If Sisi stays, Egypt is set on a path of disaster that could end in the disintegration of the country and mass emigration to Europe
With each planeload evacuating Russian and British tourists, Sharm el-Sheikh can feel its life blood ebbing.
Arthur, on a fixed salary of $255 ($63 more than Egypt's minimum wage) says: “I don’t know what happened on that plane. I have a feeling we are being manipulated and I prefer not to think about it. I think the West is trying to force Egypt to do the things it wants and this accident is a perfect opportunity for it to force us to, force us in a financial way.”
Ahmed, a diving instructor turned taxi driver, agrees: “They want to kill us. I don’t see any other explanation. Here, there are only Russian and English tourists left, and those are the ones who are going home.”
The Western plot to kill Sharm el-Sheikh is richly orchestrated by the linguistic creativity of the pro-government media. When a stranded British tourist harangued the British Ambassador John Casson, she was reported by pro-government Al Ahram as saying: “We want to continue our holiday and we do not want to leave now.”
What she actually said (documented in a YouTube clip) was: “What is the problem? What is the real problem? Why are we here? ...There was a security problem this morning and you are now here to resolve it. Why are we here then, while the rest of the people have gone home?”
Foreign hands are also, apparently, at work in Alexandria. When storms and heavy rain caused widespread flooding in Egypt’s second largest city, killing 17 and injuring 28 - which happens regularly because the city’s drainage system cannot cope - the government’s response was to arrest 17 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are accused of blocking sewage pipes, damaging electricity transformers and rubbish containers.
There are other scapegoats for state failure. On Wednesday, the prosecution in Giza released one of Egypt’s most powerful businessmen and his son, Salah and Tawfik Diab, on $6,385 bail, after three nights in detention. Earlier, a criminal court cancelled a decision to freeze the financial assets of Diab, Mahmoud El-Gammal and 16 others. Only assets related to the New Giza housing compound project are still frozen, with Diab accused of illegally acquiring state-owned land. These are Egypt’s richest men and former backers of the coup in 2013. Diab is co-founder of Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of Egypt's largest privately-owned daily newspapers. His co-founder, Hisham Kassem, says he believes Diab's arrest may have been a result of the paper's coverage.
The arrest of the 16 Mubarak-era businessmen was a message from the government. Wael al-Ibrashi, the pro-Sisi TV anchor in Dream TV, spelt it out. He quoted a “sovereign source” meaning a top government or security official who told him that there are suspicious actions by a number of businessmen to cause chaos and economic crisis in the country by transferring their money outside the country. They were convinced by enemy sources that there will be a major event happening in Egypt soon.
The financial markets are unimpressed by these pyrotechnics, although they agree that the state’s finances are going south. The Egyptian Pound is on its fastest decline since the reign of King Farouk. Changing the governor of the central bank, which is now trying to support the pound by getting interest rates to rise and injecting dollars into the banks, is not going to stop a further devaluation which analysts say is inevitable. Already that pound has lost 14 percent of its value in just ten months.
Mohammad Ayesh, writing in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, gives three reasons for the decline and fall of the currency: the cost of keeping the army on the streets; the collapse of tourism which accounts for up to 11 percent of GDP and generates a fifth of the country’s foreign exchange earnings; and lastly corruption. Giving money to an Egypt, where up to 40 percent of the economy is controlled by the army, is literally pouring money into a black hole. As a consequence, the foreign currency in the central bank is currently dropping by $1bn each month.
Egypt’s currency crisis must be regarded as unique in the annals of financial mismanagement. Just over two years ago, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took over, his wallet stuffed with cash: he had the backing of two of the Gulf’s richest states, the US, EU and oil and gas multinationals. By one measure alone, the leaked and authenticated tapes of conversations Sisi had with his closest advisers, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait gave Egypt $39.5bn in cash, loans and oil derivatives between July 2013, the date of the coup, and sometime between January and February of 2014. Since then, some calculate the sum is closer to $50bn. Where has all this money gone? One thing is for sure: Egypt is not going to get another Gulf handout.
Wherever you look in the chaos of Egypt today, the finger points at one man - Sisi - and at one institution - the Egyptian army. It is he and it, not “foreign hands” which are at the epicentre of the country’s instability.
Dictators can do bloodshed. Neither youth gunned down in their prime, nor the grief of their parents, make them hesitate. Comparisons between Raba’a and other massacres like Tiananmen, or Andijan mean little to them. Nor does the small library of human rights reports and witness statements which now exists to catalogue their crimes - death in detention, torture in custody, kangaroo courts, mass death sentences. All this Sisi has absorbed.
