CAIRO, Egypt—In November 2016, Egypt’s major cities experienced something that has become rare since a military coup led by then-Gen.—and now President—Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013: protests. In the streets and at universities in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, Egyptians took great risks in sight of the police to gather and demonstrate against price hikes and bread shortages.
Until then, the country had appeared to have settled into a period of relative calm. Five years after the uprisings that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak, and three years on from the coup that felled his democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, the country had seemed to succumb to the fatigue of years of political turmoil and the repression of a dictatorship emboldened by international support.
The bread protests were a manifestation of deeper strains. Economic mismanagement, exacerbated by the military’s oversized role in the civilian economy, has long produced difficulties for the poor, and the regime and its opponents alike recognize the need for radical changes. But since the imposition of an International Monetary Fund program in November that saw the Egyptian pound floated—and sparked the protests—the middle class has also been feeling the pain.
“Since the pound went up, everything has become hard,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, a receptionist at a luxury hotel in Cairo. “It’s hard to go abroad. It’s hard to afford basic goods. It’s hard to justify any time off work. Everything is bad, and it has made many people angry—we don’t understand it.”
To make matters worse, the threat of militant extremism has steadily risen over the past three years, combining with the country’s economic woes to generate widespread discontent. In response, and with an eye on the upcoming presidential election in 2018, Sisi has stuck to the government’s standard approach of upping the already high level of repression on organized activists, thereby shutting down even the possibility for criticism of official policy.
The material realities of life for most Egyptians are harsh and becoming harsher by the day, and the government is struggling to allay the resulting popular dissatisfaction. More than 22 million Egyptians live in poverty, and the general population’s quality of life compares poorly with Egypt’s North African and Middle Eastern neighbors. Unemployment is rampant, particularly among the young, and prices for basic goods including food staples have been rising sharply. Last year, the government announced a swathe of austerity measures in line with the IMF program agreed to in 2016. The deal, which includes a $12 billion IMF loan package, was announced with a carefully planned IMF public relations campaign, but the austerity measures have been unpopular. Under the program’s terms, state-owned companies are set to be privatized and the civil service reduced. In November, the authorities floated the Egyptian pound, leading to its rapid devaluation.
The resulting dollar shortage has seriously affected the country’s financial institutions, adding to the Egyptian economy’s already long list of long-term structural problems. Under the IMF program, the prices for two key commodities, sugar and cooking gas, were hiked in February, provoking a public outcry. In April, inflation hit 31.5 percent—its highest level since 1986.
More than 22 million Egyptians live in poverty, and the general population’s quality of life compares poorly with Egypt’s North African and Middle Eastern neighbors.
According to Ahmed Ghoneim, professor of economics at Cairo University, Egypt’s economy is facing a concatenation of troubles. “There’s the budget deficit, the current account deficit, the repercussions related to inflation, and the fact that in reality the problem is much worse than the inflation figures represent,” Ghoneim says. “Added to that, there appears to be a political problem of a lack of coordination between the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank. There’s a lack of expertise, and you feel it.”
The flotation of the pound in particular was mismanaged to disastrous effect, according to Ghoneim. “If they had taken the decision to float the currency earlier, then it could have been managed, and the exchange rate would not have sky-rocketed in this way,” he says. “This implies a kind of failure, a weak understanding of monetary policy in the Central Bank itself.”
In May, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail responded to the deteriorating macroeconomic picture by claiming the government is “doing its best” to cut the budget deficit, but was hampered by the rising cost of salaries for civil servants. The government has also recently introduced a new investment law in an attempt to stimulate total investment, particularly in the country’s many regions where infrastructure is underdeveloped. The IMF’s latest assessment, released on May 12, praised the government for following the austerity program, but that’s little comfort for those in the middle class hit by the falling value of the Egyptian pound.
On May 30, the government introduced an increase to civil servant salaries and the state pension in an attempt to offset the effects of austerity. But Ghoneim says another set of policies—including a price hike on gasoline, water and electricity—that are set to come into effect in July will sharpen austerity’s bite, and policymakers are expecting a negative public reaction. “The government is in a very awkward position. These reforms have to be carried out according to the IMF program. But the poverty level is increasing, and I expect it to increase further,” says Ghoneim. “As a policymaker you are stuck, though, because the country needs the IMF loans.”
Ghoneim says that barring short-term measures, such as forcing military-owned factories and businesses to sell goods at below market price, there are few solutions. “The regime is losing popularity, and there is a risk of unrest, but there is no alternative,” he adds. “We don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to go on or retreat: This mad, sour medicine has to be taken.”
