When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was inaugurated as Egypt’s president, the man he took the reins of power from – Adly Mansour – claimed Egyptians were confident in Sisi’s “ability to impose security and live up to their aspirations.” The idea that Egypt needs the military strongman to guarantee safety has helped prop up his public support ever since, but that narrative has fallen apart over the past two weeks. As bloody Daesh target Egypt’s Coptic community and key tourist sites like St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, it is now clear that Egyptians have traded the revolution for Sisi and gotten nothing in return.
More than anything else, the attacks on Egypt’s beleaguered Copts expose Sisi’s failure to counter the jihadist threat. Even though the former general presents himself as the protector of the Christian minority, his security services have failed to keep them safe: on April 9, a series of explosions ripped through Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria and left 44 worshippers dead. Sisi’s response was to impose a three-month state of emergency, but the fact that the Tanta and Alexandria attacks are just the latest in a long-running terrorist campaign against Christians and provoke sectarian strife speak to his inability to ensure stability and safety.
While terrorists strike closer to Cairo, Egypt’s economy remains beset by the same problems that inspired the revolution. 25 percent of the population live in poverty and 26 percent of young people are unemployed, all while food prices rise and fuel supplies run low. In November 2016, Egypt resorted to an IMF bailout of $12 billion to be disbursed over three years.
Sisi may seem powerless to stop Daesh or improve the economy, but his regime has had a much easier time cracking down on political opponents. The state of emergency provides him with additional tools to suppress opposition, from shutting down media outlets to arbitrarily arresting dissidents. Indeed, it seems the only tangible difference between Egypt’s current ruler and the deposed Hosni Mubarak is that Sisi is a more ruthless dictator. As if meaning to rub in the failure of the Egyptian revolution, Sisi allowed his predecessor to go free last month.
Egypt, though, is not alone. Instead, its troubles are a snapshot of the problems embroiling the entire region. As Arab hopes for prosperity and democracy disintegrated into apathy and fear, Arab states have slipped back into familiar patterns of autocracy and corruption. Given this re-entrenchment, it is no wonder that citizens are apathetic about the way their governments conduct politics.
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As last month’s Arab League Summit in Jordan proved, most Arab leaders are doing very little to resolve political conflicts or economic hardship in their own countries. This is why many Arabs, as Salah Nasrawi put it, “have long lost confidence in their leaders carving up solutions or meeting their expectations” for resolving the issues threatening regional stability and development. Like the summits of old, this 28th Arab meet-and-greet was a fruitless exercise in vague statements and toothless commitments.
Of course, it would not be accurate to say that Egypt’s backsliding has been universally copied across the region. A few Arab countries are proactively addressing the concerns and aspirations of their citizens, and incredibly, they are the same countries that did the most to keep the Arab Spring away from their borders. In the Gulf, for example, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are realizing their anachronistic ways of running their countries are reaching the limits of viability.
The wake-up call for countries like Saudi Arabia came with the three-year oil price slump, which even a OPEC production cap cannot reverse. That price crash is forcing these countries to steer away from oil to create viable economies based on private investment, opportunities for young people, and greater participation in social and economic life. Young Saudis, Emiratis, and others share many of the same aspirations young Egyptians did in 2011, and the region’s leaders are trying to get out ahead of those demands as best they can.
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, for one, has embarked on a 15-year plan to diversify the Saudi economy by raising the profile of the private sector, but his plans also touch on broader social reform. The package aims at boosting female participation in the workforce and perhaps even scraping restrictions such as the prohibition for women to drive, among others that disproportionately affect young people. Opposition from the ultraconservative Wahhabi establishment is expected to be fierce, but the young prince’s breaking of norms has made him popular among Saudi youth.
Importantly, these changes have been welcomed by important partners and other heads of state. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, provided support for the reform efforts when she visited the Gulf Cooperation Council’s meetings in December 2016, stating she was “encouraged by recent economic and social reforms” and their “bold vision.” May repeated many of these points in a visit to Saudi Arabia this month, offering her country’s help in reforming the Saudi ministries and devising new standards to support a healthier economy. The British may have their own incentives at work, seeing opportunities for new investments in (and from) the Gulf as they extract themselves from the European Union, but this kind of outside support is a critical factor.
One can only hope that other leaders in the Arab world come to the same realization of their own accord, instead of having events forced upon them by economic crises or new insurrections. The pressures that drove Tunisians, Egyptians, and Syrians into the streets in 2011 are still just as powerful, and re-entrenched Arab regimes should not make the mistake of thinking the need for change has passed. After all, the history of this period is still being written, and patience for bad government on the Arab street is far less than it used to be.