It seems as if Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has fallen out of favour with his Western backers; that he has become a liability rather than an “asset”, as intelligence spooks might say. Although it might not be as stark as that, there are good reasons to believe that Sisi is no longer seen as the hero or saviour that he claimed to be back in 2013 when he deposed the country’s elected civilian President, Mohamed Morsi. For Egypt’s sake, the West must persuade him to go, before it’s too late.
Apart from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, no other world leader seemed keen to be seen with the Egyptian president during the G20 summit in China. Social media buzzed after a video was posted showing Barack Obama giving Sisi the cold shoulder as he jockeyed with others to shake the US president’s hands. How has Egypt’s so-called “strongman” fallen from grace – from hero to villain — as suddenly as this?
The Economist gives more than just a hint. It has been scathing in its criticism of the performance of the Egyptian government for weeks. In its latest feature — “Of bread, bribes and fungus” — the internationally acclaimed magazine described Egypt’s “unorthodox” agricultural policies as stupid and “riddled with corruption.” That was the verdict after underscoring the fact that the country is the world’s largest importer of wheat.
Obviously, the Economist could have chosen another edition in which to run such an article. It apparently wanted to make a point, though, by timing its publication to coincide with the G20 summit, when Sisi would be on the world stage rubbing shoulders with his political benefactors.
Since the coup that brought him to power, the former chief of army intelligence has been given an easy ride in the West. Many political leaders embraced him readily, if only because he had toppled a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nevertheless, although it is far from lacking in human or natural resources, Egypt has become an economic basket case. Sixty years after the British withdrawal from the Suez Canal Zone the country has not realised the huge potential benefit from this great waterway. Instead, it remains anchored stubbornly in the bottom half of the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index. The only thing that seems to rise consistently is its foreign debt, which increased from $47.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2015 to $53.4 billion in the first quarter of this year.
Last month, Minister of Supply Khaled Hanafi resigned in the blaze of a corruption scandal, after a parliamentary investigation revealed that 40 per cent of this year’s wheat harvest was either missing or never actually existed. Hanafi has been replaced by an army officer, Major General Muhammad Ali Al-Sheikh.
Call it cronyism or whatever you like, the fact is that these developments are only the tip of the iceberg that is causing unease and mistrust in Western capitals. The situation is so bad, in fact, that when Assistant Justice Minister and Head of the Illicit Gains Authority Adel El-Said announced last month that the government had completed a deal with fugitive business tycoon Hussein Salem to return 75 per cent of his wealth to the state, few were impressed. The underlying fear is that the 5 billion Egyptian Pounds which was said to be returned will, sooner rather than later, find its way into other privately-owned overseas bank accounts. No wonder Sisi’s plea in China for world leaders to help repatriate Egypt’s stolen wealth fell on stony ground.
If all of this was not bad enough, there remain yet other issues that have become a source of embarrassment and discomfort for Western governments. Egypt’s human rights record, for example, which has been swept under the carpet for far too long, has now become as disconcerting as its financial mismanagement and corruption.
Several human rights organisations have drawn attention to the dramatic increase in the number of forced disappearances in Egypt. The horrific abduction and murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni in early 2016 has no doubt brought home to Westerners the reality of the country under Sisi’s rule. In July, Amnesty International published a report on the disturbing rise in the number of abductions and accused the Egyptian authorities of torturing those who they have “disappeared”. According to the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms there were a total of 2,811 cases of forced disappearance between July 2013 when Sisi seized power and June 2016. These figures do not include the North Sinai Governorate in the north-east of the country, which is effectively off-limits to human rights groups.
Sisi’s honeymoon with the West may not be quite over yet; but there are clear signs of unhappiness in the coupling. Despite his well-established anti-Islamist credentials, the Economist believes that he has become part of the problem and not the solution. It advises him to announce that he will not seek another term of office in the 2018 presidential election.
Ultimately, Egypt will always be a strategically important country in the Middle East. Under its current leadership, though, the future looks hopelessly grim. Western leaders must be well aware of this, even if the penny hasn’t quite dropped with Sisi yet. They need to do something about it, and quickly, if their “asset” isn’t going to take Egypt down beyond redemption.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.