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What’s behind the generous aid packages for Al-Sisi’s Egypt?

March 26, 2024 at 11:48 am

An aerial view of the administrative capital of Egypt on September 11, 2023 [Fareed Kotb/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Not even the most optimistic would have expected Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt to receive billions of dollars in loan, investment and aid packages, because, according to official data, it is clearly unable to pay back its current foreign debts of about $165 billion. Financial support for Cairo totalling more than $23bn has arrived in just one month from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the European Union.

The money being pumped into Egypt is being reinforced by a rescue plan led by the UAE to support its ally Al-Sisi, through the Ras El Hikma deal announced last month. The deal was concluded in exchange for $24bn in cash liquidity, and $11bn in UAE deposits with the Central Bank of Egypt, which will be converted into Egyptian pounds and used to implement the project.

This generous support includes European funding worth €7.4bn ($8.06bn), according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The aid includes soft loans worth €5bn ($5.44bn), investments worth €1.8bn ($1.96bn), and grants worth €600 million ($653m). The latter includes €200m ($217.7m) to deal with immigration problems, reported Reuters.

According to an agreement signed this month with the IMF, in exchange for liberalising the local currency exchange rate Egypt will receive $8bn, in addition to another loan of about $1.2bn from the IMF’s Environmental Sustainability Fund.

READ: Egypt secures $8bn IMF deal as economy is in freefall

At the same time, the World Bank announced that it will be providing more than $6bn to Egypt over the next three years, with $3bn going to government programmes, and the same amount going to support the private sector.

This generous flow of finance coincided with rare political support, through raising Egypt’s relations with the EU to the level of a strategic and comprehensive partnership. This was announced during a Cairo summit in the presence of Al-Sisi, von der Leyen and the Prime Minister of Belgium, who is the current President of the European Union, as well as the heads of state and government of Italy, Greece, Austria and Cyprus.

Doubts and question marks surround these aid packages.

There are concerns that there will be repercussions and perhaps concessions, both secret and public, made by Egypt to its European and Gulf allies.

Observers believe that the economic and security challenges surrounding Al-Sisi’s regime, and the role expected from him in several issues, require international intervention and the provision of more than one lifeline to the regime that Europe sees as the policeman of the southern Mediterranean. European concerns about illegal immigration, borders and smuggling are increasing, given the problems in Sudan, Libya and Gaza, and the fact that six African countries have witnessed coups within three years: Gabon, Niger, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad.

Egypt is one of the main crossing points for migrants from North Africa heading for Europe. As of last September, they numbered around 186,000 people, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Furthermore, asylum applications submitted by Egyptians to European countries have increased from 6,616 in 2021 to 26,512 last year, according to the EU Asylum Agency. Egyptians were the largest group of illegal immigrants arriving in Europe using the Mediterranean route, which the European Border and Coast Guard Agency noted was used by more than 100,000 migrants in 2022.

The possibility of the collapse of Al-Sisi’s regime due to the deterioration of economic and living conditions is a frightening scenario for the region and for Europe. It is, after all, a country of 105 million people, hosting nearly nine million refugees. Egypt also controls one of the most important waterways in the world, the Suez Canal, and shares a border with the occupation state of Israel.

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Nothing comes to Egypt for free, said Egyptian political analyst Omar El-Nadi. What the Gulf states or Europe offer, of course, is not for the sake of Egyptians or even Al-Sisi, but there are goals and agendas that are being passed in one way or another. These are related to the fact that the Sisi regime is the wall of resistance in the face of political Islam in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Arab Spring, which are both major concerns for the Gulf and Europe. It is also setting down red lines in any rapprochement with Turkiye and Iran, said El-Nadi.

It is certainly no coincidence that international loans and aid continue to pour the way of a country already burdened with debt of more than $42bn in the current year.

The key word behind all of this is “Gaza”, especially with Israeli plans to attack Rafah, which is crowded with 1.4 million displaced Palestinians, and the possibility of a mass exodus from the Gaza Strip towards the Egyptian border or across the Mediterranean.

If that happens, Egypt will be a hot crossing point to Europe, or a settlement point for Palestinian refugees. The latter is the preferred option of Israel, Europe and the US.

His opponents say that the Egyptian president is playing a pivotal role in the siege imposed on the Palestinians in Gaza (and has been for many years), and is reluctant to open the Rafah border crossing permanently, citing the agreements with the Israelis regarding the management of the crossing. He also stands as a stumbling block in the face of growing popular pressure; Sisi’s regime has arrested dozens of Egyptians on charges of solidarity with Gaza.

From the point of view of many, the EU partnership agreement is a reward offered to Al-Sisi in exchange for his position on Israel’s war against the Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas, the disarmament of the resistance, and the arrangements for the “day after” the war, as well as establishing a maritime corridor between Cyprus and the Palestinian coastal enclave, which in many ways means ending the key role of the Rafah crossing.

It is safe to say that the devil lies in the detail, given the vague clauses included in the financing agreement signed with Europe regarding cooperation in fighting terrorism. The agreement requires Cairo to provide security, military and intelligence services related to the security of the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and border control, which are arrangements the details or purpose of which were not disclosed by either side.

READ: Egypt court presents merits of decision to execute Muslim Brotherhood leaders

According to political researcher Mohamed Gomaa, Cairo has great geostrategic importance because it plays a prominent role in terms of security and stability in a region that is a major energy producer and trade corridor. It also plays a strong role in the issues of Gaza, immigration, security and terrorism, not to mention that the EU fears that lack of cooperation with Egypt will create a geopolitical vacuum, which Russia and China might fill.

He added that this support can be viewed as part of a US-Western game in partnership with Gulf states that do not want the Egyptian state to fail. While each party has its own strategic and political goals, they generally serve US, European, Israeli and Gulf interests.

It is certain that Al-Sisi’s regime reaps significant gains from these financial flows. They alleviate Egypt’s economic crises for the time being; prevent imminent political and social unrest; and ensure the regime’s survival until 2030.

According to some people, though, the greatest gain is the West turning a collective blind eye to Al-Sisi’s human rights record and continued violations; suppression of all political opposition; the stifling of civil society; and the imprisonment of journalists and blocking of the media. Western states are basically rewarding him for more than 10 years of repression.

Human Rights Watch said that the EU agreement with Egypt is a reward for tyranny, a betrayal of EU values, and complicity in rights violations. Such an approach, it added, strengthens authoritarian rulers, a pointed reference to Al-Sisi.

In the same vein, Amnesty International warned against complicity in the ongoing gross violations of human rights in Egypt, reminding EU leaders that thousands are languishing “unjustly behind bars” in horrific conditions following grossly unfair trials.

This whole situation shows that human rights are being side-lined in exchange for security and military goals and services, as well as sensitive strategic tasks that the Egyptian regime offers to European, international and Gulf partners with great devotion, on the condition that it receives something in return. Egypt does nothing for free.

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