Egypt is in danger of becoming a failed state—and western leaders are mishandling the crisis

Propping up president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime is not the way forward

October 20, 2017
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Photo: Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Photo: Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general and head of military intelligence groomed by President Mubarak’s Minister of Defense to succeed him in that vital portfolio, instead gained control of the presidency itself by orchestrating a coup d’etat in July, 2013. Now running the country with an iron fist tougher than that of any preceding Egyptian president, he calculates domestic and foreign policies on the grounds that western powers will do whatever necessary to prevent the collapse of his regime—because they believe that would also mean the collapse of Egypt.

Such a collapse could yet come to pass, in no small part due to the botched efforts of those same powers.

That would be a disaster. Chaos in neighboring Libya has already amply demonstrated the costs to Europe of a failed Mediterranean state, and Egypt’s population is some 15 times larger than Libya’s. It includes more than thirty million citizens living in abject poverty on less than $2 per day. If Egypt failed, the nightmare scenario of a vast armada of boat people leaving its shores for Europe would make the equivalent from Libya seem just a bad dream.

A potential human tidal wave could, moreover, be accompanied by the export of terrorism.

The last effective redoubt of Islamic State is that in the Sinai Peninsula in northern Egypt. Six years after a tribal-Islamist insurgency commenced there, Egyptian security forces have yet to subdue it. Terrorism elsewhere in the country has been reduced over the past year, but remains a substantial threat. Arms smuggling across the Libyan and Sudanese borders is rife. Al Qaida is led by the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, who presumably would leap at the chance to establish the primary base for his jihadi organisation on the banks of the Nile, within easy striking distance of western targets.

That western leaders appreciate the potential for these twin disasters to directly impact their nations’ interests and so will do all possible to prop up his regime, has been made manifest to Sisi. Italy has recently returned its Ambassador to Cairo, who among other commitments has pledged to try to “deliver” over one million Italian tourists to help save Egypt’s flagging tourism industry. Implied in these and other steps to bolster the Egyptian economy is that Rome has abandoned its previous efforts to force Sisi’s government to cooperate in investigating the brutal torture and killing, presumably by Egyptian security personnel, of graduate student Giulio Regeni.

Germany’s Angela Merkel has replicated with Sisi the $3bn deal she orchestrated in November, 2015, between the EU and President Erdogan, whereby Turkey would help stem the flow of refugees to Europe. In the case of Egypt, the “down payment” made in March is only some half a billion Euros, but the principle in any case is the same—namely, Germany will pay you directly or through the EU to seal your borders and do all possible to prevent your collapse.

"Sisi has carte blanche from western powers to do whatever likes, so long as he and his army hold Egypt together"
Not to be outdone, President Trump has lauded Sisi and pledged to continue the $1.3bn annual arms package to Egypt. The only slight ripple disturbing the otherwise smooth US—Egyptian relationship being that caused by Egypt’s under the counter dealings with North Korea, for which the recent $300m temporary suspension of aid amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.

So Sisi has good reason to believe that he has carte blanche from western powers to do whatever he would like, so long as he and his army hold Egypt together. He has acted accordingly, stepping up repression to levels previously unknown in the country’s modern history. Not even President Nasser’s dictatorial regime killed, tortured, imprisoned and deprived of human and civil rights its citizens in the magnitude of Sisi’s similar, but more egregious transgressions. Hardly a peep has been heard in protest from Washington, Brussels, Berlin, London, Paris, or other western capitals.

Nor has there been even oblique criticism of the vast amount of public funds squandered by Sisi on his military. Egypt has become the world’s fourth largest purchaser of imported arms. France is now a major source of those weapons, selling Egypt a squadron of its advanced Rafale fighters and two aircraft carriers. Germany has seen fit to sell submarines to the Egyptian Navy, now ranked as the world’s sixth most potent. The Egyptian military of almost one million men on active and reserve duty is not only the largest in Africa and the Middle East, it is reported as being the world’s 12th strongest, just behind Germany, Italy and South Korea, whose GDPs per capita are all at least twelve times Egypt’s.

The military’s voracious political and economic appetites have consumed resources that otherwise might be spent on the country’s development—its schools, hospitals, transportation, water, sewerage and other facilities. As a share of GDP, since 2000 Egypt’s spending on these vital services has been below that of all Arab countries other than impoverished Yemen.

The country’s large and growing population further aggravates its inadequate internal investment. Egyptians will outnumber Japanese and Russians by 2040. Egypt’s population density, with around 95 per cent of the population living along the banks of the Nile, in the Nile Delta and adjacent to the Suez Canal, creates additional challenges. These regions contain an average of 1,540 persons per square kilometer, compared to 500 in the Netherlands, the most densely settled European country.

Western political leaders are correct to fear that Egypt is in danger of becoming a failed state. They are incorrect, however, in supporting Sisi to save the country from collapse. Egypt has been brought to the brink as a result of the profound mismanagement of the country by the military since it seized power in 1952. Sisi’s extravagant spending on that military and its various grandiose projects, such as building an entirely new capital city, has brought about an inflation rate in excess of 30 per cent, an overnight halving of the value of the currency, and interest rates that militate against private investment. As socio-political pressures build, Sisi’s regime cracks down ever harder, ensuring that if the lid does blow off, it will bring about the very consequences so feared.

Egypt is indeed too big to be allowed to fail. But propping up Sisi’s despotic regime is not the way to save it. It is the way to expedite and intensify the failure—which is rightly feared.

Robert Springborg's new book is "Egypt" (Polity)