Egyptian independent news outlet, Mada Masr, reported last week that President Abdel Fattah El Sisi is unhappy with the way Egypt is being managed. On the tenth anniversary of his coup d’état, he’s right to be upset with the country’s management. The trouble for Egypt, and Sisi, is that Sisi is the manager and he has done everything in his power to deny the public access to alternatives.
In his first decade in power Sisi and his regime have undermined the country’s economy, basic civil and political rights, left education and healthcare underfunded, and weakened the country’s regional standing.
Following his coup on July 3rd 2013, then-defense minister Sisi worked to quickly crush the Muslim Brotherhood. After a series of bloody clashes with protestors supporting the deposed president, Egyptian police violently dispersed two large pro-Morsi sit-ins, killing over 800 protestors on August 14 in a massacre that, according to Human Rights Watch, rivals the death toll at Tiananmen Square.
Under Sisi, the number of prisoners of conscience grew and the regime even began building new prisons to absorb the number of detainees, many of whom spend years in pretrial detention. When pressed, Egyptian officials regularly cite the independence of the country’s judiciary and the importance of respecting the rule of law and due process.
Such claims however do not hold up to scrutiny when one looks at the rule of law in Egypt. According to the World Justice Project, Egypt ranks 135th of 140 countries in rule of law. Sisi’s regime amended the constitution in 2019 to ensure the leadership of the judiciary was under his authority. The case of political prisoners, like Alaa Abdel Fattah, are instructive. Alaa’s defense team was denied access to the case file during the trial, essential for mounting a defense. His former defense lawyer, Mohamed El-Baqer was himself arrested and imprisoned, as were several other defense lawyers. Now the government does not recognize Alaa’s British citizenship, despite the UK prime minister reportedly meeting with President Sisi and raising Alaa’s case. Meanwhile, prison authorities have at times refused to allow Alaa’s current lawyer, Khaled Ali, to access his client despite the public prosecutor issuing a letter granting him access. Despite official claims to the contrary, respect for the rule of law is clearly lacking.
Over the past year, the government, under international pressure, released a number of high-profile political prisoners while arresting even more new political prisoners. Even as the national dialogue is ongoing, political arrests continue.
Over the past several years, the government has sought to deflect international criticism with a spurious national human rights strategy and now a ‘national dialogue.’ Nonetheless, rights violations and political arrests persist. Over the past year, the government, under international pressure, released a number of high-profile political prisoners while arresting even more new political prisoners. Even as the national dialogue is ongoing, political arrests continue. Meanwhile, independent press outlets, like Mada Masr, which tried to comply with draconian registration laws, have been refused licenses.
The coup was seen by some as a halt to Islamist rule in Egypt, but the current regime is far from secular. Women are jailed for dancing on TikTok. The government has overseen round-ups of LGBTQ Egyptians in response to concertgoers waving pride flags at a rock show. Egyptian Christians continue to struggle to secure licenses for their places of worship despite promises of reform. Indeed, the treatment of Christians also exemplifies gaps in the rule of law. One woman was publicly stripped and dragged by her fellow villagers during riots over rumors of an interreligious relationship between her son and a Muslim woman. The perpetrators were acquitted despite their crime being widely witnessed. Sectarian violence persists with impunity under Sisi’s rule.
The government is currently spending half its budget to service the debt Egypt has accumulated, leaving little room to fund essential services like healthcare and education.
The untenable façade of governance reform and rule of law is repeated with the façade of economic development. While the government has wasted tens of billions of dollars on a new administrative capital, the country’s population has sunk deeper into poverty. Throughout Sisi’s tenure, Egyptians have faced what can only be described as an endemic and unceasing series of economic crises, largely due to the reckless and predatory manner in which Sisi and his regime have leveraged the state to finance their patronage networks and consolidation of power. The government is currently spending half its budget to service the debt Egypt has accumulated, leaving little room to fund essential services like healthcare and education. Indeed, government spending on both consistently falls below the constitutionally mandated thresholds.