But rottweilers have to provide protection. They have to do their job. Sisi does not. He is now weaker as an absolute ruler than at any time since he took over. He faces the real and imminent prospect of losing control - over the economy, politics, and security. The state itself is failing.
Curiously that visit to London, in which he had vested so many hopes and so much effort, might yet prove to be the turning point in his presidency. And even more curiously, it was his host, David Cameron, a prime minister who has subverted a foreign policy ostensibly based on promoting democracy to a frantic search for trade and arms deals, who turned out to be his chief executioner.
Sisi spent the week saying he had Sinai and the Islamic State (IS) militant group under control. A Russian airliner downed by a bomb placed in the luggage compartment? That was nothing more than “propaganda”. His twin aims were to position himself as the guard dog in the war against IS and to increase trade links. Both were shattered by Cameron’s decision to suspend flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, a decision followed by Dutch, German, Irish carriers and by Russia itself.
Sisi found himself cut out of the intelligence loop he had fought so hard to be at the centre of, not only for Sinai, but Libya and Syria, too. The Americans, British and Russians were sharing intelligence with each other, not him. A visit arranged to increase British-Egyptian security co-operation, a visit designed to cement trade ties with one of Egypt’s largest foreign direct investors turned into an intelligence disaster and a wake for Egypt’s tourist industry.
Sisi is losing battles on multiple fronts. The physical one in Sinai first and foremost: the IS insurgents known as 'Wilayat Sinai' - or Sinai Province (SP) - are growing in strength. It and its predecessor conducted more than 400 attacks between 2012 and 2015, killing more than 700 military officers and soldiers, nearly twice the number of military casualties in one province of Egypt than the insurgency that took place in the whole of the country from 1992 to 1997. The SP’s most daring attack took place in July this year when it targeted 15 military and security posts and destroyed two. Over 300 men took part. They used anti-aircraft Igla missiles to force the Egyptian army’s US-supplied Apaches away. They mined their retreat. The operation lasted for 20 hours.
The insurgency in Sinai preceded the military coup. But the coup changed its character and its quality. Figures provided by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy show that in the 23 months before June 2013, there were 78 attacks, an average of 3.4 attacks per month. In the same period after the coup, there were 1,223 attacks, or 53.2 attacks per months. That is a 1,464 percent increase.
Sisi has thrown everything at the population of North Sinai: extrajudicial killings of 1,347 people, the detention of 11,906, the deportation of 22,992, the destruction of at least 3,255 buildings. As his Israeli backers are now admitting, Sisi is making every mistake in the counter-insurgency rule book. He has indeed turned Sinai into South Sudan, which he himself warned army officers not to do when he worked for Morsi.
Even more important than the physical battle is the political one. Sisi has been as careless with his supporters as he has been with Egypt in general. Sisi has emptied the polling booths, with dramatically low turnouts for elections. The turnout for the recent parliamentary was so low - under three percent on the first day - that the Abdullah Fathi, the head of the Egyptian Club for Judges said: "There were no wrong doings, no irregularities, no exchange shouting, and even no voters . . . " And then he laughed.
The supporters of the 3 July military coup have each been on a slow but brutal journey of discovery. They have been slow to admit it. None more so than the Soueif family.
Laila Soueif and her son the blogger and hero of the secular left, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, both encouraged the army to clear Raba’a and al-Nadha sit-ins. Laila said: “This protest in al-Nahda, in particular, must be dispersed immediately by the police. We see them every day in Giza shooting at the sky, then they hold banners saying peaceful protests, peaceful what? Every day they kill people and say they (killers) were baltagia (thugs paid by the Ministry of Interior). I didn't see any baltagia."
While Alaa said: “This is an armed protest and, for over a day now, there have been clashes. They have fought in four residential areas. There is no political solution to this, this needs a security solution. At least contain them, my mother and I were attacked as we were walking through. I'm not saying hurt them. I'm saying contain them.”
Today Alaa is in jail, one of 41,000 political prisoners and Laila has been on hunger strike. Laila says: “Sisi is the head of the most oppressive and criminal regime Egypt has seen during my lifetime, and I am almost 60.”
She is right, belatedly. Sisi is the head of the most oppressive and criminal regime Egypt has seen in its modern history and he has to go. If he does not, Egypt is set on a path of disaster, a disaster that could end in the disintegration of the state and mass emigration to Europe. Before that happens, someone else must step in, even if, as seems increasingly likely, that someone else is another army officer.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.