The Darkness of Egypt’s Afterglow

Sisi won the Egyptian election in a landslide. That won't help the country's teetering economy or broken democratic institutions, says Matt Gouett.
By: /
June 9, 2014
PhD Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University

As Egyptians clean up in the aftermath of various gatherings in the squares throughout Cairo to celebrate the announcement of last week’s election results, Egypt’s newly-crowned President Sisi—and the countries that have enabled him—confront harsh truths facing Egyptians and the future of the Egyptian state. The economy is in shambles and the principles that traditionally support the development of democracies, such as fair elections, freedom of expression and associational autonomy have been damaged—perhaps irrevocably.

Quick to congratulate President Sisi, Foreign Minister John Baird’s assertion that Egypt is taking steps on a path to democracy and that Canada is committed to supporting this transition so long as it is based on human rights, freedom, and rule of law rings hollow. In what other situation would a Canadian government view a two-candidate election where the winner won 96.9 percent of votes as a “key step on a path to democracy”? Indeed, where were Canada’s oft-mentioned principles when Egyptian security forces cleared the public squares in Cairo last summer? Under the close watch of Sisi—who as Defence Minister, Chief of the Armed Forces, and Deputy Prime Minister was arguably the most powerful man in Egypt—the clearances left close to a thousand civilians dead in what Human Rights Watch called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” Why does Ottawa now believe that the same man who oversaw these clearings, who was just elected in the most lop-sided fashion, is going to embrace human rights, freedom, and rule of law?

The inconvenient truth for the Canadian government is that every indication from the Egyptian government suggests that President Sisi’s path to an economic turnaround is paved with heavy involvement from the military and money from foreign coffers. From September to December of 2013, it was reported that interim President Adly Mansour’s government had awarded between USD$1.5 and USD$2 billion in contracts to the Egyptian Army as the then-President decreed that the normal contracting processes should be side-stepped in cases of an emergency. The contracts included bridges, tunnels, and housing projects as well as other investments in the Sinai region. It seems unlikely that the newly-elected President Sisi, who himself was a career military officer, would look to shrink the military’s outsized role in the economy.

Further troubling are the long-term economic forecasts for Egypt. While the domestic economy is projected to strengthen in light of the anticipated political stability, the trade balance deficit and low tourist numbers are perpetuating Egypt’s weakened international currency reserves. Although peace in Cairo may aid the tourism industry, foreigngovernmenttravel advisories still take into account other Egyptian tourist spots, such as Aswan and Sharm el-Sheikh, where cultural violence and terrorist threats have remained prevalent this spring. It seems unlikely that the tourism sector will bring immediate relief to Egypt central bank’s international currency reserves. Egypt has consequently tapped its deep-pocketed allies in the region. This was no more evident than last fall when Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates pledged over $12 billion in loans and donations to keep the government afloat. As a way to spread the burden of future Egyptian deficits, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has announced a donor conference in support of Egypt’s economy. Remarkably, President Sisi never released an election platform and little in the way of a formal plan was announced by President Sisi with regard to how bread and fuel subsidies provided to the Egyptian people, which most analysts estimate costs the government over 10 percent of GDP and one-third of its budget, will be phased out. It seems that Sisi has made the political calculation that domestic harmony and stability in Egypt is something that foreign governments are willing to pay for. This is especially true for Gulf monarchies hoping that he can fulfill his promise to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, which is despised by the most regimes in the Middle East, with the exception of Qatar.

Despite the millions of dollars of aid that have poured into Egypt since the signing of the Camp David Accords, development in the way of the democratic institutions that enable economic growth has stagnated. While analysts viewed former President Mubarak’s failure to lift the repressive state of emergency law as a key element of the Egyptian revolution, groups such as Human Rights Watch continually remind us of the ongoing repression of the freedoms; a reminder that seems to have been ignored in Ottawa. The fact that an Egyptian court ruled to ban the activities of the leftist youth April 6th Movement, whose co-founder and key members are currently serving three-year prison sentences for peaceful protest, only days before last week’s election should serve as a signal to Canadians of how far Egypt is from Canadian-held values of freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Furthermore, that a judge in Minya condemned 1,212 men to death in March and April because of their alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood and their accused involvement in the burning of a police station and the murder of one police man without so much as a comment or tweet from Minister Baird makes one wonder what he is actually talking about when he mentions human rights and rule of law in Egypt. Moreover, there is the continuing issue of Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy who begins his sixth month of detention in Egypt’s Tora prison despite a lack of evidence to support the charges against him. Fahmy is one of sixteen journalists currently detained in Egypt’s prisons. Last week’s election does not paper over the cracks in Egypt’s political structure and for Minister Baird to say that Sisi’s victory signals Egypt being on a path to democracy makes one question what he thinks is so principled about the “principled foreign policy” that he protects.

Canada has firmly placed itself in support of President Sisi’s new Egyptian government.

While other countries and organizations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United Nations and Democracy International were gathering the facts and presenting qualified views of the most recent elections and the prospects for Egypt, Canada went out in front “encouraged by the conduct of the vote” two days after the election had completed. A week later, with results showing that the vote was less an election and more a coronation, Ottawa’s hasty move to declare the elections a success and then congratulate President Sisi showed the world that for Canada, in the case of Egypt, democracy, human rights, freedom and the rule of law are nothing but ministerial-speak and detached from the reality and threats facing Egypt both at present and in the future.