Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi (front row, center) at the European Union-Arab League Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in February (photo via Sisi's Facebook page)

Short-Term Stability in Exchange for Long-Term Fragility

07/03/2019 . By Timothy E. Kaldas

It’s no secret that European Union leaders have increasingly focused their attention on the Middle East on one priority: stemming if not stopping migration from the region. Following the surge in asylum seekers in 2015, politicians and analysts in the E.U. have come to believe that substantially cutting inflows of migrants is essential to staving off the rise of right-wing populists who, thanks to their euroskepticism, could weaken or eventually even destroy the E.U. entirely. This analysis—though it fails to account for the rise of that same political movement well before the 2015 surge—grips many in Europe’s capitals.

Many European governments have appreciated the Egyptian government’s commitment to preventing irregular migration from its Mediterranean shores, and this partly explains relatively warm ties between Cairo and European capitals. However, more important than Egypt’s traditional role as a transit point is fear of Egypt’s further deterioration which could spur mass migration from a country of 100 million people on the Mediterranean. Among many European governments, policymakers, and analysts, concerns about Egypt’s economy, political discontent and the security situation are, beneath the surface, concerns about potential catalysts for large numbers of Egyptians seeking asylum abroad. A breakdown in control would also make Egypt a major transit point for migrants heading to Europe from neighboring countries.

To prevent any such collapse with the presumed migratory implications, European leaders have increasingly embraced a policy grounded in faith that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi is delivering a form of authoritarian stability that they should support, if begrudgingly. This has been shown in continued arms sales to Egypt despite its widely documented record of rights violations (including with those arms), high-profile visits, and the E.U.-Arab League summit hosted by Sisi in Sharm el-Sheikh this year. E.U. member states have supported the International Monetary Fund’s economic reform program, and European industrial giants have courted the Egyptian government while the bloc grants Egypt generous financial assistance. There has also been limited criticism of the rights violations in Egypt, and when we occasionally hear such criticism it lacks any material consequences. This was exemplified during French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit when he rightly noted that “the search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights.” But when pressed on whether Egypt’s rights violations and even inappropriate use of French arms might disrupt arms sales to Egypt, Macron was clear that they would not. Neither in terms of its domestic policies nor its foreign policy is Egypt promoting any sustainable model for stability. The largely unconditional assistance and diplomatic support Egypt enjoys serves as a temporary band-aid for its long-term challenges all while convincing Egyptian officials that aid will continue despite the criticism.

It in fact appears that Egyptian officials are growing more emboldened. While Sisi in his 2017 press conference at the Elysees Palace alongside Macron insisted that he respected rights but was dealing with challenging circumstances, Sisi has transitioned to simply saying Egypt has its own culture at the E.U.-Arab League Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this year. The implication is clear: human rights are not a matter of time, as had been promised earlier, but are simply inconsistent with Egyptian values.

Sisi and his allies have actively worked to undermine the institutions of the Egyptian state. The latest constitutional amendments undermine the independence of Egypt’s highest courts and dilute the already extremely limited power of elected parliamentarians by adding an upper house with a third of its members appointed by the president. The amendments increase the fragility of Egypt’s political order by concentrating all political power into the hands of one mortal who cannot indefinitely govern the country. In response to the amendments, most members states of the E.U. were silent, while the European External Action Service issued an empty statement reminding Egypt of its commitments to respect “the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, freedom of assembly and expression, and the rights of participation of its citizens.” Egypt’s government has transparently ignored all these commitments for several years.

Furthermore, the amendments permanently enshrine in the constitution a political role for the country’s armed forces. This institution has been the source of authoritarian rule in Egypt since 1952, and some European officials treat it as though it is capable of solving the country’s problems. However, the array of negative effects on governance and economic management directly tied to military rule discredit this belief. Authoritarian systems depend on patronage to preserve support for the regime and Sisi, like his predecessors, is spending lavishly to maintain the support of the military. Their economic empire is expanding dramatically, eating up market share at the expense of the private sector, and deterring foreign investors from entering the market. Sisi has also purchased the military’s support by increasing arms purchases substantially.

The overrepresentation of military interests also has resulted in a foreign policy that actively works to promote fellow military authoritarians in the region at the expense of civilian governments. Cairo has supported Haftar at the expense of the Libyan peace negotiations and European efforts there. In Sudan, Sisi is courting a general who shares his name, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. (Sudanese protesters, sensing a threat to their revolutionary efforts, have condemned Egypt’s interventions and chanted Ya al-Nasr, Ya Masr –either victory or Egypt—invoking the reversal of the Egyptian revolution). More broadly, the West’s profitable participation in one of the region’s largest arms races has facilitated more aggressive military action on the part of Egypt’s regional allies, adding to regional instability as military adventurism in regional power competitions has been devastating.

The systematic repression of the free flow of information with the shuttering of websites, government interference in and purchase of stakes in TV channels, and ongoing arrests of journalists has not only undermined the freedoms and rights of Egyptians but undermined the confidence of investors looking at such an opaque market as the information available is increasingly unreliable. This of course is exacerbated by the Central Bank of Egypt manipulating currency values surreptitiously as reported by Reuters.

The E.U. has also largely accepted that the IMF plan is going well and credits Sisi for his economic reform agenda. A popular theory voiced privately and used to justify authoritarianism in Egypt is the belief that it makes economic reform possible, and that, if the public were free to protest and replace leaders through elections, then the government would be far more timid in its reform efforts. However, the lack of any public debate means that Egyptians have been prevented from discussing the efficacy of the government’s austerity program.

While many macroeconomic indicators garner praise from foreign governments and business leaders, everyday Egyptians are experiencing real pain, and it is increasingly doubtful that the program will lead to sustainable growth. Economists such as Amr Adly argue that the current IMF plan as it has been implemented puts Egypt on track to require yet another bailout in the future. Unfortunately, the lack of meaningful policy debates in Egypt denies the public from benefitting from its many experts and correcting course before mistaken policies become catastrophes. Few European leaders dare push for such a discussion, while many of Europe’s businesses are reluctant to risk entering the Egyptian market as the low level of FDI aside from the oil and gas sector shows.

The short term faith that Sisi will deliver stability and reform while stemming the flow of migrants may eventually give way to the long term reality; Egypt’s political system is highly fragile, while its economic program appears unsustainable, delivering pain without viable gain. Additionally, Egypt’s promotion of violent authoritarians in Libya and Sudan may ultimately add –rather than subtract–from those desperately seeking to escape, war, oppression and poverty.