On 28 January, 2011, Egyptians went to the streets in masses calling for freedom, justice and change. Eighteen days later, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. For many Egyptian youth who had been protesting in Tahrir Square, Mubarak – often dubbed a modern pharaoh – was the only president they had known in their lifetime. Five years later, with many of the original grievances and demands still unmet by successive Egyptian governments, Egypt continues to experience substantial political, economic and societal unrest. Egypt’s future remains uncertain and pessimistic on almost all fronts, and in some cases – particularly regarding human rights – the situation has deteriorated to a state even worse than during the Mubarak years.
Throughout 2015, Egypt witnessed a number of big economic and political events. On the economic front, in March 2015, Sharm el Sheikh hosted the Egypt Economic Development Conference. The international conference was aimed at attracting foreign direct investments (FDIs) to various sectors of the ailing Egyptian economy, and several memoranda of understanding (MOUs) worth billions of dollars were signed. In August, at a lavish ceremony, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi opened the $8.2-billion expansion of the Suez Canal. The project involved digging a new 35-kilometre-long lane and making improvements to existing shipping lanes. Dubbed ‘Egypt’s gift to the world,’ the government championed claims that the new expansion would boost Egypt’s position in the world economy and increase the canal’s revenue to $13 billion by 2023.
Nonetheless, Egypt is facing one of the most acute economic crises in recent years. Despite continuing support and pledges from the Gulf monarchies, Egypt’s economy remains shaky and the threat of a solvency crisis lingers. Egypt’s foreign reserves have been afloat at $16 billion – worth three months of imports and less than half of the pre-2011 uprising reserves – with little coming into the state coffers. Egypt’s traditional foreign currency sources – the Suez Canal, tourism, and remittances from Egyptians abroad – have been greatly affected by domestic and international conditions. According to statistics released by the Suez Canal Authority, sluggish trade, low oil prices and the expensive toll of the Canal have prompted shipping companies to take the 3,500-mile detour around Africa, thereby causing Canal revenues to plunge.
In addition to the aforementioned challenges, the government’s erratic economic policies and lack of vision contributed to further dwindling in its foreign currency reserves. 2015 was marked by a scarcity of US dollars, which led to a surge in its value vis-à-vis the Egyptian pound on the black market. The challenges of obtaining dollars led to an increase in inflation, the closure of several businesses and halting production at others, like General Electric (GE). Unfortunately for Egypt, any solutions for its economic crisis that would include further devaluation of the pound, lifting subsidies or continuing to rely on foreign aid and loans come with a price. The sooner the government decides on a plan forward the better for the millions of Egyptians who suffer the continued depreciation of the pound and the economy.
Unfortunately for Egypt, any solutions for its economic crisis that would include further devaluation of the pound, lifting subsidies or continuing to rely on foreign aid and loans come with a price
Egypt’s attempts to attract tourism faced significant challenges in 2015. On the security front, continued threats in Sinai, political instability and reports of violence have had a negative impact on tourism. Whereas this vital sector witnessed a surge of almost 15 million tourists in 2010, this number fell to barely 9 million in 2015. Tourism not only acts as a source of foreign currency, (attributed to 11.3% of Egypt’s GDP and 14.4% of foreign currency revenues) but also as a job creator. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, direct employment in the tourism industry in 2015 accounted for 1.1 million jobs, falling from 1.3 million in 2014. The council expects a further decrease by 0.9% in 2016. By the end of 2015, two significant attacks against tourists had dealt a major blow to Egypt’s international image and tourism industry. The first was the killing of a group of Mexican tourists by Egypt’s security forces, who mistook them for terrorists. The second blow was the crash of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula that was claimed by a Sinai-based affiliate of the so-called Islamic State (IS). These dreadful incidents will make it harder for the tourism industry to recover in 2016, during which, according to the Minister of Tourism, revenues are unlikely to exceed $6 billion.
Egypt’s attempts to attract tourism faced significant challenges in 2015. On the security front, continued threats in Sinai, political instability and reports of violence have had a negative impact on tourism
Egypt continued to face daily security threats in 2015 in Northern Sinai from extremist groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), which pledged allegiance to IS. ABM has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against police and army personnel and posts in North Sinai. According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), the rate of attacks in 2014 stood at around 30 per month, four times more than in previous years. These attacks increased to about 100 per month in 2015. The military’s strategy of launching airstrikes, creating buffer zones, and attempting to enforce curfews has not proven effective in eliminating the insurgency. The rugged and mountainous terrains of Sinai and the guerilla tactics and warfare used by the insurgents gives them an advantage over the traditional training and tactics of the Egyptian army. There is a need for a new approach to deal with terrorism in Sinai by involving local tribes and the use of technology. In addition, socio-economic development in these underprivileged areas could serve as a powerful tool to combat extremism and disenfranchisement.
