I took a much-needed break from this blog back there in February and March, and while I’m back to regular posting these days, there are still some places I haven’t fully caught up on to the point where I feel comfortable writing about them. So this series is going to continue until I’ve worked through all of them. A lot of this will be review to some readers, but I’m hoping it’s interesting review at any rate.
The most imposing thing about Egypt these days is how utterly unimposing the country has become. There was a time not that long ago, under Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successors, when Egypt was not only the most powerful Arab state, but one of the more influential non-superpower states in the world. Nasser was instrumental in mid-20th century pan-Arabism and the non-aligned movement, and it seemed like nothing–not a PLO-Jordanian war in Jordan, not a Yemeni civil war, nothing–that happened in the Arab world without Egypt having a say in the course of events.
Nowadays, under the rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a guy who fancies himself Nasser’s successor, Egypt is almost superfluous to goings on throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey, Iran, the Saudis, and the Qataris have immerse themselves, to one degree or another, in Syria. Not Egypt. Iran and to a lesser extent Turkey are involved in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Not Egypt. The Saudis and the UAE have been directly intervening in Yemen on behalf of the government of Abd Rabbuh Hadi. Not Egypt. Libya, which shares a very long and very indefensible border with Egypt and whose stability is key to Egypt’s national security, has fallen apart, and yet Qatar and the UAE have had more to do with manipulating events there than Egypt. Since Sisi basically stopped speaking to Hamas some time back, because of Hamas’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt even lost its past role as a mediator between Israel and the party that runs Gaza–though, to be fair, Egypt, Israel, and Hamas all share a concern about ISIS’s presence in Sinai and potentially in Gaza. You get the idea.
There are some preliminary signs that Egypt is coming out of its isolation, particularly when it comes to the Palestinians. This week, Sisi is hosting reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, the party running the Palestinian Authority. There are also signs that Cairo may be moving back into the role of mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. But these are relatively small potatoes compared to the regional role Egypt used to play, and compared to the role you’d expect it to play as the country with the largest Arab population in the world and a long history of being one of the great powers of the Islamic world. If an absence of a thing can loom large, then Egypt’s absence from the affairs of the Middle East and North Africa looms pretty freaking large.
One of the things an empowered Egypt could be doing right now is acting as a second pole for the Arab world, countering the often-destructive effect that Saudi Arabia’s sole dominance over Arab affairs has. But Sisi is helpless to take any position that contradicts Saudi policy because his government depends on Saudi aid money to stay afloat. Riyadh’s ability to turn Egypt into a client state is one of the underrated diplomatic coups of the past decade in the Middle East, though the Saudis only capitalized on the opportunity that the global economic collapse, low oil prices (Egypt doesn’t have much domestic oil, but it makes money on the transit of oil tankers through the Suez Canal and from remittances by Egyptians working abroad in the oil industry), and a series of political disasters presented to them. However, things may have recently reached a tipping point on that front, with potentially serious consequences for Sisi’s continued rule. In April, during a visit by Saudi King Salman to Egypt (which was replete with promises of new Saudi aid and investment packages), Sisi presented the Saudi king with two whole islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir.
Sisi’s justification for doing so was simple: he was returning Saudi land to the Saudis, who’d transferred the islands to Egyptian control in 1950 amid concerns that they might be seized by Israel. But it’s hard not to conclude that these islands were a down payment on future Saudi largess, particularly at a time when there were reports that Riyadh was considering cutting its aid to Cairo over what it deemed Sisi’s insufficient subservience to Saudi foreign policy. It’s also hard not to see the symbolism in the fact that these two islands were given to Egypt because of its strength relative to Saudi Arabia, and here Egypt was giving them back. Sisi might as well have spray-painted “JUNIOR PARTNER” on the side of the Great Pyramid. Egyptians got the message, and it made them angry, maybe the first time we’ve seen a general expression of popular anger directed at Sisi since the coup that put him in power in 2013. Thousands took to the streets of Cairo, Giza, and Alexandria to register their anger and call for Sisi’s resignation. Now, in the latest twist in this story, an Egyptian court, which given Sisi’s authoritarianism you’d think would be in his corner, ruled today that the transfer of the islands is illegal under Egyptian law–a ruling that, per The New York Times, not only makes for an awkward problem with Riyadh but potentially, if upheld on appeal, could even result in the prosecution of Egyptian officials who negotiated the deal.
