Five major challenges face President Sisi
The future of Egypt is a global issue that goes beyond its own frontiers. Egypt has often played the role of history’s laboratory, from the beginnings of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1928 to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, via Nasserism and the peace with Israel in 1979, followed by the assassination of Anwar Sadat. It is central to the equilibrium of the Arab world and to the development of Islam. It is a key factor in the Arab Spring, because of its double revolution – the first one leading to the election of Mohamed Morsi as President in June 2012, and the second one which brought about his removal in July 2013 and the plebiscite given to Marshal Sisi, elected with 98% of votes in May 2014. Finally, it has a crucial role in the future of Africa, being potentially the third major power there.
This is why the future of the Middle East and the Maghreb depends largely on Egypt’s ability to stem the upsurge of violence that threatens it – most recently, the tragic attack that destroyed Metrojet’s AIrbus A321 over the Sinai.
The Egyptian economy grew back to 4% in 2015 thanks to its new strategy on four priority issues. Domestic reforms with the reduction of grants for fuel consumption – facilitated by the drop in oil prices – as well as the increased protection of foreign investment. An international opening with the floating of the Egyptian pound and the signing of the Sharm el Skeikh free-trade treaty on 10th June. The launch of a major public works program centered on the widening of the Suez Canal – begun on 6th August – which will double the traffic and create 1 million jobs between now and 2023, the creation of a new capital between Cairo and Suez whose cost is estimated at 45 billion dollars, the modernisation of the armed forces which began with the acquisition of the Rafale fighter aircraft, a frigate, and the Mistral assault ships that had originally been destined for Russia. Finally, the recovery of tourism, which depends on the restoration of civil peace.
- The economic challenge of growth. Egypt needs to increase its economic activity by 5% per year in order to provide jobs for the 700,000 young people who come onto the job market every year. However, growth fell from 7.2% in 2008 to 5.1% in 2010, leveling out at around 2% from 2011 to 2014, because of the collapse of tourism which generates 12% of the GNP and foreign investment. Hence the official unemployment rate of 12.8%, which masks the fact that almost a quarter of the working population is unemployed.
- The security challenge: a condition for economic recovery. Egypt is on the edge of civil war: there has been an increase in terrorist groups and in attacks on Cairo and the whole of the Nile Valley; and most of Sinai is not controlled by the military. The recent attack on the Metrojet plane underlines the high Islamic presence at the heart of society, which repression tends to strengthen, notably within minority groups like the Bedouin.
- The challenge of restoring state power: inseparable from the role of the army. As in Kemalist Turkey or in Pakistan, the state as well as vast areas of economic activity cannot be dissociated from the army, the backbone of the nation. Thus it is that the military controls 10 to 20% of the country’s GNP, a fact which nurtures endemic corruption. Strongly plebiscited, President Sisi is consolidating all powers and has based his own on all the essential components of the state: the army, the police force, intelligence services, the civil service and the judiciary. Counting on military autocracy in order to improve the efficiency and transparency of the administraiton is a gamble that is far from being brought off.
- The political challenge: dependent on the autocratic nature… of the regime. Egypt suffers from not having a culture of democracy or pluralism – for example, minorities like the Copts and the Bedouins are excluded. As during the terrible Algerian civil war, the dilemma comes down to a choice between the army and fanatics, since the third – liberal – way has been aborted. The majority of Egyptians have opted for a return to order against the Islamists, which includes putting democracy on hold. But aspirations to freedom and dignity as expressed by the crowds in Tahrir square remain unbroken. And the return to civil peace means the integration of minorities and a compromise with those clerics who agree to renounce violence.
- The strategic challenge: a global issue. Egypt is the key to preventing the Sunni world from turning to fanaticism and to stopping Islamic State expanding from the Middle East to the Maghreb, notably by creating a link between Iraq and Libya. It represents a crucial link that can determine the alliance of Sunni states against terrorism and the bringing together of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. It is also one of Israel’s few props in the region. It carries even more weight because Turkey is being carried along on the rellgious drift of Recep Erdogan and is playing a double game with regard to Islamic State.
Egypt under President Sisi is in the front line against Islamist terrorism. It is one of the few fixed points that can be banked on to stem the rise of extreme violence in the Middle East and Northern Africa and to bring the Arab world into the modern one. For the moment, it is either autocracy or chaos opening the way to Islamic State control. This is why the success of the second Egyptian revolution is vital. This is why the United States and Europe must break with their strategy of distancing themselves from President Sisi’s Egypt and enter into a strategic partnership which links support for economic reform with strong demands with regard to the inclusion of minorities and the advancement of the rule of law.