Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, reports that Egypt is in trouble.
On the one hand, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is pursuing ambitious economic reforms. He’s doubled the size of the Suez Canal, bringing a major spike in revenue. He’s building a new capital south of Cairo, aimed at relieving congestion and pollution in Cairo and making it a commercial and tourist hub.
Sisi has also launched processes of building about two thousand miles of new highways, cleaning and rehabilitating wheat silos where wheat—the main Egyptian staple—rots because of negligence, and developing oil and natural gas resources.
That oil and gas development, Mazel notes, “could be greatly accelerated if the West decided at long last to help Egypt. It has not happened so far.”
Indeed it’s well known that since Sisi—then the defense minister—overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Obama administration and other Western governments have turned Egypt a cold shoulder.
They have done so even though that overthrow was backed by the most massive popular protests in history, with 14 million Egyptians taking to the streets.
They were protesting a regime that was radical, incompetent, and—in office for a year—already taking steps to abrogate Egypt’s constitution and strangle the country in sharia legislation.
Yet “Western countries led by US President Barack Obama,” Mazel notes,
still see in president Sisi a military dictator who grabbed power from a “democratically elected president.” They do not want to admit that Morsi was toppled by a popular uprising—admittedly with the help of the army—just in time to prevent him from creating an Islamic dictatorship.
Jilted by the West, Sisi has had to turn elsewhere. China is underwriting his building of a new capital. More problematically, Egypt has already signed major arms deals with Russia, and Russia has pledged $25 billion toward the building of a nuclear power plant in northern Egypt.
It might all be less troubling if Egypt were mainly suffering from economic problems.
But, in addition, it remains under assault by radical anti-Western terrorist forces.
“The Muslim Brotherhood,” Mazel reports, “is still carrying out low-grade warfare against local infrastructure in the country.” And a branch of Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula has kept up a string of deadly attacks. The most devastating was its downing one year ago of a Russian plane, which, says Mazel, “has brought tourism to a near standstill.”
And as the economy keeps struggling and Sisi institutes reforms—some of them, like a VAT increase, widely resented—the potential for popular insurrection, driven by or at least exploited by the Islamist forces, remains.
Or as Mazel puts it, “It is now show time for [Sisi]. The next few months will be critical.”
Israel, for its part, is helping Egypt both in the security and economic spheres, but the assistance it can give is limited by ongoing popular hostility to Israel and Jews in Egypt.
Another development in the next few months, however, offers the best hope of keeping Sisi’s government on its moderate, constructive course and keeping the jihadists at bay.
An AP analysis notes that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has already praised the “good chemistry” between him and Sisi when they met at the UN in September, suggesting a possibility of “closer ties after the chill between al-Sissi and Obama.”
Indeed Egypt’s media cheered Trump’s victory, reflecting widespread resentment at Obama’s support for the short-lived but hated Morsi regime.
It is not that Egypt is an exemplary country or a Western democracy. As mentioned, hatred in the Israeli and Jewish direction is still pervasive decades after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Vigilante attacks on Christians continue. Sisi’s crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood and other radical forces hardly meets Western judicial standards.
But in the real world, the Sisi government—which wants to align with the West, is nonbelligerent toward Israel, and at least aspires to curb Islamic extremism—is vastly preferable to the alternatives.
Supporting Sisi would mean a shift to a sane policy.