If public outrage over the island transfer (though of course there are many deeper issues driving that outrage apart from the status of a couple of small islands) marks the beginning of a transition for Sisi’s reign, or even its outright end, that probably can’t come soon enough. Already a major human rights violator for abuses stemming back to that 2013 coup, Sisi has continued to spit on basic freedoms, but none so forcefully as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. An Egyptian court sentenced six people, including two Al Jazeera reporters, to death on Saturday over the crime of doing journalism, and despite the praise heaped upon him as a supposedly secular Arab ruler by US Republican politicians, when it comes to the LGBT community Sisi sure does govern like an Islamist. Those protests against the transfer of the Red Sea islands to the Saudis? One hundred fifty-two people were arrested and sentenced to prison time for taking part in them. Even the Coptic community, the protection of which is one of the things Sisi uses to distinguish his enlightened despotism from the previous government of condemned Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi, haven’t really seen Sisi’s talk about unity and equality translated into practice.
If it seems like I’m blaming Sisi for Egypt’s struggles, well, I am, but in fairness some of what’s ailing Egypt isn’t really his fault. The Middle East Institute’s Paul Salem runs down the country’s challenges pretty effectively here, but the key point is this: the economic crisis that forced Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 never really went away. Morsi’s administration had neither the stability nor the ability to fix the problem, and Sisi hasn’t been able to do much better. His repression has eroded any democratic progress that was made after the 2011 coup (Morsi helped here as well), so Egyptians don’t have a way to constructively register their discontent with the weak economy other than taking to the streets. Egypt’s all-important tourism industry has taken a big hit thanks to the terrorist downing of that Metrojet flight over Sinai last November and now whatever happened to the EgyptAir flight that crashed in the Mediterranean last month. Heck, even the weather isn’t helping; a drought in the Upper Nile region, in Ethiopia, has left Egypt scrambling to conserve water.
And, of course, there’s Egypt’s terrorist/insurgency problem, to which I alluded up there with the mention of that Metrojet bombing. It’s been hard to get any news about Cairo’s campaign against ISIS’s Sinai affiliate because Sisi’s government has barred journalists from reporting on it (which likely means either Egypt is losing the fight or is engaging in tactics so brutal that they’ll only increase radicalization, but I digress), but insurgent attacks seem to be continuing. A couple of months ago Sisi announced a new $1 billion-plus development program to build up the Sinai and potentially alleviate the root causes feeding ISIS’s existence there, but Egyptian governments have been announcing grand plans for building up the Sinai for decades now, and anyway $1 billion isn’t going to be enough to really develop the Sinai even if Sisi manages to bring his plan to fruition. Meanwhile, there are growing fears that ISIS has metastasized out of Sinai and is building up cells in Cairo itself. Egyptian authorities seem to think that ISIS is working with former members of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, but it’s hard to take that claim at face value given the state of Sisi-Brotherhood relations. There may be some truth to the charge, though that would only strengthen the argument that Sisi’s decision to do away with the Brotherhood was a mistake. The Brotherhood, say what you will about its aims, participated in the political process rather than turning exclusively to violence, and now that it’s been broken and discredited by Sisi young Egyptians who might have joined its ranks are turning to ISIS instead.
Again, though, even if some of this isn’t exactly Sisi’s fault, he’s definitely been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It’s not just the repeated violations of human rights and civil liberties, or the efforts to quash of any sort of legitimate political dissent. Sisi’s administration has just plain been unequal to the task of righting Egypt’s ship. He’s failed to implement any serious economic reforms, which is why he’s so deep in the hole with the Saudis and the other Gulf states–who keep backing him despite his struggles, because they fear that what comes after him will be worse for their interests. The economic dysfunction has naturally led to high unemployment and general popular dissatisfaction. The whole mix–repression, brutality, economic misery–is like a case study in how incompetent-but-tyrannical dictatorial regimes create far more instability and radicalization than they appear to solve.