Sometimes it feels a bit unfair to go after Egypt. Hardly a day goes by without another blistering attack on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime and, well, just about everything it does. Not that the criticisms are not warranted; they most certainly are. It’s more of a problem of how to criticize Egypt in a way that it hasn’t already been heavily and heartily criticized for previously.
How do you deliver constructive criticism of a government that seems to constantly find new and spectacular ways to squander opportunities, reject common sense advice, and generally act against its own interests? A regime that somehow manages to be the Cleveland Browns of governments?
A well-earned sense of gloom hangs over Egypt. Insecurity and persistent terror threats have helped to nearly collapse the tourist industry, vital to the overall health of the economy. Despite reportedly killing the leader of ISIS’ affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, known as Wilayat Sinai, large swathes of territory remain outside of effective government control.
Inflation is high, foreign reserves are low, subsidies on various necessities are a tremendous burden on government coffers, the currency is overvalued, deficits are growing; it’s a plentiful buffet of troubling economic indicators. Speaking of plentiful, Egypt, once a great breadbasket for empires, is now the world’s largest importer of wheat, distributed through a broken and horrifically corrupt government scheme. Climate and water issues have caused wheat prices, and food prices in general, to skyrocket.
Not helping the matter is Egypt’s endemic corruption. Take wheat, for example: last November, the government announced that it would encourage domestic wheat production by buying it at average global prices and would grant subsidies for each acre planted. But the system is corrupt from production to distribution. Farmers often mix their own wheat with foreign products; bribes have to be paid to get onto the approved list to sell their crops; bureaucrats falsify reports to pocket subsidy money; the new smartcard system to provide some transparency into the purchase process was hacked; bakers play the system to get more subsidized flour.
Sometimes the system works like this, sometimes it is better, sometimes worse. It is, though, a clear indicator of the corruption problem in Egypt. In late July, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail claimed that Egypt’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index had improved dramatically. Transparency International, a leading anti-corruption NGO, promptly corrected him. Although Egypt had in fact moved up six spots to number 88 (out of 168) in the 2015 rankings, its score had actually gotten worse: 36 out of 100, down from 37 in 2014.
In December Hesham Genena, then Egypt’s top anti-corruption official, released a damning report on corruption in the country. He was promptly sacked and prosecuted. His daughter was also fired from her government job.
Egypt’s government bureaucracy put’s the oneat in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil to shame. It is a vast black hole into which massive amounts of money have gone in, never to be seen again. Advisors from the United Arab Emirates, brought in to reform and tame the beast, have fled like a terrified babysitter. The bureaucracy has tied red tape around Egypt thatand threatens to strangle it. By making it so difficult for foreigners to bring in business and for Egyptians to create their own opportunities, it makes any real growth near impossible.
Add in unemployment issues, particularly youth unemployment, which stands at more than 40%. Skilled labor is lacking, and those who do hold critical skills are more likely to head abroad to work than stay in Egypt. A large, unemployed and increasingly frustrated youth population is not part of the recipe for stability.
Sisi’s answers have been to promise reform while continuing his authoritarian crackdown against dissent. Citizens are being asked to sacrifice for benefits they are likely to never see without wide-ranging governance and economic reforms. A preliminary deal between Egypt and the International Monetary Fund would see the country secure $12 billion in loans to help plug budget gaps and rally the currency market. However, if nothing changes in regards to how the government works, the aid will be in vain.
As was noted in “The Arab Spring Will Bloom Again,” the honeymoon for Sisi is clearly over. He hasn’t proven to be an enlightened despot, the strongman needed to push through reforms and changes vital to giving Egypt and Egyptians a chance to succeed. Opportunity isn’t coming, discontent isn’t going anywhere, and there isn’t enough trust left in the Sisi regime to believe that either of those issues will be properly addressed.
There is a tremendous and dangerous disconnect between Sisi’s regime and the Egyptian people. He has failed to build confidence, to show that he can lead and provide real security or economic stability, let alone progress. Instead of bringing strength, Sisi has presided over a country growing ever frailer. Five years and two deposed presidents later, Egypt remains perilously close to the brink.