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Why Egypt Is Growing More Unstable Fast

The economy is spiraling, public frustration is mounting, and the regime is becoming more repressive. The next time Egyptians come to the streets, they will be looking for more than promises and free elections.

By Shady ElGhazaly Harb

February 2024

In December, Egypt quietly held a farcical presidential election in which its long-reigning strongman, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, secured a third term with nearly 90 percent of the vote. The election, as is typical for Egypt, was marred by routine violations that ordinarily would have received some international notice had world attention not been diverted by the war in Gaza. And while Sisi may feel — or wish to convey to the world — that his position atop the Egyptian hierarchy is secure, the reality is that the country has never been more unstable, and his grip on power never more tenuous.

The signs of Sisi’s fragility were all over the recent election. First is the timing: The election was supposed to be held during the first quarter of 2024, but was brought forward by several months. The thinking is that Sisi did this in order to get his reelection out of the way before he proceeds with another expected devaluation of Egypt’s beleaguered currency. This will be the fourth devaluation in the last two years, and while it’s necessary to stop Egypt from hemorrhaging more of its precious foreign reserves and to achieve targets mandated by the IMF as part of its bailout loan agreement, it will surely result in another surge in inflation rates, which reached an all-time high of 38 percent last September.

Second was the surprising popularity of the presidential campaign of a 44-year-old former parliamentarian named Ahmed al-Tantawy, and the Sisi regime’s frazzled response to it. Although far from a household name, Tantawy’s success in convincing Egyptians that he was a serious candidate won him vast credibility. This wasn’t only shown in the videos circulating from his visits on the campaign trail, but more importantly, with his name being chanted in a rare protest that erupted in the remote town of Marsa Matrouh last October in defiance of a campaign event for Sisi. The government quickly moved to restrain him. Tantawy’s phone was found to be targeted with Predator spyware, and 96 members of his campaign staff were arrested. The regime actively intervened, preventing him from acquiring the 25,000 voter signatures necessary to become a candidate. Many of these violations have been reported to the Public Prosecutor, undermining any air of electoral legitimacy that Sisi might have hoped for. Unsurprisingly, the Public Prosecutor has not started an investigation into any of these complaints. Instead, after the elections, Tantawy was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence, fined, and banned from running for office for the next five years.

Though the regime did allow the candidacy of a leftist named Farid Zahran to proceed, this was only because he was a complete nonentity. He was allowed to secure his candidacy by gaining endorsements from twenty MPs from the regime’s rubberstamp parliament. In the final tally, he received 4 percent of the vote. The absence of any serious debates among the candidates, especially with the incumbent, and the regime’s zealous plastering of every corner of the country with posters of the maximum leader’s visage added to the perception that this election was merely another coronation for a dictator who brooks no dissent. The obviously doctored electoral process only confirms the grim conclusion of Egypt’s young people that a peaceful transition of power is impossible in today’s Egypt.

The Sick Man of the Middle East

Though Sisi rode into power on a wave of enthusiasm based on his ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ten years since have not been what most Egyptians bargained for. Their country went from being hailed as the vanguard of the vaunted Arab Spring to being lamented as the sick man of the Middle East. International coverage before the Gaza War erupted was focused on the country’s dire economic situation and the Sisi regime’s systematic oppression of civil society. Sisi has become synonymous with poor governance and mismanagement. Some of his major achievements have been for foreign currency shortages, multiple rounds of currency devaluation, lack of donor interest in helping address Egypt’s debt crisis, and desperate attempts by the government to overcome its economic challenges by selling state assets, including shares in the Suez Canal — a national asset guarded jealously by Egyptian leaders since Nasser nationalized it in 1956. The fog of war in neighboring Gaza may temporarily divert attention from these failures, but they remain and are not forgotten.

Public frustration is mounting. It is not lost on Egyptians that President Sisi was supposed to leave office in 2022 after a constitutionally-mandated two-term presidency, and that the only reason he is able to hang on is because of bespoke constitutional amendments he engineered to extend his reign up to another two six-year terms. Observers expect yet another round of amendments to further cement his power.

