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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Source: Kremlin.ru.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Source: Kremlin.ru.
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Egypt at a crossroads: Has el-Sisi’s decade in power been a success?

Egypt faces the same challenges today as it did 10 years ago, when mass protests led to the ouster of then-President Mohamed Morsi.

It has been nearly 10 years since General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi came to power as president of Egypt following a military coup.

July 3, 2013, began as a regular day in Cairo, with demonstrations held against then-President Mohamed Morsi, but ended in his dramatic ouster.

The Egyptians had taken to the streets for seven long months. Some due to Morsi’s attempt to reinstate an Islamist-led parliament, others due to the energy crisis. Following the coup, there were suspicions that the Egyptian military had manipulated fuel prices to destabilize the government.

A gas manager said of the events in 2013, “Before the demonstrations, I would send two of my workers to negotiate all night so that we would have enough gas, and it didn’t always work. Tonight [following the protests], both pumps were full, and the supplier called to ask if we needed more.”

Like many other fields in Egypt, the fuel industry is also under the influence of the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not give up easily. In the weeks following Morsi’s ouster, violent clashes took place between their members and the security forces, leading to many deaths. The next step was to declare the movement illegal and embark on an unprecedented arrest campaign.

A decade later, el-Sisi himself now faces a similar problem: the Egyptian pound is decreasing in value, and the projects he announced, including the building of new cities and highways, are a burden on the state budget.

The highlight of the massive construction boom is the new administrative capital being built east of Cairo, but the project is several years behind schedule. These ventures, which resemble those of real estate giants Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have led to harsh criticism against el-Sisi.

For instance, his opponents lament that a whopping $58 billion invested in the building of the new capital come mainly from the state budget.

A report by the Washington-based POMED (Project on Middle East Democracy) group said that despite el-Sissi’s claim that not a penny would be taken from the state budget to build the new capital, most of the funds have in fact come from state coffers. The report also said that billions of dollars ended up in the pockets of construction companies closely affiliated with the government.

“What we find is an expanding state within a state, with resources funneled to the military regime and debt piled on to the civilian government,” the report said. The project is “actually making el-Sisi’s hold on power more, rather than less, tenuous—creating bubbles in the desert, ready to pop.”

El-Sisi’s second major construction project was the development of the Suez Canal, expected to double revenue to about $13 billion a year. After 12 months of intensive digging, which required 25,000 local workers, the canal was launched eight years ago.

Egypt was not spared by the Ukraine war, either, which led to more debt. Wheat prices on the world market soared, and Egypt’s bread subsidy budget increased as a result. As a result, el-Sisi found himself in more dire need of income than ever. It seems he found a solution, among other things, by warming ties with former rivals, such as Turkey and Iran.

Earlier this month, the Saudi Al Arabiya outlet reported that Tehran and Cairo were working on an agreement to establish a committee to renew ties, including security coordination. Such a development would boost tourism in Egypt, one of the pillars of its economy. Rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, however, is a cause for concern for Israel.

Baseless oppression

El-Sisi is also subject to criticism due to the widespread violation of the civil rights of his citizens, an issue that became a source of tension with the United States when the Democratic Party came to power.

“Human rights are at an all-time low in Egypt; it’s never been this bad,” Egyptian activist and Middle East expert Mohamed Saad Hirala, who was forced to flee to Sweden, told Israel Hayom. “Currently, in many cases the abuse is baseless, it’s just oppression for the sake of oppression.”

Saad explained what stood behind the uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood.

“After months under their rule, the vast majority of the masses were convinced that they didn’t have the mandate to rule, and therefore the people came out against them as one. This unity was the key to stopping the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian people, from all walks of life, became victims of political fraud.

“The Brotherhood had nothing but delusions, no vision and no plan. This fact naturally united all of society against them. Now el-Sisi is promoting a unique model of totalitarian rule by himself and the institution he belongs to.

“That’s why you can understand how a country of 110 million people is on the verge of exploding at any moment, with a tremendous amount of rage and hatred. Everything happens because of baseless oppression. And when the country celebrates the actions of a murderer [terrorist Mohamed Salah Ibrahim, who killed three Israeli soldiers in a border attack in early June]—it is clear that society is officially moving to the model of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Iran.”

Asked whether a change was possible, Saad said that “there is more than one solution, and the Egyptian issue is very complex. One of the solutions is to impose international supervision and oversight on the next presidential elections. There is no other option than to have this done through world powers because in the next explosion, everyone will pay the price.”

The elections Saad mentioned are scheduled to be held in January 2024. Many estimate that they will end in a similar result to the 2018 vote when some candidates withdrew due to pressure from the government, and el-Sissi won with 97% of the votes.

Compared to Egypt’s domestic situation, ties between Cairo and Jerusalem have improved significantly in the last decade.

Peace and obstacles

Haisam Hassanein, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writes about the ties between Israel and Arab countries and is one of the only Egyptian academics to have received his master’s degree from Tel Aviv University.

When asked about the factors that impacted ties during the el-Sisi era, Hassanein replied: “Egypt experienced political and socio-economic problems that brought Cairo and Jerusalem closer together. Egypt saw Israel as a partner in its war on terror in Sinai and in improving its image in Washington’s political circles when it came to the battle of narratives against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Where to now?

The Egypt border attack once again raised the question of the gap between official and street-level relations between the two countries.

According to Hassanein, some of the steps that can be implemented to bring about a rapprochement between the people and not just between the two governments include “interactions between Israelis and Egyptians. This is one of the missing elements in the peace between Israel and Egypt. This can happen through tourism, education, culture and, most importantly, commerce.”

In a recent piece, Hassanein wrote that it was “clear” that the peace agreement has not moderated the widespread hatred of Israel in Egyptian culture.

The time has come for a new approach that starts in Israel, not Egypt, he wrote.

A dormant embassy

Hassanein also noted that el-Sisi’s gestures towards Jerusalem were not part of an ongoing effort to change Egyptian public opinion about Israel.

A more pragmatic way to change the discourse regarding Israel may begin in Tel Aviv, where Cairo maintains a dormant embassy, whose staff are doing little to promote the peace treaty with Israel and which has little interest in the Jewish state, he said. For instance, the embassy does not facilitate visits by Egyptian business people and academics who are interested in cooperation, according to Hassanein.

Hassanein explained that Egypt’s security establishment is  not interested in such developments as “past wars have not been forgotten.”

“Politically, they are thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Culturally, if many Egyptians come to Israel and see how good life is here, some poor youngsters may try to move to Israel illegally, as they are trying in Europe,” he said.

Just recently, dozens of migrants drowned off the coast of Greece trying to reach the continent in search of a better life. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said the ship, which suffered a malfunction, was carrying illegal immigrants from Libya to Europe, with hundreds of people aboard of various nationalities, including Egyptians.

Is this the fate awaiting all of Egypt? El-Sisi promises that despite the challenges, he will manage to steer the country to a safe harbor.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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