Tough road ahead for Egypt

June 12, 2014

By Richard Nield

In the aftermath of victory for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in recent presidential elections, Egypt’s government faces a huge challenge to unite a fragmented society behind difficult economic reforms, agreed a panel of experts speaking at the Frontline Club on 10 June 2014, chaired by Rasha Qandeel, presenter and journalist at BBC Arabic.

Egypts Roadmap

From left: Chaired by Rasha Qandeel, Dalia Abd Elhameed, Mohamed Yehia and Tarek Osman in conversation at the Frontline Club.

Al-Sisi was sworn in as president on 8 June after winning more than 90 per cent of the vote in elections at the end of May.

There are some positives to the outcome of the election, suggested Tarek Osman, a political economist focused on the Arab world.

“It is the first time since 2011 that the executive has command over the institutions of Egypt,” said Osman. “Wide sections of the Egyptian people are ecstatic about the election of Al-Sisi.”

But huge challenges remain.

“The challenges are great,” said Mohammed Yehia, head of multimedia output at the BBC’s Arabic Service. “There are the divisions [within society]; there’s the dire economic situation; there’s the low-level insurgency that we’ve seen in the Sinai and that has started to spread in other cities.”

Key to the challenge faced by the government is the lack of a broad consensus behind the president and the lack of support from younger members of the population, said Osman.

“The level of polarisation is unprecedented in the last 200 years, and this is seriously worrying,” he said. “Youth participation in the referendum in January was very low and my estimation is that youth participation in the presidential election was also very low.

“The level of consent right now is huge in certain segments [of society] but . . . in the decisive segment – young people – that level of consent is not high. You need to get that consent and if you don’t you have a real problem.

“Egypt will be in a state of fluidity for a number of years because the vast majority of Egyptians are young and disillusioned.”

Osman argued that the vast majority of Egyptians did not want to break the Egyptian republic in 2011, but simply to reform it. But Dalia Abd Elhameed, head of the gender programme at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, disagreed.

“People wanted fundamental political change,” said Elhameed. “I don’t think that people just want reform, because corruption is embedded.

“I don’t think stability can be accomplished without addressing the most serious issue, which is restructuring the ministry of interior. The police are coming back with much more grave violations and a growing fascist tone. They have popular support, but I think this will fade away.”

The Egyptian military’s return to the forefront of Egyptian politics is a major setback for the 2011 revolution, argued Elhameed.

“We’re definitely at the moment of defeat with the huge militarisation in Egypt,” she said. “We thought so when the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country, but we were in the street. Now we don’t have access to the street.

“The current government is behaving in the same way that Mubarak used to do. They would give us some rights-based laws and a good constitution, but with no implementation and with complete impunity for the police and the military.

“Al-Sisi said that he wants to meet the youth of January 25, but he can’t find them. Of course he can’t find them, because most of them are behind bars. So many of the iconic figures of January 25 are behind bars now.”

The authoritarian behaviour of the state is undermining the rights of women in Egypt, said Elhameed.

“You can’t look at the behaviour of the masses without looking at the state,” she said. “The state is a perpetrator of sexual violence. Police commit rape in police stations. It’s a sign to society that sexual violence can pass unpunished.”

Despite the erosion of much of the hopes of the 2011 uprising, some positives remain, suggested Yehia.

“The mentality has changed since 2011,” he said. “People now have a voice, and they became an important factor to be considered in any policy-making decision. We used to say that 2011 broke the wall of silence, and in that sense there is a new beginning.

“New media is becoming very influential to the point that it’s starting to make the media machine irrelevant to large sections of the people.”

The most pressing concern for the government is to confront the huge economic challenges faced by the country.

“Al-Sisi has indicated that he is willing to take the painful steps to fix the economy that his predecessors shied away from,” said Yehia. “But to what extent will the people of Egypt be willing to wait before they see the fruits of this?”

According to Yehia, urgent reforms to the state’s burdensome system of subsidies could deepen societal issues unless they are handled carefully.

“If the current government learns from the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood in being more inclusive and allowing space for young people who are disillusioned to be a player in the scene there could be a bright opening,” he said. “But if [it] adopts an authoritarian line we could see another wave of revolt.”

Watch and listen again here: