During the 2020 U.S. election campaign, candidate Joe Biden made it clear he was no fan of Egypt’s strongman President, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. He promised “no more blank cheques” for the man Donald Trump had called his “favourite dictator.”
Less than a year later, in May, President Biden upgraded Mr. el-Sisi to useful strongman. The trigger was the Israel-Palestine conflict, which began on May 10 and ended on May 21, when the Egyptian government brokered a ceasefire and pledged US$500-million to rebuild Gaza, the blockaded strip of territory wedged between Israel and Egypt that was bombed heavily by Israeli warplanes.
Mr. Biden rewarded Mr. el-Sisi with two calls within one week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an official trip to Cairo just after the ceasefire. A month later, Egyptian spy chief Abbas Kamel was in Washington, meeting his U.S. counterpart and other security officials.
Has Mr. el-Sisi been rehabilitated? In the eyes of the Democratic White House, yes, to some degree, though Egypt’s woeful human-rights record is still an obstacle to a truly cordial diplomatic partnership and has attracted opprobrium from many Western politicians, including U.S. representatives Ilhan Omar and Tom Malinowski. They routinely denounce Mr. el-Sisi as a bruiser undeserving of the US$1.3-billion in American aid handed to Egypt every year.
What is certain is that the ceasefire was an example of Mr. el-Sisi flexing his regional diplomatic muscles after half a decade of putting out fires on the domestic front, geopolitical analysts say. “Egypt is a rising star as a diplomatic force,” said Noha Bakr, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo and a member of the advisory board of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (ECSS), in an interview. “We are one of the few stable countries in the region.”
Mr. el-Sisi is also sending natural gas to Lebanon, where energy shortages have pushed the country to collapse, and reconstruction contractors to Syria. He is backing the fragile unity government in neighbouring Libya, which is due to hold presidential elections in December, and reinforcing Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel. He and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met in September at a Red Sea resort – the first visit by an Israeli leader to Egypt in more than a decade.
His stand-out test in diplomacy is Ethiopia, which has built Africa’s largest dam – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – on the Blue Nile, the source of almost all of Egypt’s water. Egypt has been unable to secure a water-sharing agreement with Ethiopia despite going all the way to the UN Security Council.
Mr. el-Sisi was born in Cairo in 1954 and enrolled in the Egyptian Military Academy and later the United States Army War College. He became a general and was director of Egyptian military intelligence between 2010 and 2012.
He was behind the military coup that ousted the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi from the presidency in 2013. The next year, he won a landslide victory in the presidential election and promptly moved to crush all dissent. He imprisoned tens of thousands of opponents, disemboweled civil society organizations devoted to democracy, human rights and freedom of speech and overhauled the constitution to bolster his office’s powers.
His control of the state and the economy, through the myriad military agencies that own everything from construction companies to cattle farms, is virtually complete. The process was aided by a compliant parliament, senate and cabinet ministers, many of whom are former or current high-ranking military men whose loyalty to Mr. el-Sisi is unquestioned.
In an interview, Basem Kamel, deputy leader of the small Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which claims to be the only genuine opposition party, said Mr. el-Sisi’s vision for Egypt “is control – he just wants control.” And he said the Egyptian President feels it’s time to exert regional authority now that he has control of the political and economic agendas of the country.
Indeed, Mr. el-Sisi spent his first five years or so dealing with the domestic chaos that followed the 2011 revolution, which ousted long-time president Hosni Mubarak, and the removal of Mr. Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader. The turmoil was made worse by a failing economy and a string of terrorist attacks by affiliates of the Islamic State between 2016 and 2018.
Mr. el-Sisi has ended the domestic troubles, allowing him only this week to lift the state of emergency he declared more than four years ago. The new focus is the economy and power projection in a volatile region where Turkey, Egypt’s ideological adversary, and oil-rich Saudi Arabia are vying for influence.
In his new book, Fingers Are on the Triggers: An Egyptian’s Perspective of the Middle East, Sayed Ghoneim, chairman of the Institute for Global Security & Defense Affairs, says Egypt sees itself as the “leader of the Arab world in terms of culture, civilization and history. Therefore, the might and stability of Egypt is vital to the rise of the Arab world.”
But it’s unclear if Egypt will ever have enough economic stability and power to back its regional ambitions or a human-rights record that would earn the full support of the European Union and the United States.
Almost one in three Egyptians lives below the poverty line, according to official statistics. Its rapid population growth, estimated at almost 2 per cent a year, is putting an enormous strain on its urban infrastructure, education and health care systems, agriculture and natural resources, especially the Nile. Climate change is already hurting crop yields in some parts of the country.
Egypt’s population has grown from about 35 million in 1970 to more than 100 million. At current rates, it would reach 190 million by 2050, the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development said in August. Mr. el-Sisi is asking Egyptians to have smaller families. “Who in the world can create jobs for the million men and women who enter the labour market every year?” he said in a speech in August.
On the human-rights front, Mr. el-Sisi apparently sees the issue as an economic one – providing jobs and security for a burgeoning population. Human-rights groups take the view that his security machine tolerates no dissenters. Bahey eldin Hassan, a founder of the Egyptian human-rights movement, is facing a 15-year prison sentence for allegedly using a tweet to defame the judiciary.
Mr. Kamel of the Social Democratic Party said he senses that Mr. el-Sisi, probably under pressure from the Biden administration, is now tolerating a bit more criticism and allowing his party to voice its views on national TV. “It’s good, they���ve opened the door just a bit,” he said. “But we are far away from the democracy we want.”
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