The Militant Threat
Economic decay is not the only challenge facing the government. Despite three years of concerted military campaigns against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, extremist groups are not only still active there, but have increasingly expanded their area of operations. Since the 2013 military coup, the Sisi regime has staked much of its domestic and international legitimacy on its commitment to tackling violent extremism. However, the threat of terrorism has continued to grow, despite the government’s anti-terror rhetoric and the military’s increasing influence over the security services.
“As a policymaker you are stuck, because the country needs the IMF loans.”
In Sinai, the Egyptian army is continuing its often-brutal campaign against extremists linked to Wilayat Sina, an affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Militants tied to the group in Sinai have launched dozens of attacks on Egyptian state security forces and state infrastructure, in addition to targeting Sinai’s civilian population and Coptic Christians, and downing the Russian passenger plane, Metrojet Flight 9268, in October 2015.
The Egyptian military campaign against Wilayat Sina, which was formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes, has been protracted and bloody. Recently, the army and state security forces have outsourced raids on suspected hideouts to Sinai tribesmen, resulting in intertribal fighting. According to research by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the Egyptian army claims to have killed more than 6,200 “terrorists” in North Sinai since 2013; expert estimates of the size of the radical insurgency there, however, do not exceed 1,000 militants. It is unclear whether the disparity is due to the army exaggerating casualty figures, the inclusion of non-extremist casualties in the count, or both.
“The army has been employing local informants since 2013 and before, a policy that has created many issues and tribal anger due to crimes and violations committed by those ‘undefined personnel,’” says Mohannad Sabry, a specialist on Sinai and the author of “Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare.”
In April, video evidence emerged of Egyptian soldiers summarily executing prisoners in Sinai, in what Human Rights Watch called confirmation that “Egypt’s counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai is out of control.” According to Sabry, the footage was just one piece of evidence of what, in all likelihood, are regular crimes in Sinai. “The policies applied in the past years have made the situation worse,” he argues. “The military’s brute force and criminal violations against innocent civilians will of course lead to a far more dangerous situation, which is exactly what we’re seeing now.”
But other extremist groups are also active. In July 2016, a new militant group calling itself Haraket Saad Masr, also known as Hasm, announced its presence with an attack in the oasis city of Fayoum, about 60 miles south of Cairo. Hasm went on to carry out assassination attempts on the former grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, and on a senior judge. The group has since claimed responsibility for an attack on police checkpoints in Cairo’s Nasr City and Giza districts, collectively killing nine officers.
The government’s response to mass casualty attacks by militant groups has followed a familiar pattern: an emergency meeting of the National Security Council and solemn words that do nothing to forestall the next attack. Speaking directly after the Islamic State’s May attack in Minya, Sisi stressed the “immense effort exerted to protect Egypt and its people” by the Egyptian army, and associated the attackers with others “fomenting sedition” in the society. The following night, he ordered the Egyptian air force to conduct strikes on the town of Derna in eastern Libya, which is controlled by the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna—a group that is not an Islamic State affiliate, but rather linked to al-Qaida.
Sabry argues that the growth of violent extremism in the Sinai Peninsula—and the Egyptian army’s blunt, brute-force approach to stopping it—has become a model for countering the spread of extremist militancy to the rest of the country. “In general, we see the Egyptian police and military cracking down in the rest of Egypt without any regard to the law and constitution, or the efficiency of such policies,” he says.
“To put it in straightforward terms: If you kill, jail, disappear and oppress people in the most criminal ways—which we’ve seen in Egypt over the past years—you’re simply doing 50 percent of any terrorist organization’s recruitment effort,” he adds. “What Egypt is doing in Sinai and elsewhere is fostering and encouraging terror, rather than countering it.”
Sisi’s Iron Fist
The combination of declining material conditions and decreasing levels of security has led the regime to engage in extensive repression. Since the military coup in 2013, tens of thousands of civilians have been imprisoned, often in unofficial facilities where conditions are far harsher than in official, regulated prisons. Allegations of torture by the police and army have risen markedly. Opponents of the Sisi regime and supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood—Morsi’s movement—have been the main targets of the crackdown.
“What Egypt is doing in Sinai and elsewhere is fostering and encouraging terror, rather than countering it.”
