Once the most dominant country in the Arab world, recent economic and security challenges have led Egypt to be eclipsed in power by the oil-rich Arab Gulf states. Nevertheless, as the most populous country in the Middle East with a powerful U.S.-backed military, Egypt has sought to rebound and recapture its past glory under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Egyptian voters have been heading to the polls this week to re-elect El-Sisi, a former military commander, to a second term as president. While following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab Spring protests many had held out hope that Egypt would transition to a democracy, the results of this week’s election are all but certain to see El-Sisi triumph.
Haisam Hassanein, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who focuses on relations between Israel and Arab States, told JNS that the best way to describe the Egyptian election is that it is essentially a “referendum on El-Sisi’s popularity.”
“All his credible opponents have been banished by his regime,” said Hassanein. “The guy who is running against him is a big supporter of him. Ironically, when he submitted the paperwork to run against El-Sisi, his Facebook profile picture was President El-Sisi himself.”
Nevertheless, despite the Egyptian government essentially rigging the election to ensure that no other credible candidate could oppose El-Sisi, he still is enjoying popular support among many Egyptians due to the country’s turmoil following the Arab Spring, according to Hassanein.
“People are so disappointed with the current social, economic and security conditions in the country. They believe the main reason for such bad conditions is the 2011 uprising against Mubarak,” explained Hassanein. “Hence, they see any attempt to revolt against El-Sisi could lead to a far worse situation. So many of the Egyptians would prefer to continue be ruled by El-Sisi in order not to face an ambiguous future.”
Domestic situation in Egypt
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it is difficult to gauge popular opinion in Egypt since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.
“Islamists and democracy advocates clearly don’t appreciate El-Sisi’s heavy hand. This is not surprising. But what is surprising to me is that secularists and elements of the political elite seem to support him,” he said.
“What does this mean for overall support? I’m not sure anyone knows,” he conceded.
Since the military coup in 2013 and El-Sisi’s first election in 2014, the Egyptian economy has struggled to stabilize itself following the Arab Spring turmoil, which drove away tourism and foreign investment.
“The economy is still taking a hit. Tourism has not yet picked up again,” said Schanzer, who visited Egypt last summer. “The terrorist attacks on the mainland by groups like Hasm and Liwa al-Thawra, coupled with the ongoing struggle to defeat ISIS in the Sinai, have exacerbated concerns about overall security, which only compounds the economic challenges.”
In particular, inflation has increased dramatically in recent years; it peaked at 33 percent in mid-2017. While unemployment has dropped slightly from 13.2 percent in 2013 to 11.5 percent in 2017, the cost of living for Egyptians has increased as subsidies for citizens, fixed at 1,200 Egyptian pounds, have lost value with the decline in value of the Egyptian currency.
At the same time, human-rights organizations have criticized the Egyptian government for repressing freedom of speech and expression. But Hassanein said those rights are not a primary concern for Egyptians.
“Not many Egyptians think about this freedom of speech nowadays,” he acknowledged. “People are getting poor and are struggling economically and socially. They want to be fed. This is all they care about.”
“The elites and intellectuals are frustrated, but they are scared,” he continued. “Few TV anchors dared to discuss issues related to human rights. The punishment was quick: staying home. This made them an example to their peers, who for the sake of earning their living and continued social status became silent.”
Moving on from a ‘cold peace’ with Israel
While El-Sisi faces a number of domestic and security challenges, the relationship with Israel has grown under his leadership.
“On the military, intelligence and even formal diplomatic levels, ties between Egypt and Israel have never been stronger,” said Schanzer. “They see eye to eye on ISIS, Hamas and a range of other threats. We have even seen El-Sisi and Netanyahu pose for a picture at the U.N.—a sign that they are not ashamed of their close personal ties.”
Recent examples of this close economic and military cooperation also included a massive $15 billion deal for Israel to sell natural gas to Egypt, while Israeli forces have purportedly carried out large air campaigns of more than 100 air strikes in the Sinai Peninsula against Islamic State affiliate targets in the last two years, according to a New York Times report in February.
“I think the private sector with the blessings of both governments has a potential to play a bigger role in normalizing the relationship. Look at the recent gas deal. Qualifying industrial zones could witness an increased activity as well,” explained Hassanein. “Will they cooperate on issues related to water and agriculture since they are the biggest challenges to Egypt in the near future, and Israel has superior skills in managing it? This has to been seen.”
Nevertheless, Schanzer pointed out that more must be done to reverse years of anti-Israel propaganda if that close level of cooperation is ever to trickle down to the street in Egypt.
“The Egyptians will need to engage in a re-education campaign, reversing all of the damage done by decades of anti-Israel invective in the media, schools and popular culture,” he said.
“Should Israel find a way to draw closer to the other Sunni Arab states, as some suggest is in the works, that also might begin to shift mindsets in Egypt,” added Schanzer.
Nevertheless, some have pointed to the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the main factors inhibiting broader relations between Israel and the Arab world, including with Egypt.
Hassanein disagrees, pointing to examples in the Egyptian media—largely controlled by the government—as being especially vitriolic in their portrayal of Israel and Judaism without even addressing the Palestinian situation.
“I understand the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the ‘many’ reasons Egypt and Israel still have cold peace. But I think it is not an excuse for the Egyptian regime to spread hate and stereotypes about the Jews and Israel because the Palestinian conflict is unresolved,” he said. “These TV shows and videos they make to defame the Jews do not deal ‘at all’ with the Palestinian issue. It is all about a pretty Jewish girl who made an Egyptian man deceive his people, or wars between the two sides because Israel wants to take Sinai.”
What’s next for Egypt?
As El-Sisi begins his next term, Hassanein believes that the Egyptian leader will continue pushing tough economic reforms and repressing Islamists in the country.
At the same time, Hassanein believes it is unlikely that it will be his last term, as he thinks El-Sisi, who is only 63, will likely secure power for himself by amending the constitution to stay in power.
“Looking at Egyptian politics in modern history, Egyptian presidents left power on two occasions, and there was no third option: 1. Death/assassination: [Gamal Abdel] Nassar and [Anwar] Sadat; 2. Arrest: [Mohammed] Naguib, Mubarak and Morsi.
Will El-Sisi be the first to deviate from that? [The] future will tell!”