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Egypt is going to crash. We must act now to limit the chaos

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Brussels, Belgium on February 16, 2022 [EU Council/Anadolu Agency]
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Brussels, Belgium on February 16, 2022 [EU Council/Anadolu Agency]

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started last February, countless articles have been published on the devastating impacts this war will have on wheat-importing countries in the MENA region, especially Egypt.

But due to the incompetence of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime and the short-sightedness of his international backers, the severe deterioration of the economy actually started years ago.

The war in Ukraine has only unmasked it and shed light on the crude reality: Egypt is just a few months away from bankruptcy and the 30 percent poverty rate will soon turn into an unbearable hunger rate.

Many in the Egyptian opposition believe that we have finally reached a turning point, one where Sisi's regime has been severely weakened. Yet I feel utterly depressed, because it seems too late now to save Egypt from chaos and instability.

How many letters were sent to the IMF board of directors to warn them of the mounting debt and of the misuse of funds for vanity projects and corruption? How many times did European and US leaders receive alarming briefs about the real state of the economy and the associated risks in terms of social unrest, terrorism and illegal migration?

Each warning was met with silence or contempt. Three years ago, I warned in Foreign Policy that Egypt's economy was not booming, but collapsing. In rebuttal articles, I was accused of being blinded by my hatred of the regime. Thus, despite all the warnings and the obvious symptoms, the public-money mismanagement cancer was left free to grow and metastasise in the whole national body.

It has now reached the terminal stage. A country of 105 million inhabitants is going to crash.

Self-congratulatory narrative

This is the result of nine years of incompetent rule by Sisi and his cronies. Despite – or probably because of – having full control over the judiciary, the budget and the military, and despite the widespread and systematic repression against all dissident voices, leading to the arbitrary detention of more than 60,000 political prisoners, Sisi has – aided by his international backers – literally ruined the country.

Ironically, despite the alarming indicators pointing to the looming crisis that will shake Egypt, the regime has maintained a self-congratulatory narrative about Egypt's alleged achievements. After nine years of repression, propaganda and authoritarianism, admitting to even one or two mistakes that might need some correction is off the table.

And yet, Egypt's economic situation is desperate. The debt-to-GDP ratio has risen to 93.8 percent this year and a mind-blowing 54 percent of the state's budget alone is swallowed by loan and interest repayments, which does not leave much to fund the country's essentials.

"Hot money" has fled away, despite the decision by the Central Bank of Egypt to raise its interest rates.

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Sisi knows that the situation is dire and he is actually craving the international cash that might save his throne for a few more months. Lately, he has multiplied public relations stunts toward potential donors. Some political prisoners have been released here and there in moves that are as arbitrary as their arrests were.

Most recently, Sisi pompously announced the launch of a political dialogue. What sort of dialogue can we have when at the same time the regime sentences former 2012 presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh to 15 years? Lastly, in an attempt to reassure the IMF, the regime has announced the sale of military and state assets.

What is the point if there is no fundamental change in the regime's spending habits apart from buying more time for Sisi to cling to power?

Chaos seems inevitable

Sadly, Egypt's biggest nightmare is yet to come with the consequences of the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In 2015, the regime gave away Egypt's historical rights on the Nile.

This catastrophic decision threatens the lifeline on which a 7,000-year-old civilisation has been built. Today's economic crisis will violently impact millions with poverty, hunger and instability. But tomorrow's water crisis will endanger the very existence of our country.

We must not deceive ourselves. Instability is coming and chaos seems inevitable. The question is how to contain the damage before Sisi drags the country down with him. This is a call for action addressed to all parties, whether it is the regime, the military, opposition groups, human rights defenders, the West and, obviously, ordinary Egyptians.

Egypt urgently needs a lifesaving plan which radically breaks away from the self-serving and destructive strategies followed by the regime and its international backers over the last decade.

The West has bet on supporting autocratic regimes to fulfil their interests. Its previous support for Russia is another example of the fundamental flaw of this strategy. And the "fight against Islamists" narrative that Sisi's backers promote does not stand at all when even prominent secular Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah is condemned to a slow death in prison.

All along, this has never been about combating Islamism, but about combating democracy. Yet I now hope that they can see that Sisi and his Gulf mates have failed them.

Saving Egypt

Now that the regime is about to crumble, it is urgent that all national forces come together around a project that is bigger than us, bigger than our political views, and bigger even than our past grievances against each other: save Egypt. All political prisoners must be released. The poorest must be protected from hunger and the debt needs restructuring and possibly partial cancelling.

The military must withdraw from all domains unrelated to their job: justice, the economy and politics.

The Ethiopian dam requires high-level emergency talks that bring together all political forces. Public asset sales must be suspended until a consensus is found about it.

But, more than anything, what I call for from the bottom of my heart is a genuine national reconciliation process that honours the sacrifice of dozens of thousands of Egyptians since 2011.

Whatever their age, their gender or their political background, tyranny has treated all Egyptians equally by breaching their rights and breaking their hopes.

Egypt is facing existential threats that require a sacred union of all political forces. Who cares about our past quarrels in the face of such stakes?

"Without them, I would not have survived," said Solafa Magdy about the unexpected friendship she forged in prison with two women who held very different political and ideological views.

Without each other, we will not survive, and nor will Egypt.

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This article first appeared in Middle East Eye on 11 July 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleEgyptOpinion
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