Middle East // Analysis

18 june 2014

Can the New President Wake Egypt Up?

Elena Suponina PhD in Philosophy, Adviser to the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Asia and Middle East specialist, RIAC expert
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Russia is about to receive another serious proposal from Egypt. Following the initiative to renew military-technical cooperation – negotiations on the matter began in the autumn of 2013 – plans are now afoot to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Officially, a tender is to be announced, but to the best of my knowledge, the Egyptian side is pinning its greatest hopes on the Russian state-owned company Rosatom.

The former President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak told me that his country needs additional energy resources back in 2006. The authorities were planning to build a nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast in roughly the same place as this time around – to the west of Alexandria. The project was postponed first on environmental grounds, and then because of the revolution.

The new Egyptian President, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, who was inaugurated on 8 June, 2014 is in favour of close cooperation with Russia. Egypt’s former orientation towards the United States is giving way to attempts to diversify its foreign ties. The relations between Egypt and the United States have cooled, and this new factor needs to be taken into account.

The Americans will need time to mend all this, but it is not certain whether they want to. Washington’s interest in the volatile Middle East seems to wax and wane. Besides, it has to react to every new seat of tensions: the situation in Ukraine or troubles in the Middle East with Syria, or fresh attacks by militants in Iraq, or the problems with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Egypt’s former orientation towards the United States is giving way to attempts to diversify its foreign ties. The relations between Egypt and the United States have cooled, and this new factor needs to be taken into account.

There are objective grounds for caution. Egypt’s economy is struggling, while its population is growing rapidly and has already topped the 86 million mark.

The country’s foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by almost three times to $13 billion since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. Some help has come from the Arab Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait), which are hedging their bets on el-Sisi and have given Egypt soft loans. Foreign-exchange reserves have begun to grow as a result.

However, Abdul Fattah el-Sisi has yet to come up with a coherent economic policy. His credo is work and discipline, including certain punishment for criminal offences. He does have some administrative experience. This is a plus. Field Marshal el-Sisi is said to believe in his mission. But to believe that one has been chosen by God to fulfil it does not guarantee that it will be crowned with success.



“The time to work has come,” el-Sisi urged fellow Egyptians.

“The time to work has come,” el-Sisi urged fellow Egyptians, warning that he would “wake them up at 5 a.m.” if necessary in order to “help them stand on their own two feet,” that is, to improve their lives themselves.

The results of the presidential election have shown that less than half of voters are ready to rise for the first Morning Prayer. The rest stayed away from the polling stations and the turnout was even less than it had been for the 2012 election.

Egyptian society remains divided, and el-Sisi’s popularity hinges on his ability to rectify the economic situation. We are not just talking about macroeconomic indicators here, but about the welfare of the people. Meanwhile, my colleagues and I came to some rather unsettling conclusions while discussing this topic at a recent conference organised by the British Ditchley Foundation.

Thus, some expressed concern that the new Egyptian constitution adopted in January 2014, while breaking new ground in terms of stipulating necessary budgetary allocations for healthcare and education, in reality allocates only the bare minimum. The state has committed itself to spending 3% of the GDP on healthcare and 4% on education.

For Russian observers, these figures may appear to be permissible, because budgetary spending on these sectors in Russia is similarly low. For Europeans, however, where these sums are three or four times greater, it looks like a forced neglect that is fraught with social explosion.

Egyptian society remains divided, and el-Sisi’s popularity hinges on his ability to rectify the economic situation. We are not just talking about macroeconomic indicators here, but about the welfare of the people.

In the interests of stability, Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is keeping the Islamists who were in power just a year ago behind bars. A religious man himself, he does not persecute all Islamists, but only those who challenged the economic and political interests of the military. He is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, but not Salafites from the Al-Nour Party, with which he has thus far been cooperating.

The reservation “thus far” is not accidental. The experience of political reprisals in other countries suggests that the flywheel tends to spin faster and faster, drawing in other social strata. Are the people of Egypt ready to pay such a price for stability? Some may be ready. But in order to succeed, el-Sisi needs does not need repression, but more serious support of the citizens, something he does not yet have.

Will he be able to secure this support? To answer that question, we will have to wait a little longer, though making friends with el-Sisi would not hurt in any case.

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Elena Suponina, “Can the New President Wake Egypt Up?,” Russian International Affairs Council, 18 June 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=3890

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