The sheer number of people arrested has necessarily led to an expansion in both the number of detention facilities and prison overcrowding. Since 2011, there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of official penitentiary prisons in Egypt, in addition to a dramatic rise in the population of prisoners being held in informal prisons, police-station holding cells, and military as well as paramilitary prisons. In 2016 alone, the Al Nadeem Center—a human rights NGO whose center for torture victims was shut down by the government in February—documented more than 800 cases of torture by state personnel, nearly 1,000 forced disappearances and more than 100 deaths in custody.
Since Sisi took office, Egypt’s internal intelligence agency, Amn al-Watany, has lived up to its reputation for harassing veteran activists, worker organizations, professional unions and what remains of the student activist movement. Prominent dissidents—including iconic figures from the 2011 uprisings, such as the leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement—continue to be held in prisons or are subject to surveillance and control by the state security forces. Ahmed Douma, one of the movement’s founders, has been held in solitary confinement for more than 1,200 days on charges of illegal protesting and insulting the judiciary.
State surveillance has also targeted opposition activity online. In the past year, at least four individuals have been arrested for posting anti-government comments or creating opposition pages on Facebook, according to local press reports. In late May, the government briefly blocked the website of the independent news outlet Mada Masr, which often criticizes the regime. The independent English-language newspaper Daily News Egypt has also faced increased state harassment over the past 12 months. Also in May, police raided the paper’s offices in Cairo and detained its chairman, and the website has been blocked on numerous occasions.
“The regime has been adamant in targeting these specific groups since the ousting of Mohammed Morsi in 2013,” says Nadine Sika, assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. “This crackdown seemed to slow during the past few months, I think as a legitimating strategy in light of the floatation of the Egyptian pound and its impact on the middle class. But we’re seeing another surge of repression today.”
According to Sika, a severe crackdown on dissident voices is likely to continue as the 2018 presidential election approaches. “The latest wave of the crackdown is obviously linked to the fact that the president announced his interest in re-election next year,” Sika adds. “These activists and organizations had seemed to be uniting, to pick a member of the so-called democratic movement to present as a presidential candidate.” Past presidential and parliamentary elections have been marred with irregularities and state interference, including the extensive involvement of the intelligence services in formulating parliamentary lists.
Since 2011, there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of official penitentiary prisons in Egypt.
In addition to targeting activists and NGOs, the government has also obstructed the activities of the remaining figures of Egypt’s political opposition. In mid-May, political activist Ahmed Hefny was arrested for “insulting the president,” “misusing social media,” and “joining an illegal organization” after he signed a statement calling for opposition groups to unite behind a single candidate in the coming presidential election should the security environment allow a fair ballot. Shortly thereafter, more than 30 opposition figures were arrested, including Khaled Ali, the leader of the Bread and Freedom party who had run for president in the 2012 election. Ali will be tried in July on charges of “offending public decency,” and a guilty verdict would prevent him from running for election in 2018.
Even mildly critical voices have been targeted. In February, Anwar Sadat—nephew and namesake of the former president who has assassinated in 1981, and one of Egypt’s few dissenting lawmakers—was expelled from parliament after criticizing a draft of the law aimed at cracking down on NGOs, which was ultimately passed on May 29.
Other than the few voices struggling to remain relevant, much of the political opposition—especially groups linked to the banned Muslim Brotherhood—has fled the country and operates in exile. The Brotherhood’s formal leadership has either been arrested and is serving life in prison, received death sentences en masse, or has fled the country. Even underground, the risk to its members is severe; in a Cairo suburb in July 2015, nine of its leaders who had clandestinely remained in the country were killed, execution-style, by Egyptian special forces.
Independent labor unions have also come under increasing pressure from central state authorities. Striking shipyard workers from Alexandria have been arrested and intimidated by police and military officers; 26 of them are currently on trial in a military court for “inciting strikes.”
Members of the general population have also found themselves subject to increasing police harassment. Last October, Ashraf Shahin, a taxi driver, set himself on fire in central Alexandria to protest police harassment and corruption.
In a Cairo suburb in July 2015, nine of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders who had clandestinely remained in the country were killed, execution-style, by Egyptian special forces.
“Repression against the general population is linked to the economic problems faced by the large majority of people,” says Sika, of the American Univesity in Cairo. “Whenever people voice their dissent at the economic policies in the form of demonstrations or sit-ins, they are repressed, to ensure that the population is controlled.”
Can the Opposition Survive?
