A snapshot of Sisi’s Egypt
I’ve spent the last few days in Cairo, where little has visibly changed since my visits in September 2011 (something like a revolution was still in progress then) and January 2014, when I observed the referendum that approved the current constitution (over 98% of those 39% who voted were in favor). The city still bussles day and night, the Nile flows gently, the traffic is only marginally better behaved then in 2011, the air is hot, dusty and polluted, the contrasts of rich and poor are still dramatic.
I haven’t spent any quality time talking to ordinary Egyptians. Mostly I’ve been hearing from the educated and sometimes wealthy elite that supports President Sisi’s efforts to restore order and improve the economy, without (at least for now) expanding civil liberties.
The predominant sentiment towards the US among those I talked with is resentment. Egypt, they think, deserves better and more than it is getting from the US, which was slow to recognize that former President Morsi had lost legitimacy and quick to suspend aid. Washington follows a “double standard.” It provides too much support to Israel and too little to the Arabs, especially the Palestine and Egypt.
The Americans are also failing to counter Iranian troublemaking in the region, failing to stop financing for the Islamic State, failing to bring down Bashar al Assad or support the intervention against the Houthi (sic), and failing to recognize the peril of the Muslim Brotherhood. The US government, some think, may even be playing a role in supporting one or more of these malign factors in the region.
Lack of confidence in official America is coupled with an all too apparent affection for American society and hunger for American culture, education, technology, trade and investment. Sisi’s Egypt is hoping to upgrade Egypt’s technical and educational levels and improve its economy, in part through cooperation with the US, while continuing its crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood, street demonstrations and media.
The model is a technocratic one: use expertise and money effectively while blocking political challenges.
Some Egyptians characterize the Middle East today as “a Fascist moment.” They argue there can be no compromise with the Islamic State, or those in the Muslim Brotherhood or elsewhere who take up arms against state structures, anywhere in the region. The Arabs need to reassert themselves, resist the American intention of empowering Iran, and join together to counter foreign hegemony, including by forming the united Arab army Egypt has proposed.
The Egyptians I heard from welcome the upcoming bilateral “strategic dialogue” with the US, which is supposed to meet in July. They hope this will be an opportunity to reframe the relationship in a way that will be more satisfactory to Egypt and less dominated by the US. Cairo will try to convince the Americans that the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact a terrorist organization and that a broad crackdown is therefore justified. Some might be ready to give a little on NGOs and street demonstrations, though resentment of American “interference” in these internal matters is strong. Building an effective regional counterweight to Iran will be an important part of the conversation, as will be moving the relationship more definitively in the direction of trade and investment (a free trade agreement is one possibility).
While privatization and other structural economic reforms seem still far off, the Egyptians are reasonably pleased with what President Sisi has achieved so far, including reduction of subsidies and his flagship project to expand the capacity of the Suez Canal. They hope a more stable and prosperous Egypt will mean return to a leading regional role in the future, even without more political opening.