Egypt observes the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Tahrir uprising today. On the eve of the anniversary the country’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi paid tribute, in a televised speech, to those killed by security forces during the 18-day revolt against the then President Hosni Mubarak. During his address, el-Sisi sought to revive the country’s “noble principles” and work for a “new Egypt”. Urging the youth to be patient, he said that the Egyptian history will always honor them.
The banned Muslim Brotherhood called for protests. However, their ranks are now severely depleted due to massive crackdown and there is absence of senior leadership, which either languish in jail or are in exile.
Extraordinary precautions have been taken in Cairo with hundreds of homes raided over the past week resulting in a number of pre-emptive arrests and a heavier than usual presence of security forces in the streets.
I doubt the country’s liberals will get involved in any significant public protests. They oppose el-Sisi but will not ally with Muslim Brotherhood, which betrayed them by refusing to share power during former president Morsi’s one year in office. Their leaders have also not sought permits, required under a relatively new Protest Law, from the Interior Ministry three days prior to the event.
The liberal rank and file, lacking the disciplined party spirit of the Muslim Brotherhood, is aware that any anti-government protest is not likely to secure support from passersby or onlookers even for a short time before security forces disperse them quickly and violently.
More than the vulnerability of street protests, there is a greater and potentially more dangerous possibility of bombings taking place. Just last week, eight policemen were killed while attempting to enter a building in Greater Cairo on a tip off that was more likely to be a booby-trap.
January 25 is as good as any date to look at what el-Sisi has achieved and what he has not, over the past year. What is obvious is that the further afield the engagement is from Egypt, the better the results for him.
Take Libya for instance. Little more than a year ago ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. This was in retaliation to Egyptian aircraft pounding ISIS positions in Derna, a Salafi-jihadi stronghold less than a100 miles from the Egypt-Libya border. At this moment el-Sisi called on the U.N. to authorize the formation of an armed coalition that Egypt would join to intervene in Libya and take out ISIS at the request of the house of representative.
He was ignored and the official line, which was that such a coalition could not even begin to take form, much less act, until a unity government was established in Libya. The country has been struggling with two rival and warring factions amid hopeless mediation bids by the U.N. After over a year of mediated negotiations, a new authority, the Government of National Accord (GNA), came into being.
January 25 is as good as any date to look at what el-Sisi has achieved and what he has not over the yearsAbdallah Schleifer
But back at their respective home bases the two rival authorities have yet to approve the agreement. So a unity government exists but its authority does not extend beyond the hotel rooms the delegates occupy in Tunisia.
The situation in Libya, as predicted by el-Sisi a year ago, is so desperate that leading American and British generals are talking about imminent intervention. ISIS forces, swollen by a growing number of foreign volunteers, threaten the three main oil terminals in Libya and acquiring more control of Libya’s strategic Mediterranean coastline.
This past year the White House and the State Department abandoned its tenuous efforts on behalf of what remains of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and full military aid is again flowing to Cairo. But el-Sisi has not given up on developing commercial and political relationships with Russia, China and France, as alternative sources for the provision of weaponry as well as markets for Egyptian exports and investment in Egypt.
Egypt has sustained a working relation with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, which seemed to be in trouble months ago. King Salman has committed to still more generous investment capital for Egypt even though el-Sisi has restored diplomatic relations with the Assad regime in Syria. Sisi has also counseled, in concert with Russia, that any peaceful settlement of the Syrian war that involves the immediate end of Assad’s political presence would be an invitation to ISIS to seize Damascus as the Syrian state collapsed.
However, domestic problems remain and they are severe. This past summer ISIS affiliate launched a major offensive in the northern Sinai strip seizing an important town which was only recovered after heavy fighting. In the Egyptian “mainland” there are sporadic incidents of bombings and Egypt’s Prosecutor General was assassinated.
Unemployment remains high even as there is promise of a more than a million new jobs being created when projects such as the industrial hub alongside the Second Suez Canal channel come about. The project was completed in one year by the Egyptian army engineers but the projected new capital is yet to take shape.
The most severe problem is that, with the further dramatic devaluations of the Egyptian Pound over the past year and a half, the price of essential products has soared. On the other hand, wages have not in any way kept up and the continued reduction of subsidies on electricity has added to the pressure on poor families whose purchasing power has dramatically declined because of the devaluation.
For all the human rights violations and imprisoned journalists (only China has arrested more), the Egyptian masses as well as much of the middle classes will not return to the streets over these issues. Unlike January 25, 2011 and the 18 days that followed, they now have the examples of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Of what can happen when lids come off too quickly: It is a form of freedom they thank God they have escaped. Their concerns are how they will be able to put food on the table tomorrow – not parliamentary elections or a less politically contorted judiciary.
Part of the answer is to dramatically reduce import of non-essential products to reduce the pressure on hard currency holdings – Egypt is an agriculture-based country that imports much if not most of its food and products like clothing, cosmetics and electronics.
The only foreign cars on the road should be those assembled here and as many of the parts used in the assembly to be manufactured here. Import-substitute industry not only reduces the demand for foreign currency; it creates jobs.
Man does not live by bread alone, but without bread he does not live.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and distinguished visiting professor of political mass media at Future University in Egypt. He is also professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer), New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.