Marching (Almost) Confidently into a New Era

Egypt under the leadership of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi - Interim Balance Sheet & a look into the future

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s journey from the position of Defense Minister to the President’s throne took about one year to complete. In July 2013, el-Sisi deposed Muslim Brotherhood man Mohammed Morsi from the Presidency. In the elections held in June 2014 he won 96.91% of the votes and on June 8, 2014 he was sworn in as the new President. During his election campaign, el-Sisi had promised that he would restore Egypt’s security and economic stability. This article reviews the question of where Egypt stands six months into the el-Sisi’s term as President and the challenges he will have to cope with in the coming year.

In the first few months of his term as President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has emerged as an ambitious leader who strives uncompromisingly to accomplish the goals he had set, notably improving Egypt’s security and economic circumstances and restoring Egypt’s status as a regional superpower of considerable influence in the Arab world as well as on the African continent. For the time being, el-Sisi has been gaining widespread sympathy on the part of the Egyptian public, and a true cult of personality has developed around him, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the same time, substantial sectors within the Egyptian public, headed by the members of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, are hostile to and apprehensive of el-Sisi, whom they regard as a modern-day Pharaoh and an oppressive dictator.

In 2015, Egypt will have to address several primary challenges that could affect its future in the coming years in particular, and the future of the entire Middle East in general.

Security-wise, Egypt is forced to address several fronts: the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood Movement is still under way, despite the severe blows inflicted on the Movement, which is still regarded as a major threat to el-Sisi’s regime. In the Sinai, several Jihadist terrorist organizations are still active, headed by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which recently announced that it is the Egyptian arm of ISIS. Another terrorist threat lurks in the territory of Libya (whose border with Egypt is about 1,000 kilometers long), with massive amounts of arms being smuggled out of this country into Egypt and delivered to Egyptian terrorist organizations that operate against the regime. Another threat has emerged recently in the form of Libyan Islamist groups identified with ISIS that attempt to gain a foothold in Egypt.

The President of Egypt has been operating with determination against the threats on the various fronts. The Muslim Brotherhood Movement has been declared a terrorist organization. The Egyptian Army operates in force against the Islamist terrorist organizations in the Sinai and Egypt supports moderate elements in Libya, through training and arms, in an attempt to obstruct the Islamist elements in that country.

Empowering the Egyptian Army – since el-Sisi’s ascent to the Presidency, Egypt has been investing considerable resources (its economic difficulties notwithstanding) in the empowerment of the Egyptian Army. At the outset of the year, Egypt launched a military surveillance satellite using a Russian launch vehicle. Egypt also intends to purchase from Russia various advanced weapon systems, including S-300 SAM systems. The Egyptians also intend to purchase advanced weapon systems from China and France in the context of a policy of diversifying the sources supplying weapon systems to the Egyptian military and minimizing Egypt’s dependence on the USA as their almost exclusive arms supplier.

In November 2014, the Egyptian Army completed one of the most massive training exercises in its history, during which it addressed various threat scenarios and practiced the fording of the Suez Canal and engaging enemy forces in the Sinai. None of the operational procedures practiced in the context of the exercise are required in order to cope with Egypt’s domestic terrorist threats, and in the absence of threats imposed on Egypt by any other regular military forces, there is no escaping the conclusion that these measures were intended to develop improved military capabilities against the State of Israel.

The economic challenge – Egypt is currently facing a severe economic crisis pursuant to 3 years of political instability. The national foreign currency reserves have shrunk by more than 50% and the tourism industry, once an important source of revenue which grossed about US$ 10 billion a year for Egypt, sustained a severe blow owing to the unstable internal security situation. The rate of exchange of the local currency plummeted, inflation increased significantly and the rate of unemployment is estimated at 25%. At present, about 40% of the citizens of Egypt earn less than US$ 2 per day and are below the poverty line, and the economic challenge has become even more acute in view of the 2.4% annual population growth rate.