Despite difficult conditions and a relentless state crackdown, a small but committed network of human rights groups and NGOs has managed to continue operating, as have some opposition groups that aren’t linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Independent labor unions, particularly in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and Mahalla al-Kubra, have continued to sporadically organize demonstrations against poor living and working conditions. Professional groups, including unlikely sources of opposition activity such as the Doctors Syndicate, have emerged as potential vehicles for Egyptians to air their grievances, and have planned protests against underfunding, wage stagnation and central bureaucratic control. But with the regime’s control over political life, these groups can only do so much.
The so-called protest law, which authorizes the Interior Ministry to ban protests, as well as the assembly law, which gives it the power to ban public meetings of 10 or more people, have been a particular focus for the remaining opposition activists. Last December, dissident lawyers successfully brought a case to the Constitutional Court that saw an article of the highly repressive protest law declared unconstitutional. The law remains in place with minor amendments, but the outcome of the case was a symbolic victory for the opposition. Human rights groups have also raised legal challenges to the assembly law, arguing that its statutes are based on obsolete colonial-era legislation that had been revoked decades ago. The regime has kept the law in place despite the litigation.
With the regime’s control over political life, opposition groups can only do so much.
Perhaps the least expected challenge to regime control has come from the judiciary—an institution that has traditionally been closely allied with successive Egyptian dictatorships. Over the past year, the judiciary has clashed with the presidency on two high-profile matters: an international agreement to cede two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, and control over senior judicial appointments. In April 2016, Sisi announced the deal to cede the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, to Saudi Arabia during King Salman’s first visit to Egypt. The deal prompted street protests in downtown Cairo under the banner of “Egypt is not for sale.” That June, an administrative court judge issued a shock ruling in favor of the dissidents, voiding the deal and declaring Tiran and Sanafir Egyptian territory to thunderous applause in the courtroom.
Sisi responded to the decision with a judicial reshuffle, removing the head of the State Council, which governs the administrative courts, and the head of the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest common law court. The courts nonetheless continued to side against the government by striking down the deal at another hearing in January, but the presidency worked to ensure it passed anyway, forcing the deal through parliament this week. In the meantime, on May 2, Sisi issued an executive order granting him the power to appoint the heads of the Supreme Judicial Council, the State Council, the State Lawsuits Authority and the Administrative Prosecution without regard for seniority—and against the wishes of the influential Judges’ Club—in an apparent response to disobedience in the judiciary; the heads of those bodies have historically been selected based on seniority.
Egypt’s remaining dissenting voices are scattered, and activists say that political organizing is a struggle. “It’s very difficult for opposition groups even to survive in this environment,” says Mohamed Zaree, the head of the Egypt program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “It sounds depressing, but the main thing that keeps people going is the will to ‘give a good show’—everyone knows that sooner or later their organization will be shut down, and is trying to put on a good final scene beforehand.”
According to Zaree, whom the government slapped with a travel ban, the recently passed NGO law will close the very small political space that remains, with great consequences not only for the organized opposition but for Egypt’s stability. Pointing to Egypt’s long history of civil society groups, compared to their absence in neighboring Libya, Zaree credited such groups with helping to sustain a deeper layer of political order that provides a stabilizing influence in times of crisis. “The lack of civil society [in Libya under Moammar Gadhafi] meant that when he was overthrown in 2011, only tribes and undemocratic groups remained,” he says. “In Egypt there were NGOs, political parties and political leaders who helped avert civil war.” He adds that “the current government is following in Gadhafi’s footsteps and trying to rip out all the actors that helped the country survive in 2011. This is very dangerous.”
The presidential election in 2018 will be held in a more restrictive environment than ever. “The repression is too severe for any opposition candidate to operate,” says Zaree. The government, he adds, doesn’t want to hold a “real election” with an independent candidate challenging Sisi, and would instead prefer “facade elections” designed only to avert criticism from the international community. “The coming elections are likely to make the sham elections held under Mubarak’s rule look free and fair by comparison.”
Sisi’s Grand Tour
While Egypt has suffered considerable internal decline, it remains an influential state in Middle Eastern politics due its historical position as a regional economic hub, its stewardship of the Suez Canal, and its demographic status as the largest Arab state. With the notable exception of Qatar, which supported the pre-2013 Muslim Brotherhood government, the Persian Gulf monarchies have essentially bankrolled the Egyptian state throughout the worst of repeated financial crises since Morsi’s overthrow, in order to better assure the stability of Sisi’s administration. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have provided billions of dollars of central bank transfers and loan guarantees. Tensions between Riyadh and Cairo that arose in 2015 appear to have dissipated. And while Gulf funding for the Egyptian state is not as free-flowing as it was in 2013 and 2014, the Gulf monarchies remain major backers of Sisi’s government.
