A change in fortune?

Egypt revival plan: Even if things go half as expected, Egypt could return to the mainstream of West Asian politics, after a lull over the last decade

A change in fortune?
Egyptian President Abdelfattah Al Sisi completed his first year in office a few days ago. His election in June 2014 was seen as a first step towards achieving a modicum of stability for a country that has endured turmoil since January 2011 – outbreak of Arab uprising, protests at Tahrir Square, ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, flirting with democracy, empowerment of Muslim Brotherhood, ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, return of military rule, upsurge in militant extremism, and Sisi’s transformation from a military to a civilian leader.

To address the cumulative political, economic, social and foreign policy disarray, Sisi employed an array of measures that originated overseas. Though it is early to pass a judgment on the efficacy of all these policies, even if things go half as well as desired or expected, Egypt could return to the mainstream of West Asian politics, after a lull over the last decade.

First, the economy – unemployment is at a record high, loans from international institutions and foreign investments have been few and budget deficit has doubled during the crises period. The ground realities would have been worse if not for the relief provided by the GCC countries, which backed Brotherhood-Morsi’s ouster and Sisi’s political elevation. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have kept Egypt’s economy afloat with about $23 billion in fuel shipments, financial aid, free loans, bank deposits, and critical food, healthcare, housing, education and transport project support.

The GCC economic assistance is important because it also underlines Egypt’s return to the Mubarak era proximity with the six-member bloc, after the relationship suffered serious cracks under the Brotherhood-Morsi reign. Sisi hopes to use this assistance to revive the economy through, for example, announcement of infrastructure projects, including a massive expansion of the Suez Canal, and ending crony capitalism.

An example of reforms paying off is evident in British oil company BP announcing a $12 billion investment plan in May. Leveraging these, the Sisi government is aiming for six per cent economic growth and curtailing unemployment to 10 per cent by 2020.

Second, foreign aid driven economic solutions are bound to impact domestic politics. The country’s economic revival is important not only to Egyptians and Sisi, but to the GCC countries as well, since it would undermine the Brotherhood-Morsi combine even more than it has already been at home and abroad. Egypt’s crackdown on political Islam has been replicated in the GCC countries too.

Egypt has been without a parliament since July 2013, after its election laws were deemed unconstitutional, giving the president full legislative powers. Since then Muslim Brotherhood has been banned, thousands of its members arrested and Morsi has been sentenced to death, along with a few other leaders. Gaining in confidence and showing signs of political astuteness, Sisi has announced that parliamentary elections will be held before the end of the year. The results, of course, will determine if Sisi is on the right track towards political consolidation, curtailing extremism and reining in militancy.

Third, in the foreign policy domain, Egypt has chosen to keep all doors and options open to maximise benefits both at home and abroad. In a throwback to the non-aligned movement era, which it helped develop, Egypt has sought to collaborate with partners from opposite spectrums – the GCC countries, which are closer to the United States; and Russia, which opposes the United States on most global issues.

Arab mainstream politics

Aiming to return to the Arab political mainstream and regain some of its past glory as a regional power broker, Egypt has joined the Saudi-led coalition against the Al Houthis in Yemen. It has also been part of air raids against the Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda militants in Libya. Addressing a summit of Arab leaders in March, Sisi renewed calls for a unified Arab force to confront regional security threats, including fighting jihadists. The proposed force would be made up of about 40,000 elite troops and backed by jets, warships and light armour.

Further, to ward off US and EU pressure over its domestic politics, Sisi warmed up to Russia. Apart from reciprocal visits, President Vladimir Putin and Sisi have agreed to a $2 billion arms deal. Engagement with Moscow became necessary after Washington suspended $1.3 billion annual military funding to Cairo after democratically elected Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military.

But, in a case of its strategic Russian gamble paying off, Washington restored US military aid to Egypt because of the need to counter the IS menace. This makes Egypt the second-largest recipient of US military aid, after Israel.

Two other new foreign policy approa-ches are aimed at tackling domestic problems. In order to tackle the IS-affiliated militant insurgency in Sinai, Egypt has posted additional troops along the border with Israel. Though this contravenes the 1979 peace treaty, the common goal to counter terrorism has helped Cairo and Tel Aviv arrive at a tacit understanding. Equally important is the constructive engagement with Ethiopia and other Nile-sharing countries to resolve the problem of sharing water resources.

Thus, Egypt is attempting a reversal of fortune. It shaped the developments in West Asia rather substantively during the last two decades of the 20th century and partially until 2011, before becoming a bundle of confusion and contradiction. The possibility of it re-emerging as a pragmatic, balanced, and influential power now rests on how well some of its ‘foreign’ solutions impact its domestic problems.

(The writer is a Gulf-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter)

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