When he addresses the UN General Assembly on September 25th, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will surely have reason to feel pleased. The former field-marshal’s first 100 days as president, following a strong electoral win in June, have brought economic and diplomatic advances as well as hope to Egyptians wearied by years of political turmoil. Yet the health of the most populous Arab state remains fragile. Full recovery will take more time and less of a few things, not least reliance on heavy-handed police to silence dissent.
Sisi can take credit for some good first steps. Successive Egyptian governments have shied from tackling ruinously large energy subsidies. But in July Sisi’s cabinet raised fuel prices, which will both restrain galloping consumption and trim the government’s budget deficit, running perilously above 11% of GDP.
The launch of a $4 billion project to double the capacity of the Suez Canal, one of Egypt’s main earners, has also been a success. Despite scepticism among some experts over government claims that the project will more than double canal revenue, from $5 billion to $12.5 billion, Egyptians snapped up an $8.5 billion bond issue that will underwrite both the digging and a wider development scheme. The sum not only indicates a return of confidence among ordinary citizens, but suggests how Egypt might reduce reliance on foreign donors. Rich Gulf countries have shelled out some $20 billion to prop up Sisi since (as defence minister) he led a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood last year.
Sisi has also cashed in on the region’s misfortunes. With Egypt’s neighbour Libya in turmoil, Gaza in ruins, and Islamic State rampaging in Iraq and Syria, anxious Western countries have turned to Egypt to fulfill its familiar regional role as a moderating force. Visiting Cairo to lobby for support against IS, America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, avoided public mention of Egypt’s dismal human-rights record. Despite sharp words from the European Union on the subject, France in July sealed a deal to sell warships to Egypt.
Sisi’s rehabilitation is not yet complete. America, which has lavished $1.3 billion a year of military aid for three decades, is unhappy about overtures to Russia, which on September 17th said it had inked a $3.5 billion arms deal with Cairo. Egyptian diplomats also fear that American supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has suffered the deaths of hundreds of supporters under Sisi, plan demonstrations against his visit in New York.
In Egypt a snowballing campaign of hunger strikes is focusing public attention on the plight of political prisoners, hundreds of whom have been incarcerated for more than a year without trial. Power cuts and price rises are also causing discontent.
Perhaps to pre-empt embarrassment in New York and encourage a friendlier reception from Obama, Sisi’s government has quietly relaxed some strictures in recent weeks. High-profile secular prisoners have been released, as have more than 100 students who had been held for seven months for mounting pro-Brotherhood protests. The government has postponed passage of a law to place NGOs under strict state control, and hints that it will revise a draconian anti-protest law.
Since Sisi’s election there have been few counterbalances to the incremental reassertion of state control. The Muslim Brotherhood is crushed and largely discredited, while secular opposition forces are marginalised and in disarray. Parliamentary elections, likely to be held by January, are expected to produce a low turnout and a weak, divided legislature. Sisi’s luck, for the time being, looks as if it will hold.
Source: The Economist