“The coming elections are likely to make the sham elections held under Mubarak’s rule look free and fair by comparison.”
American and European support, through economic aid and military as well as intelligence cooperation, continues to be vital for the Sisi regime—and if anything, it has been increasing. France, for example, has supplied Egypt’s army with Rafale fighter jets and Mistral amphibious assault vessels through a series of arms deals since 2015. In April, the German arms manufacturer Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft delivered the second of four submarines to the Egyptian navy, and the German parliament voted to approve a new security deal with Egypt, which includes intelligence cooperation. Since Donald Trump took office in Washington, U.S. policy toward Egypt has shifted from cooperative but mildly critical to enthusiastically supportive. Sisi and Trump have frequently been in contact by phone and met in New York during the U.S. presidential election campaign, and in Washington and Riyadh since Trump assumed office.
But support from the U.S. and Europe has done little to improve conditions for regular Egyptians. “The most important area of need for Egypt is the economy and job creation that is sustainable, but neither the government nor its international ‘allies or partners’ are helping much toward these goals,” says Ahmed Morsy, an Egypt specialist at the University of St. Andrews School of International Relations. “There have been foreign investments, loans and grants, but I don’t think they are targeting the right areas that Egypt needs.”
In April, Sisi visited Washington, where he was granted one-on-one meetings with Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, as well as various senior congressional leaders. During his trip, the Egyptian president was also courted by the American business community and leaders of international institutions, and had meetings with IMF Director Christine Lagarde, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, U.N. General Assembly President Peter Thomson, the leadership of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the CEOs of General Electric and Lockheed Martin.
The Trump administration’s unfettering support for Cairo, and its willingness to remain silent on Sisi’s domestic crackdown on dissent, is a boon to the Egyptian president, regardless of the lack of any tangible benefit to the general population. “Having someone in the White House who won’t be discussing or commenting on human rights abuses is a relief for Sisi and the government,” says Morsy. “The regime will continue its fear and smear campaigns against anyone who remotely speaks about any need for policy changes or inclusion.”
Will It Hold?
Against the backdrop of declining quality of life, increasing hardship for the poorest and the unrelenting threat of radical extremism, the regime has felt compelled to maintain high levels of political repression. All this, while doing little to address the basic demands of the Egyptians who took to the streets in 2011 to unseat Mubarak. Opponents of the regime remain divided and fatigued, but the situation has put serious strains on the social and political fabric.
“The situation is very fragile and the government really isn’t dealing with the internal political problems at all,” said David Ottaway, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program. While the status quo is sustainable for the short term, in the medium and long term Egypt’s political order is volatile. For now, widespread strikes, protests and social unrest have been avoided by the authorities with the help of outright repression. Nonetheless, shortages of goods, inflation and unpopular austerity program could potentially catalyze social discontent into action.
Ottaway points out that the regime has done little to bring supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process. “There has always been substantial support for religious parties including the Muslim Brotherhood, but there has been a widening gulf between the Sisi government and the Brotherhood, which has now extended to the liberal critics of the regime,” says Ottaway. “Sisi has taken advantage of the challenge from the Brotherhood to crack down on all forms of opposition and criticism of his government in any way at all.”
The effect of such deep political repression is to create tensions that must eventually express themselves, according to Ottaway. “Any system needs political safety valves, and Sisi seems to be closing down all the safety valves, which is not healthy,” he says. “It’s difficult to tell how long he will be able to hold out, or when there might be a spontaneous outbreak of discontent—one doesn’t know what the social breaking point is.”
With the 2011 uprisings still a vivid memory, the regime has little inclination to allow a political opening. With the benefit of international support, it feels little outside pressure to do so. Nonetheless, Sisi’s repressive policies are unpopular and his failure to rein in terrorism has weakened his legitimacy among the Egyptian population. And as they implement IMF-driven austerity measures, policymakers are increasingly aware of the risk for social unrest to escalate. Sisi himself served as the head of military intelligence under Mubarak during the 2011 uprisings. The harsh hold that the state security forces have on political life may reflect these concerns.
“Sisi just doesn’t understand politics. He has no understanding of a democratic political process,” notes Ottaway. “The way the authorities behave toward the opposition makes me believe they think the situation is fragile, that the system cannot stand any kind of criticism that could lead to folks taking to the streets.” That, he warns, isn’t sustainable. “You can’t close off the safety valves and not expect an explosion at some point.”
Tom Stevenson is a Middle East and North Africa correspondent based between Cairo and Istanbul.