As underlined by the weekly magazine The Economist, only seven of the 22 heads of state expected to attend the annual meeting of Arab countries actually travelled to Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania and seat for this summit. Furthermore, it is hard to envisage that these seven represented a real parterre de rois, seeing that they included the “host” Ould Abdul Aziz who was necessarily present; the Yemeni president supported by Saudi Arabia, Mansour Hadi, banished from the capital San’a since 2015 and therefore “free of any commitments” as well as the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court and charged with genocide. All in all, domestic attempts to put an end to al Sisi’s dictatorship may certainly be real, but evidence of their existence remains rather weak.
A never-ending economic crisis
Al-Sisi’s third year in power has been characterised by the failure of all his attempts to jump-start the Egyptian economy. The most sensational example remains the tourist sector. Before Hosni Mubarak’s removal from power following the extraordinary protests early in 2011, this sector employed about 10% of Egyptian workers and guaranteed revenue amounting to about $12.5 billion dollars. In 2013, the number of tourists visiting Egypt had already fallen by one third with revenue almost halved. The explosion of a bomb placed on a Russian plane that had just departed from Sharm el-Sheikh on October 31st, 2015, and the mysterious disappearance at sea of the EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo on May 19th, worsened a situation that was already critical. According to a statement made to the Daily News Egypt by Elhamy El-Zayat, former president of the Egyptian Tourist Federation (ETF), in 2016 revenue from tourism may amount to about $3.6 billion, hence 75% less than under Mubarak.
In recent decades the tourism sector has played a strategic role for the Egyptian regime. On the one hand it is a significant economic player, guaranteeing employment in a context characterised by the arrival of almost one million new job-seekers on the labour market every year. On the other hand, it guarantees a flow of important foreign currencies (euros and above all American dollars) to a country that historically experiences an inability to self-finance itself on markets (both due to a lack of internal savings caused by the level of poverty experienced by most of its citizens, and because of the low level of trust Egyptian government bonds would have at a financial level). The weakening of the tourist industry therefore led the al-Sisi regime towards a hybrid model, one capable of controlling the country’s extremely ferocious neoliberal policies – unknown even in the days of Mubarak and his so-called ‘government of businessmen’ led by Ahmed Nazif – and pharaonic infrastructural projects.
As far as the first aspects are concerned, one must emphasise subsidy cuts, the implementation of austerity measures, the reduction of the deficit through indiscriminate cuts to essential services, as well as a new wave of privatisations aimed at encouraging Western and Arab investors. On the other front instead, significant aspects are the expansion of the Suez Canal, the energy cooperation project developed with the German company Siemens, and an attempt to build a nuclear power station thanks to technological and financial help provided by Putin’s Russia. Seeing that all this was not enough to stop an exponential accumulation of debt and the simultaneous and logical devaluation of the Egyptian currency, the last card al-Sisi had left to play was help from the Suadis.
A new cycle of protests and its limitations
However, even the traditionally generous help provided by the Saudis, especially during a lengthy phase of low oil prices, came at a significant cost. The price paid by al-Sisi’s regime was the sale of two islands in the Red Sea – Tinar and Sanafir – to the Saudi kingdom. It is a decision that makes obvious the financial problems of a regime that has based its propaganda on nationalism, sovereignty and border defence, to then find itself obliged to sell-off bits of its territory to save itself from bankruptcy. Domestic reactions were violent with widespread protests and the regime’s consequent severe repression. On this subject, censorship applied to the popular daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm was significant. Last April, on the eve of Saudi King Salman’s visit to Egypt, where he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate, the headline chosen by the newspaper was “Two Islands and a doctorate for Salman… and billions for Egypt”. Those who bought the Al-Masry Al-Youm at newsstands the next morning, however, read something rather different, “Agreements worth 25 billion signed during Salman’s visit”.
Repression and censorship have not, however, managed to prevent the formation of a broad coalition that has firmly contested the sale of the two islands to Saudi Arabia. For the first time since the coup d’état of July 3rd 2013, a heterogeneous front opposed to al-Sisi’s regime has recently set aside divisions in order to jointly move against the government. Revolutionary forces (the April 6th Youth Movement and the Trotsky-inspired Revolutionary Socialists) as well as political parties that had initially supported the coup as an “anti-Muslim Brotherhood” move (the Constitution Party founded by Nobel Prize winner El Baradei; the Karama Party led by Hamdeen Sabahi and the well-known trade unionist Kamal Abu Eita; and the Egyptian Democratic Party) have created an implicit coalition that then assumed the name of the date on which protests were held, “April 15th”. Although during previous months many analysts had reported increased anti-government protests, they had remained confined to specific professional and labour environments. The April 15th protests must therefore be considered as a significant step forward in terms of opposition quality compared to previous months, emerging as the first strictly political protests of the al-Sisi era.
All this must certainly not lead one to draw the simplistic and rather banal conclusion that this is the eve of a new revolutionary cycle. The coalition that had initially supported the coup d’état led by al-Sisi is certainly smaller. Equally, trust in the man who had initially been portrayed by domestic propaganda as the “new Nasser” has significantly fallen, especially among working classes. However, the Egyptian workers movement – leaving aside a number of unfruitful episodes of anger and generous attempts to ensure a more solid organisation – remains weak, fragmented and subject to enraged repression, while coordination between political oppositions is just taking its first steps and there do not appear to be any attempts to achieve a more organic cooperation on the horizon. Furthermore, the problem of relationships between “secular” movements and the Muslim Brotherhood remains unsolved, with the Brotherhood experiencing a very delicate phase characterised by bitter internal rivalries.
All in all, al-Sisi’s regime – described constantly as unstable, precarious and in danger – has entered its fourth year and journalistic conjectures aside, the most serious threats to its stability are still internal conspiracies and plots. Not exactly a happy scenario for all those who had believed in the most popular slogan of the 2011 uprisings, “bread, freedom and social justice”.
Translated by Francesca Simmons