Over the past decade, poverty has risen and labor force participation has declined from 48 percent in 2013 to 42 percent in 2022. Female labor force participation in Egypt, according to the World Bank, is the fourth lowest on earth at 15 percent. Last year, Egypt was ranked among the five countries most at risk of default. Over the past seven years, Egypt’s non-oil and gas private sector has shrunk for 75 of the past 84 months.
Sisi’s regime has many excuses for the dismal state of Egypt’s economy. He and his team have worked to blame external shocks for the bulk of the problem, but in 2019, the World Bank already estimated 60 percent of Egyptians lived near or below the poverty line. This was before the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Egypt’s latest financial crisis.
In December of 2022, the IMF approved its third program in Egypt in just over six years. The program was meant to catalyze desperately needed external financing to help the government cover the ballooning cost of servicing its debt. The trouble is the president either won’t or can’t implement the deal his government signed. The reforms Egypt agreed to have not been undertaken and, as a result, the IMF has refused to conduct its first review and disburse the second tranche of the loan. The review was originally scheduled for this past March.
The new program requires unprecedented transparency of the military’s growing economic empire. It also requires the Egyptian state to report on the cost of the vast array of subsidies it confers on military-owned companies that burden the state while these companies are exempt from paying taxes. Public sector firms, including military-owned ones, are meant to be reined in but instead the military continues to expand its economic activity. To what extent Sisi even has the power to force a key pillar of his regime, the Egyptian Armed Forces, to agree to these reforms and rein in their economic activities is an open question.
While they center their criticism on the safer target of the “government” rather than name the president, everyone in Egypt knows whose spending priorities are behind the costly projects witnessed in Egypt.
A growing number of Egyptians and Egypt’s partners are expressing doubts about Sisi’s rule. MPs are increasingly vocal about the wasteful spending of the past decade. While they center their criticism on the safer target of the “government” rather than name the president, everyone in Egypt knows whose spending priorities are behind the costly projects witnessed in Egypt. Gulf states publicly and privately complain about government waste and indicate relations are increasingly strained. Going a step further, Mohamed Anwar Sadat, a member of the government’s national human rights council, last year said he expected the president to retire at the end of his term which ends in 2024. Sadat is not an activist and the fact that he could voice this view without arrest shows that powerful forces were behind his statement.
Egypt’s declining role as a regional power has accelerated rendering it a local power. There is not one country beyond Egypt’s borders where the country exercises considerable influence. Even on Egypt’s borders in Libya, Sudan, and Gaza, regional powers like the UAE, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are often more influential.
While Egypt’s regional influence, a key source of its international rents, declines, its closely guarded geopolitical independence is coming under growing risk. The economic vulnerabilities that are a direct result of the regime’s reckless political economic strategy for consolidating power have left the country heavily dependent on Gulf partners.
Sisi has shed the façade of his coup protecting or “continuing” the revolution [and] has moved on to blaming the revolution for Egypt’s troubles, insisting Egyptians must pay the price of what they did in 2011.
Sisi and his government initially focused on blaming Egypt’s problems on the Muslim Brotherhood who occupied the presidency for a year. Now that this excuse has grown tired and Sisi has shed the façade of his coup protecting or “continuing” the revolution, he has moved on to blaming the revolution for Egypt’s troubles, insisting Egyptians must pay the price of what they did in 2011. Yet, those who protested in 2011 arguably never had a serious hand in governing Egypt.
It was the Sisi regime’s violent, repressive, and extractive decade-long counterrevolution that nearly bankrupted the state, impoverished millions of their countrymen, and drove a growing number of Egyptians to seek asylum abroad. Egyptians working abroad have helped keep the country afloat: In 2021 their remittances were worth more than tourism, foreign direct investment, and Suez Canal revenue, combined.
The past decade of repressive, extractive, and disorganized governance has imposed an enormous toll on Egyptians, their state, and their country. The trouble is there appears little prospect for a course correction and the current trajectory all but guarantees rising levels of inflation and poverty along with an embattled private sector and weak job creation. Sisi’s first decade was a disaster and in the coming years he is likely to stick to his failed approach, but with less resources and more fear of challengers as his popularity, both with the public and his external backers, continues to wane.
Timothy E. Kaldas is the Deputy Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.