Asher Susser is Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the former Stein Family Professor of Modern Israel Studies at the University of Arizona. On 28 March, he gave a briefing to a select BICOM audience in London on the major issues affecting Egypt today, the significance of President el-Sisi’s victory for Egypt, and the future of Egypt’s relations with Israel, the wider region and the West. Below is an edited transcript.
Egypt’s current difficulties are very much representative of the decline of the Arab world in general and the rise of the non-Arab players Iran and Turkey. Egypt is no longer one of the main movers and shakers of the region as it once was and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does not seem to have any desire to reassume that position for Egypt in the foreseeable future.
Economics and demography
In 1938, two Egyptian social scientists wrote two very important books about Egypt’s society and economy. They both predicted that Egypt’s population was growing too fast for its economy, and that the economy would collapse unless radical changes were made to the country’s economic structure. As it happens, the population actually grew faster than they had predicted. At the turn of the century the population was growing by about by one million a year. However, Egypt’s population growth today is over two million per year, while it has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world, at 27 per cent, another severe handicap for economic development. Rapid population growth means that Egypt has a young population and thus has to cope with a major problem of youth unemployment (aged between 15-29), which stands at 30 per cent.
Egypt will be unable to reduce the unemployment rate unless it increases the level of national growth to around five to six per cent per year for the next five years (rather than the four per cent figure it has maintained over the last few years). In late 2016 the IMF agreed to a loan of $12bn to be paid over the next three years, which has created some improvements to the economy and allowed the government to reduce gas and electricity subsidies. But the subsidy cuts have also cut into the purchasing power of the middle and lower classes.
The domestic and social situation is therefore serious and very difficult to overcome. Moreover, there is a UN estimate that water may run out in Egypt in 2025 unless something very dramatic is done. There is also the threat of an imminent collapse of urban infrastructure in cities – such as Cairo – due to overpopulation which will result in impending urban disasters and areas unfit for human habitation. In light of these trends, Sisi is facing a challenge which may prove to be insurmountable.
Domestic stability and government suppression
What are Sisi’s assets and liabilities in this current situation? First of all, he has effectively suppressed the opposition which can be regarded as an asset. The crushing of the Islamists has meant they are no longer a threat to the stability of the regime, although outlawing parties and organisations won’t necessarily mean that terrorism will come to an end. The secular parties are so weak in the political system and so deeply disaffected by the brief rule of former President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, that they ultimately supported the military takeover and have subsequently turned a blind eye to the current regime’s brutality. The stifling of the media and the abysmal human rights record have created a duality of dissatisfaction and relief: relief that stability is maintained, but dissatisfaction at the high level of suppression, which has worsened. But ultimately, if there are no strong democratic forces, the chances for the emergence of a democratic society in Egypt are virtually nil.
Any challenge to Sisi would most likely come from within the military itself. There have been some rumblings of disaffection within the military and two former generals, Sami Annan and Ahmed Shafiq, were actually thinking of running against Sisi, although he ultimately saw to it that they were barred. It’s unclear whether they chose to run on their own behalf or whether they reflected some opposition within the military establishment. Regardless it is damaging to Sisi.
Egypt has historically seen relatively low levels of participation in the democratic process. In the past, under Egypt’s autocratic regimes, people used to say this was because Egyptians did not have any faith in the democratic process. However, even during the Arab Spring, when Egyptians had the chance to participate for the first time in free elections, participation was relatively low. Why? Egyptian democrats have not had a great tradition and there has never been much devotion to the democratic process amongst the public at large. It is therefore very important to see the turnout in last week’s election – which Egyptians called a Masrahiya (play or show). One key issue is to the percentage voter turnout when compared to the past, which reflects the relative legitimacy of the Sisi government in Egyptian society. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, which is more or less average for Egypt in recent years. Considering the huge effort by the Sisi regime to encourage people to go out and vote this is by no means a stunning success, but it is not a dismal failure either, just about par for the Egyptian course.
A secular-religious society
Egypt has been defined by some scholars as a secular-religious society. Sadat, Mubarak, Sisi all made a clear distinction between concessions to Islam and Islamists in the public domain on the one hand, and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. People can dress traditionally, al-Ahzar University can say more or less what it wants and the public sphere is respectful of the Islamist vision of the public domain. But if you challenge the government you will be jailed. Whilst Sisi won’t allow the Muslim Brotherhood room to breathe or return to power, he won’t remove Islam from the public domain either. But it’s actually getting worse in that the regime, since the Mubarak era, has allowed Sharia law to creep through the back door into the legal system again. Under Nasser, Sharia courts were closed, but now one can bring charges such as blasphemy against people on the basis of Sharia law in regular courts. This is an example of what is permissible in a secular-religious society, but Sisi will not abandon what he thinks is strategic and critical for Egypt’s stability and defence.
