the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, amassed unprecedented oil wealth, they were expected to use their wealth in support of so-called Arab causes—which mostly were defined by Cairo.
By contrast, Egyptians today see their leader kowtowing to Saudi Arabia because of his dire need for Saudi money. Since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne and his younger son Muhammad emerged as a key regime player, Riyadh has been actively trying to replace Cairo as the pivotal capital in the Arab world. Egyptian elites abhor the possibility that the Arab center of power seems to be shifting from Cairo to Riyadh. They view the transfer of the two islands as a proof of their country’s marginalization in regional affairs.
Sisi’s need for Saudi financial aid is real and urgent. But instead of having a national conversation about the future of the Egyptian economy, he has taken out his frustration on his own people through repressive draconian measures. The recent regime attacks on the Journalists’ Syndicate and arrests and convictions of journalists indicate Sisi’s deepening isolation domestically and regionally.
The Way Forward
If Sisi and his ruling elite are interested in restoring Egypt’s regional stature, they must start at home by engaging the Egyptian people in the policymaking process. Empowering civil society institutions and changing the law to allow them to raise money for their social, economic, and educational projects could be a first step in engaging the public.
Concurrently, investment laws must be amended to encourage entrepreneurship, innovation, and small, creative business and technology start-ups. With its bloated bureaucracy, the Egyptian government is no longer the default employer in the country. Private initiatives are the hope for job creation.
Creative entrepreneurial initiatives require a modern kind of education that qualifies job seekers to work in a 21st-century digitally driven globalized world. Students should be encouraged to pursue special training, perhaps at the community college level, in such fields as technology, digital education, and vocational training, construction, nursing, medical technology, health care services, electronics, transportation, and renewable solar and wind energy.
In order to bring the public along, Sisi should open up the political space, encourage inclusion and public discourse, and initiate a process of national conversations about issues critical for the future of Egypt. Charting a new path requires an end to pervasive corruption, repression, and malfeasance in office.
One of Sisi’s most vexing challenges will be to tame his military by taking it out of politics and the economy. Pursuing a new military doctrine and a grand design for war and peace making must move away from traditional armed conflict to a new era of cyber security and cyber war. If this happens, the size of the military must be reduced, and many of the senior military officers should be retired. Professionalism and familiarity with the digital and cyber world should be inculcated in the incoming officer class. This is definitely a game changer for Egypt. By maintaining business as usual, Sisi will be unable to halt Egypt’s slide toward the abyss.