Violence and attacks in 2015 were not restricted to Sinai, but also reached Cairo and Giza. A group named ‘Islamic State in Egypt’ claimed several attacks last year, including an explosion outside Italy’s Consulate in Cairo; the bombing of a branch of Egypt’s National Security Agency; and an attack on a tourist bus in Giza.
In the political sphere, President al-Sisi completed his first year in office. His international trips and speeches given alongside foreign leaders, in addition to his mega-project ideas were hailed by regime supporters as acceptance by the world of the new regime in Egypt. Al-Sisi has long claimed to be apolitical, labelling politics as a luxury that risks further societal divisions at a time when Egypt needs unity. Ultimately, however, his government’s abrupt and authoritarian policies, as well as stifling dissent and cracking down on independent voices – including on the media and human rights organizations –, are increasingly alienating the population.
Egypt’s political authoritarianism, securitized policies and manipulated media have managed to brainwash a plethora of Egyptians under the pretext of fighting terrorism and foreign influence
The apathy of Egyptians was evident in the low turnout of voters in the parliamentary elections. Between October and December 2015, the long-delayed parliamentary elections took place for the first time since the dissolution of the previous Parliament in 2012. Despite numerous statements by al-Sisi and government officials committing themselves to neutrality in the elections, several reports of electoral violations were filed and an investigative report detailed the involvement of security sector and intelligence agents in creating electoral lists to support the President.
Nonetheless, Sisi’s unrestrained grip on legislative power ended with the election of the new Parliament in 2015. Up until that point, Presidents Mohamed Morsi, Adly Mansour and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had possessed an unchecked power to produce legislation, issuing more than 300 decrees that were to be ratified by the Parliament within 15 days of its inauguration. Not surprisingly, these decrees were overwhelmingly rubber-stamped by the new Parliament with just one notable exception: the new civil service law. According to the government, the law had been a step towards administrative reform and managing the oversized bureaucracy. Many government employees, on the other hand, fearing possible dismissal, protested and lobbied until the Parliament overruled it.
Since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency on 3 July, 2013, a brutal crackdown and demonization process has taken place against the Muslim Brotherhood. The process began with the imprisonment of the group’s leaders followed by the forceful dispersal of its supporters in August. In November 2013, the government labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and dissolved its political party. Other Islamist groups, including the Salafi Nour party, may face a similar fate, as, to date, there remains an open case before the courts demanding the dissolution of all political parties with Islamic roots.
Only once the Egyptian State recognizes that it alone is culpable for the shortcomings and crises of its own making, can the country take its first steps toward real reform and hope for a better Egypt
Egypt’s political authoritarianism, securitized policies and manipulated media have managed to brainwash a plethora of Egyptians under the pretext of fighting terrorism and foreign influence. Government officials and the media continue to blame and connect all Egypt’s ailments and disasters to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, alleged foreign conspiracies and home-grown fifth columns. As one writer put it, Egypt has become the “conspiracy theory capital of the world.”
As a result of a hypnotized populace, any discussions about corruption and human rights violations or questioning of Sisi’s wobbly policies are seen as anti-Egypt attacks and could lead to legal prosecution. Nonetheless, several groups, mainly composed of youth, have been working to expose the deteriorating status of freedoms by documenting hundreds of cases of forced disappearances, police brutality and torture, continued prolonged and illegal incarcerations, and trumped-up charges against political and non-political dissidents.
In its latest saga in the international headlines, Egypt is facing criticism over the case of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was found mysteriously and brutally tortured to death in Cairo. Egypt’s officials denied the involvement of its security forces, failing to conduct a proper investigation and present information or evidence of any other culprit. This led Italy, one of Egypt’s top trading partners, to recall its ambassador from Cairo expressing its dismay at the way the case had been handled. President Sisi expressed blatant, support for Egyptian institutions and placed the blame on Egyptians and social media for circulating ‘lies’ that damage Egypt’s image abroad. The more accurate conclusion, however, is that only once the Egyptian State recognizes that it alone is culpable for the shortcomings and crises of its own making, can the country take its first steps toward real reform and hope for a better Egypt.
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