(November 15, 2017 / JNS) As an April 2018 election approaches in Israel’s southern neighbor of Egypt, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi this month declared that he will not seek an unconstitutional third term. But El-Sisi neglected to mention what is actually at stake in next year’s election—his potential second term.
Since he assumed office in June 2014, El-Sisi has represented a warmer partner for Israel than his Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Morsi—a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent group of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. Yet the Israelis and Egyptians, despite upholding an official peace treaty since 1979, still maintain what Israel’s former Ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel describes as a “cold peace.”
“El-Sisi does not dare to really deepen bilateral relations with Israel, in terms of normalization….There are no relations on the level of people. No scientific or cultural collaboration. Nothing. Just [ties] between the governments and on very specific issues,” Mazel, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank, told JNS.org.
Mazel explained that El-Sisi fears getting closer to Israel due to internal opposition from Islamists and Egyptian nationalists, as well as regional opposition from other Arab states and the Palestinians.
Prospects for re-election
In confirming that he does not plan to exceed Egypt’s constitutional limit of two four-year terms, El-Sisi told CNBC, “It doesn’t suit me as a president to stay one more day against the will of the Egyptians.”
But ahead of an election that will determine whether he gets a second term, it seems that no formidable contenders have emerged to challenge the incumbent.
Khaled Ali, a prominent lawyer, indicated that he intends to run against El-Sisi and stated that he would abolish all of the president’s reforms. Other potential challengers are Hamdeen Sabahi, who comes from the Nasser school of thought, an ideology that Mazel said was “buried with Nasser;” and former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, who has been in exile in the United Arab Emirates since 2013, when Morsi charged him with corruption.
“There’s no one else who can really match El-Sisi,” said Mazel.
“He’s going to be re-elected for a second term, this is probably a sure thing,” he said. “He needs to be there, and all of Egypt knows it….He may even be elected for a third term and change the constitution, because he will be so good at implementing his economic reforms [that Egyptians will want him to stay in office].”
Yet Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum think tank, said that due to El-Sisi’s “major errors”—including constructing the new Suez Canal and a new capital, having “no endgame” with the Muslim Brotherhood, targeting liberals, giving too much power to the military and not controlling the intelligence services—Egypt is susceptible to renewed Islamist leadership.
“In combination, these factors make it likely that Sisi will lose power and the Muslim Brotherhood will take his place—this time for the duration,” Pipes told JNS.org.
Domestic and foreign challenges
Mazel asserted that El-Sisi can be considered the “most positive” leader in the Arab world, largely due to his successful implementation of sweeping economic reforms that are crucial for Egypt’s survival.
Some of the reforms initiated by El-Sisi include floating the Egyptian pound in order to qualify for a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, introducing a value added tax and launching massive infrastructure projects such as the construction of a new Suez Canal.
“There is really a big change in the economy….It’s a very good beginning,” said Mazel.
One of El-Sisi’s main challenges is the rapid growth of Egypt’s population, which is increasing at a rate of 1 million people every six months. The country is projected to have a population of 100 million by 2020. Complicating matters, the majority of Egyptians live in poverty due to the country lagging behind in its development for half a century.
“[Former President Gamal Abdel] Nasser completely destroyed the economy. [It’s] terrible. El-Sisi is doing what he can. I think he is an honest man,” said Mazel. “He has started something very important. No one can replace him. [The Egyptian people will] let him continue because they don’t see anyone else who can do the same thing.”
El-Sisi must also contend with an Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which shares a 150-mile-long border with Israel. During the past several years, Islamic terrorists—including from Sinai Province, an affiliate of Islamic State—have killed hundreds of Egyptian government troops and policemen.
Egypt’s security efforts in the Sinai are receiving support from Bedouin tribes who have grown resentful of Islamic State’s presence, but “we see that terrorism isn’t breaking,” Yoram Schweitzer, a former head of the Counter International Terror Section in the Israeli military, told JNS.org in October.
At the same time, there is “a big problem” regarding Egypt’s foreign policy, Mazel believes.
“[President Barack] Obama completely neglected Egypt after El-Sisi expelled Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood [in a military coup in 2013], and he suspended some of the U.S. military assistance [to the Egyptians]. He didn’t want to give El-Sisi the assistance he expected with fighting the insurgency in Sinai,” said Mazel.
The deterioration in relations with the U.S., Mazel explained, caused El-Sisi to develop deep relations with Russia, which is now building four nuclear reactors in Egypt in a $27 billion project. Moscow has also supplied Egypt with a bevy of military hardware, including 30 MIG fighter planes and 40 combat helicopters, and has promised to invest in industrial projects along the new Suez Canal.
As a result, El-Sisi has aligned himself with the foreign policy of Russia, which considers Syria and Iran as allies.
“This is a problem,” said Mazel. “[The U.S. and Saudi Arabia] cannot effectively build an anti-Iranian foreign policy in the region…over the past two years, Egypt has never spoken out against Iran. When they do have to say something, they never mention Iran by name.”
While El-Sisi on Nov. 8 seemingly criticized Iran for undermining the security of Arab states, Mazel noted that the Egyptian leader “never [explicitly] said Iran” in those comments.
“I am against war, we can resolve crises with dialogue,” El-Sisi had said. “Gulf security is a red line and others must stop meddling in our affairs and not work to escalate tensions.”
The future of Egypt-Israel ties
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his first-ever public meeting with El-Sisi in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The meeting came amid speculation of a historic shift in Arab policy towards the Jewish state.
Moving forward, Mazel expects that in the absence of overtly warm Egypt-Israel relations, the countries will continue practical cooperation on matters such as security.
“El-Sisi needs Israel,” he said. “And we (Israelis) need him because what’s going on in the northern Sinai is [taking place] on our border. We both have an interest in collaborating. We have good intelligence cooperation. This is accepted, and a few months ago Netanyahu even stated that he speaks with El-Sisi once or twice a week. It means that collaboration on security is very good. It’s important for both countries. But there are many other problems.”