Before el-Sisi was elected as President, Egypt had faced a real danger of economic collapse, which el-Sisi managed to avert using extreme economic reforms his predecessors had been reluctant to implement. El-Sisi had no qualms about cancelling government subsidies for such basic food items as bread and oil as well as for fuel, which had been heavily subsidized – leaving the government coffers empty. At the same time, el-Sisi managed to obtain economic support from his allies in the Arab world – in the last year, Egypt has received generous financial support from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who jointly provided Egypt with about US$ 20 billion.

The President of Egypt also promotes national projects, including solicitations for the construction of an electricity nuclear reactor that would provide a solution to the severe shortage in electrical power and for the construction of the “New Suez Canal” – a 75-km long canal to be excavated along the existing canal. The project, estimated at billions of dollars, is intended to enable more rapid passage for a larger number of vessels through the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia. This project is managed and executed by the Egyptian Army.

The Egyptian Foreign Policy

A number of primary trends may be discerned in Egypt’s current foreign policy. The first trend involves the Egyptian effort to improve relations with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, with the Egyptian President consolidating his status as the leader of the axis of moderate Arab countries in the context of the conflict with the regional hegemony aspirations of Iran and the terrorist threats of Salafist-Jihadist Islam.

At the same time, Egypt is nurturing its relations with Russia. This effort includes the renewal of defense cooperation and procurement of arms and weapon systems in Russia. However, Egypt attempts to maintain and improve its relations with the USA (Russia’s opponent in the so-called “New Cold War”) as well, while signaling to Washington that Egypt has alternatives. Moreover, Egypt attempts to consolidate its status and enhance the influence it has in Africa. In this context, it operates through diplomatic means to resolve the crisis concerning the division of Nile water among the Nile Basin countries and the conflict opposite Ethiopia on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which, according to Egypt, would have an adverse effect on the supply of Nile water to Egypt.

Relations with Israel

The relations between Egypt and Israel during el-Sisi’s term as President are better than ever before. Security-wise, unprecedented cooperation is under way between the two countries in the field of counterterrorism, including exchange of intelligence information. El-Sisi conducts a campaign against Hamas, which he had defined as a terrorist organization. Egypt established a security cordon along the border with the Gaza Strip and evicted the local population, so that the Egyptian forces can operate energetically and eradicate the tunnel infrastructure between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai.

Additionally, el-Sisi is engaged in a decisive campaign against militant Islamist groups in the Sinai – a strategy that is consistent with Israeli interests. For the purpose of this counterterrorism effort, Israel agreed (albeit reluctantly) to allow substantial Egyptian military forces to enter the Sinai – beyond the scope specified in the peace agreement.

Relations between Egypt and Israel have warmed up remarkably in the economic and diplomatic fields as well during the last year. Egypt is negotiating to purchase gas from the Israeli natural gas reservoirs in the Mediterranean. At the same time, Israel was active vis-à-vis the USA in an attempt to moderate the American critical regard of el-Sisi’s regime and convince Washington’s to renew the economic and military aid to Cairo. Additionally, during Operation Protective Edge, Egypt played a major role in the attainment of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Over the last few months, Egypt pressed on with its mediation efforts in an attempt to reach an agreement for the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip.

The first few months of el-Sisi’s term in office were devoted primarily to his efforts to consolidate his reign while neutralizing the Muslim Brotherhood Movement and other opposition elements. El-Sisi was required to conduct two difficult interrelated campaigns at the same time: to fight terrorism and restore security and stability to Egypt, and to save the Egyptian economy.

At this point, Israel should be grateful for the cooperation and good relations with Egypt, but the massive investments in Egypt’s military capabilities should be a warning sign that calls for close monitoring of all future developments.

Apparently, el-Sisi aspires to restore Egypt to the status of a regional superpower, mainly in view of the weakness of other Arab countries and the challenges presented to the region by Iran, Turkey and Salafist-Jihadist Islam. Egypt’s autonomous policy and el-Sisi’s efforts to minimize Egypt’s dependence on the USA could be another source of concern for Israel, in the long-term perspective of the reality currently evolving in the Middle East.