It would be a mistake, however, to think Egyptians will remain silent. In September 2019, a few months after he amended the constitution, Egyptians took to the streets in huge numbers to express their displeasure. It was the first sign that the population had lost hope in Sisi’s regime. The loss of faith in peaceful protests is even more dangerous. This was recorded in a poll by the Arab Barometer in 2019 showing that only 24 percent of youth perceived they had the freedom to protest peacefully. This is a particularly dangerous conclusion when coupled with 85 percent of the population expressing pessimism toward the economy, as shown by a Washington Institute survey.

The last time the Egyptians lost faith in the electoral transition of power was in 2010, after a rigged parliamentary election and the ongoing preparation of Gamal Mubarak to inherit his ailing father’s throne. A few months later, in January 2011, their response literally rocked the world. Egypt is poised for yet another world-rocking event, but this time, it won’t be a more-or-less orderly affair led by young revolutionaries and experienced civil society leaders. This is because, after a decade of repression and mass imprisonment, there are no more organized activist groups or civil society leaders to speak of. They are either jailed, exiled, or forcibly muted. Instead, it will be poorer sectors of the population who are on the brink of starvation, rioting in the streets in desperation with no organizing body to constrain or guide them.

The regime is betting that Egyptians are wary of revolution and prefer Sisi’s doleful stability to the uncertainty that revolution would bring. This is an error. Egyptians are being crushed by the economic situation, oppressed under the heavy-handed security apparatus, and frustrated by the lack of prospects of change. With 68 percent of the population in September 2022 reporting they ran out of food before they had money to buy more, it’s only a matter of time until those numbers manifest themselves on the streets. Although no widespread protests have happened since 2019, sporadic protests haven’t stopped. People in Alexandria and Warraq island clashed with security forces when they feared they would be forced from their homes as part of the government’s infrastructure projects. But the most alarming sign was the protestors who stormed Sisi’s campaign event in Marsa Matrouh last October, tearing his banners and calling for his ouster. Online boycotting campaigns of U.S. companies in response to the war in Gaza is another sign of how the Egyptians are consistently trying to find new ways to vent their anger. Protestors increasingly have no organizational experience or trust in existing institutions. So, when they do take to the streets, they won’t simply demand a new constitution or free and fair elections.

And, unlike protestors in 2011, these new revolutionaries won’t trust the military to shepherd the country to a new future. Sisi has relied on the military in all his endeavors, including those perceived as the source of impoverishment. The most obvious is the New Administrative Capital project, seen by the majority as the city for the privileged. The military’s unprecedented economic overreach ranges from dairy, pharmaceutical, and transportation industries to heavy and specialized industries, including agriculture, seafood, mining, and general contracting, overseeing 2,300 projects. Their exaggerated presence has touched everyone’s life and affected even the smallest entrepreneurs in their businesses. In any future unrest, the military will not be received the same way as in 2011, thus elevating the risk of chaos.

Establishing pro-state private security groups led by convicted thugs, in a stunning resemblance to Putin’s Wagner Group, only adds to the prospects of such chaos. The Falcon Group is a private security service officially established in 2006 and run by retired army generals. Initially, it was mainly focused on bank security, but it expanded considerably after the 2013 military takeover. It was assigned to university campuses and airports before being assigned to secure potential areas of protests such as Tahrir Square and downtown Cairo. With its employees reaching up to 22,000 and its publicly announced allegiance to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, this paramilitary group is viewed as the regime’s latest tool of repression. Nevertheless, it also signifies Sisi’s mistrust of the existing institutions, the police, and the military in facing public protests.

A young generation of Egyptians, devoid of hope and poised for a worsening economic situation, while still empowered by the images of overthrowing a previous dictator, have no other option but to explode if there is no significant change in events. Keeping the status quo and an apparently strong, ironclad dictator will only maintain the false sense of stability. Putting the regime on life support by giving economic aid to the same government that has failed repeatedly will just kick the can down the road. Failure to read the signals and act fast enough is a recipe for another disaster in the Middle East, this time in a country of 110 million people.

Shady ElGhazaly Harb is a researcher at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a non-resident Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a prominent activist of the Egyptian revolution and Arab Spring.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Oliver Weiken/picture alliance via Getty Images




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