The security challenge in the Sinai
While the Sinai Peninsula is not a direct problem for the current stability of the regime, it has the potential to be. I choose my words with caution; the Egyptian military has a problem. It is a little surprising that they have not been able to put down ISIS, who are not such a serious threat in the Sinai. There are not that many ISIS fighters there, and the failure is therefore a reflection of inefficiencies of the Egyptian military. That is disturbing for Israel as it means it will continue to live under the cloud of ISIS in Sinai, with the threat of rocket attacks on Eilat and attacks on Israeli civilians traveling on the road to Eilat which runs adjacent to the Egyptian border. Israel thus has an interest in supplying intelligence to the Egyptians and helping them and I think Israel has even conducted drone operations against ISIS forces in Sinai in cooperation with Egypt.
Egypt’s regional posture
Egypt’s regional posture under Sisi has been “Egypt First”. This is not about Egypt with some great regional, hegemonic desire but rather closer to the strategy adopted under Anwar Sadat. When Sadat came to power in 1970, Egypt’s name was the United Arab Republic (UAR), so devoted was Egypt under Nasser to the Arab cause. One of the first things Sadat did was to change the name from the UAR to the Arab Republic of Egypt – Jumhūrīyat Misr al-Arabīyah, meaning Egypt first and “Arab” second (not reflected in the English translation) prioritising Egypt as the centrepiece of the country’s identity and political orientation. For Sadat, that meant at first war, and subsequently peace, with Israel in the name of Egyptian state interests. For Sisi it means not being dragged into regional turmoil in Yemen or Gaza nor helping to roll back Iran. Instead, it’s about Egyptian stability and dignity and the country’s priorities are unquestionably domestic.
Between the Great Powers
Egypt under Sisi appears to be distancing itself from the US whilst at the same time improving relations with Russia. This process started during the Obama era when the US administration was critical of the military takeover, and continues despite the change of power in the US. . There is a new Egyptian arms deal with Russia, including the Egyptian air force buying MiG-29 aircraft, and there is talk of a deal for the Russians to use Egyptian air space and airbases in Egypt.
Egypt and Israel
Israel and Egypt have very deep military cooperation, operationally and in intelligence in the war against ISIS in the Sinai. They share a total distrust of Islamists and cooperate to contain and pressure Hamas. Most recently, Egypt bought $15bn worth of Israeli gas, which relates to the Eastern Mediterranean as a region of strategic collaboration and importance for Israel (where Israel is also cooperating with Cyprus and Greece)
The Egyptian public have disliked the peace treaty from the day it was signed. There are two issues relating to today’s relations between the countries: on the one hand popular sentiment, which is clearly anti-Israel; and on the other hand the stability of the peace treaty. While these two things are seemingly incongruent, there is a distinction between what the Egyptian public likes and what it accepts the regime doing in the interest of state security. It’s the same with the Jordanians.
Israel doesn’t have a functioning embassy in Cairo, the Ambassador sits in Jerusalem – because of Egyptian popular sentiment. However, Egypt has just entered into a huge gas deal with Israel. Our intelligence organisations collaborate and we have a good understanding on security issues. Israelis have learnt to live with this situation, but it does have consequences. There is no real normalisation between Israel and Jordan or Egypt and there never has been. We have more normal relations with the people of Cyprus and Greece than with Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis can visit and feel comfortable in Greece but they won’t go to nor be accepted in Egypt.
There is an uneasy coexistence between the unfavourable public attitude toward Israel and the continued stability of the peace treaty in the state interest. The word “normalisation” in Arabic is considered pejorative in the Arab discourse. Israelis wanted normalisation desperately because they wanted peace to be real, not just the acceptance of Israel’s power but also of its legitimacy. In other words, a situation in which even if one day the balance of power were to change, peace would endure. Otherwise, what you are telling us, Israelis, is you must preserve the balance of power in your favour, otherwise peace might not last. The lack of normalisation is the underpinning of the Israeli uncertainty about long-term peace with its neighbours.
The collapse of Arab nationalism
The decline of the Arab world is because Arab nationalism is a defeated cause. The defeat of Arab nationalism ushered in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In other words, Islamic fundamentalism is the product of failed Arab nationalism, a secular idea based on uniting people on the basis of the language they spoke. And the defeat of Arab nationalism is the defeat of the platform of secularising politics. The rise of Islamism also means the sectarianisation of Arab society, where you have multiple sectarian societies like in Iraq and Syria. If Arabism cannot paper over the sectarianism, then the current Middle East is the result. Islamist parties such as Hamas being on the rise is nothing peculiar, it’s a regional phenomenon. The places where Islamists are losing is not because of a lack of popular appeal, but because they’ve been jailed by the military, the people with the guns. This is exactly what many failed to appreciate about the Arab Spring. Observers in the West were raving about Facebook and Twitter but the real question was not about the new social media, but who had the guns?’ Sisi will tell you who has the guns.