Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s four-year-long rule of Egypt has been marked by a campaign of repression that has now reached his own government. Following the military coup in 2013, Sisi arrested or exiled Islamists, youth activists, leftists, liberals, authors, and even comedians. Earlier in 2018, however, Sisi turned his attention to regime loyalists in preparation for the presidential elections.
The Sisi-led regime views any form of dissent as a threat. In March 2018, it delivered its most aggressive message to challengers by locking up former Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Sami Anan and former head of the National Auditing Agency, Hisham Geneina. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq was also on the receiving end of heavy pressure to withdraw his candidacy, and was detained at Cairo International Airport following his arrival from Dubai.
Given Egypt’s current paranoia-dominated reality, the questions analysts and experts are trying to answer include: how long can Sisi maintain his control on power? What does the future hold for Egypt given its growing economic crisis? And with the nation’s regional influence, how can the developments in Egypt impact the MENA region as a whole?
There is no room for dialectics in Sisi’s Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist group, while leftist and liberal activists have been imprisoned. However, the recent arrest of former Army Chief of Staff, Sami Anan, confirms the regime’s paranoia and its newfound fear of regime loyalists. A state in which a huge security apparatus is the main guarantor of regime stability makes holding on to power difficult, especially in the long run. Since authority rests mainly on widespread fear and coercion, it may reliably be said that such a state is weak and vulnerable.
Sisi is well aware of these shortcomings, and has searched for external legitimacy rather than domestic, strengthening his ties with oil-rich countries at the regional level – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At the international level, Sisi has promoted Egypt as the main regional pillar in the fight against terrorism, having repeatedly spoken against extremism and urged for reformation of Islamic discourse to meet the challenges of the modern world. Needless to say, with the rise of strongman politics, and the international war against ISIS, Sisi’s words resonate, and he has managed to gain international recognition and support.
On the domestic front, in spite of declining public support, Sisi has strong backing from the military – a huge organization that controls virtually every sector of the economy. Sisi, a general with a military background, in line with all of the presidents of Egypt, except Morsi, has helped expand the political role of the Army, which is now much more politically powerful than it was during Mubarak’s reign. Companies owned by the military have also gone from strength to strength, which has local businessmen and foreign investors concerned about the prospects of private corporations. Moreover, Sisi’s apparently reckless extravagance on massive projects such as the new “Administrative Capital,” where the military owns a majority stake in the company developing the project, is imposing a crushing financial burden on the country.
International media coverage of Egypt’s debt and currency crises has been minimal. This is primarily due to a 2016 USD 12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has resulted in the U.S. and European countries portraying the Egyptian economy in a better light than is actually warranted. Yet the mounting debt and growing austerity is a serious cause of concern for Sisi, who hopes that he and his country will pull through because they are too politically important to fail.
Sisi is right - the primary concern of institutions such as the IMF, as well as the Gulf countries, is Egypt’s political stability, not its economic performance. Following the removal of Morsi, Saudi Arabia and the UAE donated billions of dollars to the state and the military, saving Egypt from going bankrupt. Can Sisi count on his neighbors to repeat their support, especially with the economic challenges of their own? As important as external financial support from the Gulf countries is, it does not address the structural problems of the economy or the political failings of its leadership.