Monday, January 25 will mark the five-year anniversary of the start of the protests in Egypt that led to the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The world is a very different place now than it was then, and even the term “Arab Spring” is now only used cynically. Still, there are major similarities – a military strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is once again in power, the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, the economy is not growing enough to improve the lot of ordinary Egyptians, and there are calls on social media for more protests. So how worried should Egyptian officials be of another revolution starting?
The answer, quite simply, is not very much – provided that the Sisi regime on one hand does a thorough job cracking down on dissidents before they begin protesting, and on the other hand strives to grow the economy and help the poorer masses. Stability and economic growth at the cost of personal liberties: this is the old agreement between a strong ruler and the people, and some argue it’s the only way for present-day Egypt to move forward.
Back in early 2011, when in domino-type fashion several Arab autocrats fled or were toppled or killed, it seemed like a new era was beginning, one where homegrown liberal democracy could take root in the Middle East. But in the following years, that hope was extinguished time and time again as the region descended into chaos. Civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen; an “election” of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt followed by a military coup a year later and another “election” of Sisi; and the rise and global expansion of ISIS – these are all warning signs of the alternative that awaits Egypt if it casts off Sisi’s iron fist. This is not just propaganda, although the state media constantly reiterates these themes while warning that protesting against the regime is treason and religiously forbidden. No, this is recent history for Egyptians. They are aware of the risks, which are mostly kept at bay by security forces — but not entirely.
As if to drive home that point, there have been two violent incidents in the last two days. Five Egyptian policemen were shot dead at a security checkpoint in the Islamist insurgency-wracked Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday. And on Thursday night a bomb attack in the city of Giza (just a mile away from the Pyramids, one of Egypt’s top tourism draws) killed at least six people, including three policemen. Since Sisi took power, what’s now the Sinai branch of ISIS has killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police officers, as well as dozens of civilians in Cairo and elsewhere through bombings. The rest of the country does not want to follow Sinai’s example.
But a better question would be: what about the dissidents that know the risks but whose commitment is so strong that they will protest anyway? While the base of liberal democratic activists has shrunk since 2011 as disillusionment and crackdowns have taken a toll, there are still plenty of devout Islamists in Egypt that support the Muslim Brotherhood, and a smaller subset of whom support violent Islamic extremism against the military government and its allies abroad.
Despite the regime’s ongoing crackdown on dissidents prior to the anniversary — questioning residents and raiding more than 5,000 homes in central Cairo this week — it’s inevitable that there will be some protests. The only question is how many, and whether they will spread even in the face of a police response that’s guaranteed to be heavy-handed. It’s hard to predict that protests will reach the levels of January 2011, since Egypt has been down that road before.
And by sticking with Sisi, the economy could improve in time. Certainly it has huge obstacles to overcome, namely the plunges in foreign investment and tourism. The ongoing terrorism by the Sinai ISIS branch is the main cause, as foreigners have repeatedly been targeted. Most notorious was the group’s downing of a Russian plane that killed all 224 passengers over the Sinai Peninsula in October. However, the regime’s dismal human rights record is hardly encouraging either.
By no coincidence, therefore, economic growth has been slower than hoped-for by Sisi’s economic team. In fiscal year 2014-15, GDP growth was 4.2%, but in light of the slow implementation of new projects and heightened security concerns, on Tuesday the consultancy FocusEconomics reduced its forecast for Egypt in the current fiscal year to 3.6% (down 0.2 points from its prediction in December). And low oil prices are hitting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E. – three big donors to the Egyptian government – very hard, making their continued patronage uncertain.
However, there are some areas where the economy is looking brighter. On a two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Cairo this week, China and Egypt signed 21 agreements – including 15 projects in electricity, infrastructure, and transport with investments that could total $15 billion. According to Xi, 32 Chinese companies are now working in Egypt’s Suez Canal economic zone, investing more than $400 million, and with the next phase of the project 100 Chinese firms would be investing $2.5 billion. Bilateral economic relations have reached unprecedented levels, and China also supports Sisi’s efforts to maintain stability and to crackdown on their shared enemy of international terrorism.
Additionally, in late February Egypt will host the first intra-African investment forum, building on last year’s combination of three regional free-trade pacts in the continent. Several Egyptian conglomerates and banks have already made substantial investments in other African countries, and there are many more untapped opportunities.
Offshore natural gas discoveries could also be a huge help, if their extraction and use is managed astutely. In August the enormous Zohr offshore discovery was made, with an estimated 850 billion cubic meters of natural gas in place – a potentially game-changing boost for a country that faces a gaping gas deficit. (Egypt already owes foreign oil and gas firms over $3 billion in arrears, and it lost out on a scheduled LNG shipment earlier this month because it couldn’t pay the bill.) Development partner Eni, an Italian energy firm, said that it expects Zohr’s first gas to come online at the end of next year or early-2018.
And as for the government’s finances, the resumption of $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid last March was a big help. With it, the counterinsurgency campaign in the Sinai can hopefully be concluded faster — although that won’t happen anytime soon.
Last but not least, chronically-high inflation has been stabilized under 10%. According to Daily News Egypt, since November the government has listed goods to be subjected to price controls, and it has imposed quotas on imported wheat in an effort to reign in food prices and stem the outflow of foreign exchange. Those populist measures should help to limit anger from the poorer levels of society.
To sum up, Sisi’s regime might lose face if protests happen on January 25 despite its best efforts to stop them. But his position is more secure than Mubarak’s, who had no indication if or when protests would arise and thus could not adequately prepare for them. In any case, the eyes of the world will be on Tahrir Square to see how it all plays out.