Sisi: Egypt's Drug of Choice
Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow
The Egyptian people are in a state of hysteria—mixed with nationalistic fervour—that makes it difficult to have a rational conversation about the state of affairs with many in the country. Indeed, the June 30, 2013 overthrow of a democratically-elected Islamist president—Mohamed Morsi—was a moment of national pride for many Egyptians.
To deny the many Egyptian people the hope and pride they feel is akin to being a buzz-killer—though coup critics have been called worse, specifically a terrorist-sympathizer who is undermining the security of the great Egyptian revolution. Egyptian prisons are full of these buzz killers; their crime was nothing more than to report, criticize, tweet, or offend the current regime.
Following his coup, the Egyptian Army’s chief, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, asked the Egyptian people to demonstrate to the world that the overthrow of Morsi was not a coup, but a populist demand of the people. In a soft spoken voice, with words of love and images of honour and valour, Sisi told his people that coming to show their support of the military overthrow would return Egyptian dignity. He would, in his words, selflessly serve the people because they were after all "the light of his eyes.
After three years of violence and uprisings, the Egyptian people needed a fix. Sisi would be the drug of hope to soften the pain of a country that on so many socio-economic and institutional measures is quite simply failing.
Its education system boasts two Egypts: a highly educated group that fills the Middle East and the West's university corridors with some of their best technical minds; and another group sporting a 40 percent illiteracy rate from predominantly rural areas of the country. Its official unemployment rate is 13.4 percent while over 70 percent of the unemployed are aged between 18 and 29 years old, its GDP per capita has fallen to less than that of Syria, and it relies upon the support of a massive influx of Gulf money to shore up its liquidity lest its currency crashes due to slacking exports and outflows of capital.
In the near term, Egypt's economic problems appear unlikely to disappear as a violent insurgency plagues the peripheral region of Sinai and bombings in Cairo continue. With some 25 percent of the Egyptian economy linked to its tourist sector, fewer holidaymakers have signed up for the “Egyptian experience.” In combination with the economic problems noted above, the Egyptian people continue to see their real income per capita fall and many are feeling what was once considered an economic pinch turn into a vice.
For now, it seems, the Sisi drug is still working to blunt the pain of economic despair. The Egyptian people continue to celebrate “revolutionary” milestones and adore their new leader. Meanwhile, the coy Sisi teases his people on whether he will run for President. Testing the waters, ever so slightly, he releases rumours that he will run. The Russian media even quotes Putin as a reliable source that Sisi will run.
Of course, many of the Egyptian people respond with glowing praise and call for him to save Egypt. After all, only in Egypt would the sitting Prime Minister say that Egyptian women adore Sisi because of his handsome stature. Only in Egypt would a popular TV station broadcaster say on air that Sisi could have any woman he wanted. Only in Egypt, could you find Sisi cookies at bakeries and countless images of his face superimposed on a lion's body.
The Egyptian people are on a high, and the drug of choice is Sisi. Only a fool would bet that Sisi is not going to run for President in the upcoming “elections.” If optics were anything on his recent trip to Russia, boarding his plane in a suit and not military uniform was a way to signal to the Egyptian people that he is a statesmen and not just a soldier.
Sisi's trip to Russia was not to soak in the Winter Olympics in Sochi (Egypt doesn’t have any participants in the Games), but instead to signal his reorientation from the United States to Russia for arms and military support. But then here is another optical illusion as Russia will never match the United States’ $1.5 billion in military and development aid given annually to Egypt that began in1979. Moreover, Egypt would face the unenviable task of reconciling 30 years worth of U.S.-manufactured military hardware with Russian military technology.
Few military experts credibly believe Egypt is reorienting its military and security relationship to Russia. But many of Egypt's 85 million people don't need to know that. For many in Egypt, their soon-to-be President Sisi will shun the Americans, save them from American hegemony, and return Egypt to its former glory days with support from an alternative superpower.
Without the restructuring of the Egyptian economy, society, and culture, however, there is little hope for survival or success in a globally competitive and modernizing world. Sadly, Egyptians on this high will crash and rock bottom will be a deep hole indeed. As Egypt descends into economic failure and a violent insurgency, the Egyptian body politic will search for a new fix and Sisi will, ironically, be the next target of mass protest.