It was the poster child for the Arab Spring. Egypt looked in 2011 like the model for a revitalized Middle East, as young demonstrators jamming a Cairo square swept away half a century of military dictatorship. The euphoria soon faded. Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president was removed by the army in his first year after protests by citizens who accused him of hoarding power for his Islamist party. With stability overtaking democracy as the public’s bigger concern, Egyptians elected another military strongman as their leader in 2014. Under President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt has managed to avoid the chaos that has engulfed nearby countries Libya, Syria and Yemen. El-Sisi’s promises to deliver an economic revival, however, rely on austerity measures that risk agitating the public yet again.
In a crackdown on opposition that began with the 2013 ouster of El-Sisi’s predecessor, Mohamed Mursi, thousands of Egyptians have died. An estimated 40,000 people, largely members or supporters of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, have been arrested and hundreds have been sentenced to death in mass trials. The Brotherhood, which won every regional and national election between 2011 and El-Sisi’s ascent, has been labeled a terrorist organization and banned. Mursi himself languishes in jail, sentenced to years of prison on various charges and facing retrial on one for which he was originally condemned to death. Sporadic attacks by militants, including some allied with Islamic State, have contributed to a large decline in tourist arrivals, a leading source of income. The government’s budget deficit is projected to remain among the region’s highest. Egypt has been kept afloat by aid from Gulf Arab states, which also see the Brotherhood as a threat. With the drop in global oil prices imperiling that assistance, Egypt in late 2016 signed a deal with the International Monetary Fund for a three-year $12 billion loan. To meet its terms, the government devalued Egypt’s currency, sending food and health-care prices soaring, enacted a value-added tax and reduced public wages and energy subsidies. The measures have fed popular frustration with the slow pace of economic renewal. The potential for further unrest was illustrated in 2016, when simmering grievances erupted into protests after El-Sisi moved to cede two islands to Saudi Arabia.
Military leaders have shaped Egypt’s history for more than 3,000 years. The army commander Horemheb quelled strife after the child-pharaoh Tutankhamen died in 1322 BC with no successor; a military junta then ruled for 13 generations. Slave soldiers known as Mamluks arrived in the early 1250s and created political, social and economic networks over a 500-year rule. Egypt stagnated under British rule. After independence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a general, sought to re-establish the country’s eminence, nationalizing the Suez Canal and leading Arabs in wars against Israel. As Egypt’s ruling general in 1978, Anwar Sadat signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, an air force commander, survived an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, though his regime became ossified and wealth failed to trickle down to ordinary citizens. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation, and half its 92 million people are under the age of 25. The military controls large segments of the economy — with commercial interests from food manufacturing to real estate.
El-Sisi’s supporters say he rescued Egypt from Islamists more interested in promoting their agenda than the national good. They point to the deadly turmoil in nearby countries as evidence of what otherwise might have happened in Egypt. Critics say El-Sisi’s authoritarianism quashed the country’s shot at democracy. They argue that by conflating moderate Islamists with violent extremists, his regime’s indiscriminate crackdown only radicalizes the former. Many of Egypt’s allies — including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Israel and Russia — have embraced the regime’s position that its actions are necessary for stability. The U.S. has long been close to Egypt, supplying military assistance averaging $1.3 billion annually. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. distanced itself from El-Sisi’s regime. It limited the types of military assistance it would provide Egypt and revoked the country’s privilege of buying U.S. military equipment on credit. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, who has made defeating Islamic terrorist groups his administration’s first priority, has praised El-Sisi and promised to improve the relationship. The Egyptian leader welcomed the offer.
The Reference Shelf
- A Center for American Progress report describes El-Sisi’s Egypt.
- A Foreign Affairs article on El-Sisi’s war on Islamists.
- “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” a 2010 book by Toby Wilkinson.
- Congressional Research Service report on U.S.-Egyptian relations.
First published May 22, 2014
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