By Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
BEIRUT: Two obscure islands could finally be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in Egypt and for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His transfer of two small islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia in return for more aid money has drawn widespread ire across a broad swath of the Egyptian public and media. It is also yet another misstep in a series of mistakes that Sisi has committed since his ascent to power in 2013.
Many billed Sisi a hero and savior of the nation when he came to power, some even daring to saying he could be another Abdul Nasser. For those watching from the outside it was all too clear to see how Sisi’s rise to power was orchestrated by the deep military state in Egypt that never disappeared and Saudi Arabia who wanted to draw Egypt back into its fold.
People initially were okay to turn a blind eye to Sisi’s shortcomings and often times brutal responses towards protesters. Let’s step back for a moment from the typical norms of what we consider democracy and see what a segment of the Egyptian population wanted out of Sisi: a benevolent strong man. A good portion of Egyptians thought a military figure would turn the country around and aid the ailing economy and deteriorating security situation under Morsi. Egypt’s last dictator, Hosni Mubarak, remained in power for so long by mastering the art of divide and conquer between opposition groups as well as co-opting the country’s business oligarchs and the army. Sisi though has chosen to rule strictly through the military and heavy-handed security tactics, which is already weakening his rule.
The hope thrown behind Sisi was based on two pillars: his ability to restore security and the economy. Although initially it seemed he could do both, to date he has not been able to accomplish either.
Security, the main pillar Sisi’s rule rests upon, has begun to crack. Egypt’s dreaded secret police, and its more brutal elements are indeed back in full force. Many have come to believe that security forces under Sisi have even proven to be even more brutal than under Mubarak. Despite the beefed up security presence, Sisi’s Egypt is not anymore safer than under his predecessor.
The main thorn in Sisi’s side is the ever-persistent insurgency in the Sinai. Even before Sisi, militants in the Sinai Peninsula exploited the political vacuum in the wake of Mubarak’s fall from power and began a growing insurgency. Initial thoughts were that Sisi, being a tough military man, meant he would be able to use the full force of the army to squash the insurgency, but the opposite has proven to be true. A major attack at the end of summer 2013, left 25 officers dead and in early 2014 insurgents managed to down a helicopter, killing 5 officers. The following month, insurgents attacked a bus of South Korean tourists leaving St. Catherine’s Monastery which claimed the lives of 4 people, a major blow to Egypt’s vital tourism industry and the regime, which has continuously based it international image on the basis that it can maintain security in Egypt. To the further chagrin of the government and its reputation, Sinai militants, known as Ansar Beit El Miqadis, pledged allegiance to infamous international terrorist group ISIS.
Even in Egypt’s beating heart, its capital Cairo, the security situation has proven to be far from stable. Protests under Sisi have been more numerous than they were during Mubarak’s last two years. And who could forget the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat (a top Sisi official) in a high profile area of Cairo. Copts, whose leadership threw their weight behind Sisi, also continue to suffer attacks with impunity. Just four months after Sisi swept to power, a gunman managed to spray bullets in to a Coptic Church in Cairo during a wedding.
With all the security mayhem, Egypt’s economy is now in a malaise. There was a glimmer of hope when Sisi organized an invest in Egypt summit in 2014 although the security situation has dashed hopes for outside investment and more tourists fear to visit the country due to safety concerns. Aid money from the Gulf that poured in after Morsi was toppled, had little impact and has most likely dried up after the collapse in oil prices. Instead of using Egypt’s business oligarchs to work their international connections or even attempt to make solid economic reforms, Sisi has opted for mega projects to make a show force such as his new Suez Canal and planned new capital for Cairo. He has also further incensed the business the community by giving the military even more power to intervene in the economy by allowing the military to develop any of its land for commercial use and taking on the construction of these mega projects. Now Egypt’s pound continues to depreciate as prices rise, adding pressure on Sisi’s support base.
Is Sisi’s regime done for then? Not quite. Protests have not hit the millions and opposition members, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood remain imprisoned. International actors have no vested interests in seeing Egypt slide into even more chaos. But protests against his rule have yet to die out. More worrying to Sisi is SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armer Force)’s recent statements against the give away of the islands, meaning the institution that brought him to power does not approve of his latest move. With all these forces and institutions against him, which brought down Morsi, he very well could be going down the same path predecessor unless he can find a way to untangle the situation.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon