This is the second in the series of papers on different countries in West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region on a decade of the Arab Spring.
Amidst mixed feelings of joy and sorrow on Arab streets on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, Egypt was marked by empty streets, inexpressive masses and a conspicuous silence on social media. This disenchantment reflects the popular urge to rid oneself of the bitter memories of the Arab “revolution” which was initially seen as the harbinger for the arrival of a new politics but ended in disappointment. It was on February 11, 2011 when millions in Egypt were jubilant after the late President Mubarak, finally succumbed to eighteen days of endless protest and stepped down from power after three decades. At the time, many exhorted that “Lift your head up, you are an Egyptian”. Today, however, many like Khaled Dawiis, a well-known blogger-activist have described February 11 as the last day of a beautiful dream[i] while others have described it as the beginning of the revolution's great deception.[ii]
Reflecting on the past decade of post-Mubarak Egypt, one is forced to wonder whether the revolution did lead to any improvements. Today, the army clique in Egypt is as strong as before and the politics of resistance is as weak and obscure as it was during Nasser’s era. An aspirant youth looks as disillusioned as ever before and the status quo seems to have become the best available option for the people.
Change versus No Change
In the past decade, Egypt has seen ten elections, with the latest being a parliamentary poll held in December 2020. As expected, the pro-Sisi party Nation’s Future won around 75% of the contested seats in the 596-seat senate.[iii] Islamists (read Muslim Brotherhood) were not allowed to enter contests and the divided opposition alleged large-scale electoral fraud. The total turnout of 29% is a clear indicator of a waning popular enthusiasm for post-revolutionary politics in Egypt.[iv] The margin of victory was not much different from the Presidential election of 2018 when El-Sisi had secured 97 % of the total votes cast.[v]The 2019 referendum had already strengthened the role of the army when the tenure of the President was extended from the current four years to six years. Like other elections, this referendum too was approved with 88.33 % of a Yes vote.[vi] The 2019 referendum authorised the army to intervene in the political sphere in the name of saving democracy and the nation. It also allowed the incumbent President to contest for a third term which, in all probability, enables President El-Sisi to rule till 2030.[vii] This is the political landscape of post-revolutionary Egypt with the army clearly at the helm of the affairs. The concentration of power within one institution is justified in the name of fighting radicalism and improving the national economy.Today in Egypt, there is no place for dissent as 60,000 dissidents are in jail[viii]and all opposing voices have been portrayed as a source of radicalism and extremism.
As far as economic progress is concerned, President El-Sisi has consistently claimed that security and stability are the prerequisite for economic progress and that insecurity had delayed many mega economic projects. At the macro level, there are some improvements in the economic situation in the country. According to the Egyptian main statistics body, CAPMAS, the national poverty rate has decreased for the first time in the last two decades and unemployment rates are gradually falling.[ix]But a review of Egyptian economic experience also shows that revenue from the Suez Canal has declined due to the global economic recession.[x]In general however economic progress has been constrained by COVID-19. The pandemic has hit the critical sector of tourism particularly hard. The flow of remittances has also been affected as many expatriates working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have returned. Since the outbreak of the disease in 2019, Egypt has registered more than 200,000 cases and around 10,000 have lost their lives.[xi] The death toll has been ranging between 40 and 50 every day for the second month in a row this year. The National Health Ministry has reportedly told the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the cases are likely to increase in May.[xii]
Apart from the domestic political sphere, Egypt is also facing many external challenges. The Nile water issue between Egypt and Ethiopia arising out of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has escalated bilateral tensions. Egypt claims that the dam would deprive it of 75% of its total water.[xiii] Egyptian former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in an interview said that the dam is an existential issue for Egypt.[xiv]Several rounds of negotiations in the recent past have failed including the last one held in January 2021 under the auspices of the African Union.[xv] Further, with the departure of President Trump, President El-Sisi has lost a good friend in the United States (US) administration. Now, President El-Sisi faces mounting pressure on the human rights issue. The release of an Aljazeera reporter detained in Egypt since 2016 [xvi] soon after President Biden came to power is seen by many as an attempt to start afresh with the new US Administration (while others see it as an outcome of the restoration of Egypt’s ties with Qatar).[xvii]
No Place for Islamists
Contrary to political engagement of Islamic parties with the evolving politics of Morocco and Tunisia, the Islamist in Egypt today has almost vanished from the political sphere and has been declared a terrorist since 2013.[xviii] After the ouster of Islamists in 2013, Egypt has seen five elections including one referendum but Islamist parties were not allowed to participate. The majority of the top leaders of Muslim Brotherhood are on death row, thousands are languishing in jails and many have sought asylum abroad. The UN Human Rights Office has repeatedly asked the Egyptian authorities to halt death row executions and have often accused them of using torturous methods to seek confession.[xix] It has also demanded a stop to the systematic use of terror laws to harass political opponents and asked for the removal of many activists from the terrorist list.[xx]
The death of the first democratically-elected President Morsi in jail did not receive much attention as many pro-Egyptian media made no mention of his status either as a former or overthrown President.[xxi] Given the state-led campaign against the Islamists and a relentless crackdown, the prospects for their revival in the near future seems bleak. President El-Sisi himself has said that, “As long as I am in power, there would be no place for the Islamist in national politics”.[xxii] The Islamists in Egypt unlike in Tunisia have also shown no inclination towards moderating themselves or their ideology. The Egyptian Islamist has, since inception, pursued a policy of exclusion and confrontation and also perhaps failed to understand the nature of the deep state in the country and, more often than not, targeted the institution of the army while ignoring the fact that this institution has been an indispensable force in Egypt since the Free Officer Revolution of 1952.
Today’s Egypt seems to have entered into a status quo phase where people have lost all appetite for change despite widespread disenchantment. There is no opposition on the streets. The political input of a common man does not go beyond the demand for security and economic improvement and over the years the regime has been able to more or less deliver on these fronts. Further, President El-Sisi has earned regional and global credit for not allowing the country to descend into a crisis that is being witnessed elsewhere in the region. President El-Sisi has secured his position through series of legislations in the past seven years and opposition forces are either divided to resist or their leaders are in jail. As far as the future of the Islamists are concerned, they are not likely to have any place in mainstream national politics in the near future given the current policies of the regime and their own exclusionary politics and exclusionist world view.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal