The Egyptian renewal: among new international balances and democratic perspectives

The revolution of Tahrir Square looks faraway but Egypt is still looking for a balance. The waves of protest that disrupt the Mubarak government led to a period of instability characterized by different changes of leadership. After the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood got into power, with Mohamed Morsi elected as the new Egyptian President. The new leader established a too restricted government, quite far from the concept of “democracy”. During that period, the civil society responded with several protests and clashes.

It was at that time that General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made his entry in the political panorama. On August 2012, he was nominated by the Muslim Brotherhood government as Minister of Defense and Military Production and from this time on he began his political escalation. On July 2013, he took part on the coup that ended the Morsi government.

On May 2014, el-Sisi was elected new President of Egypt with the 96,91% of votes. He settled his leadership during a hard period for Egypt in politics, society, economy and security. Focusing on the latter aspect, el-Sisi started his domestic policy applying restrictions on the press freedom and arresting a high number of his political opponents, bloggers and activists to guarantee the internal stability. Among the different measures adopted, the new President introduced a highly contested anti-protests law that consists in the prohibition of protest actions and demonstrations without the government authorization.

Concerning terrorism, el-Sisi immediately declared his will to fight it: in fact, the Egyptian government recently approved the anti-terrorism law that defines “terroristic entities” as groups or organizations which “through any means inside or outside the country, seek to call for the disabling of laws, or prevent State institutions or public authorities from functioning, or seek to attack the personal liberty of citizens, or other freedoms and rights granted [to citizens] by the law and constitution, or to harm national unity or social peace”. The President also attacked the jihadist group “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis” rooted in the Sinai Peninsula. This militant extremist group is considered one of the most dangerous given the frequent attacks against the government that begun in 2011. During the el-Sisi leadership, the attacks against the government increased also around the capital.

The terrorist attacks of the last years provoked damages to the economy such as the slump of tourism that has always represented one of the main sources of wealth for the country. The Egyptian leader therefore planned to get international support in the fight against terrorism. Since his settlement, el-Sisi expressed his will to reinforce the Egyptian foreign policy, considering cross border cooperation as a good way to guarantee the economic recovery of the country and an effective strategy to fight terrorist organizations.

Last November, el-Sisi visited the Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi to establish cross border cooperation relationships due to dangerous terrorism activities in the Mediterranean region. The two leaders planned a partnership based on the reinforcement of security measures on the Mediterranean coasts to contain clandestine immigration and to avoid further terroristic attacks.

Concerning his foreign policy strategy, the U.S. President Barack Obama did not support the coup made by the new Egyptian President, and for this reason, on October 2014 he decided to stop U.S. arms supply to Egypt. This action changed the relations between United States and Egypt, but also gave to the President of Russia Vladimir Putin the possibility to open a new political relation. Once again, the fight against terrorism is one of the goals considered central to this new partnership.

The two Presidents signed the agreement for the building of the first nuclear central in El Dabaa, in Northern Egypt. This project had already been promoted by Hosni Mubarak, but it was never realized. During 2014, the economic relations between Egypt and Russia increased of the 80% and Putin even expressed his will to help Egypt for the resumption of tourism and to build an industrial zone in the Suez Canal area. Russia agreed also to supply weapons to Egypt for $3 million. This new alliance will change the international scenario especially because of the Russian presence in the Suez Canal area. At the beginning of his government, el-Sisi also proposed a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, considering it as a strategy to guarantee security in the area and expressing his will to work for the negotiation between the parts.

Another important topic that emerged from the new President’s political strategy is the “Islamic Reformation”. El-Sisi declared: “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking – I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ – that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!”.

El-Sisi also declared that the Egyptian State recognizes the liberty of cult. A large number of Copts, in fact, lives in Egypt and, in order to stress that the religious mix is not considered a limit for the State, he signed a law that approved the building of new churches in the country. Another action made on defense of the Copt community have been the bombings of Derna, in Eastern Libya, after the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts by ISIS militants. The Egyptian President declared that this action was a response to a barbaric murder and that Egypt reserves the right “to revenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers”.

Egypt is nowadays one of the leading actors of the Libyan situation. El-Sisi asked the United Nations to vote for a resolution that authorizes an international coalition to intervene in Libya, declaring that “there is no other choice, taking into account the agreement of the Libyan people and government and that they call on us to act”. The proposal of an international coalition has been accepted by France, United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Spain. The new political era opened by el-Sisi focusing on the fight against terrorism is giving to Egypt a new geopolitical role. The leader is nowadays supported by Russia, United States and Italy, due to the geopolitical strategies proposed.

However, there are still many flaws in his government, such as the violation of human rights stressed several times by the United Nations, and proved by several arrests of political opponents. As stressed before, in this phase the government had adopted quite an authoritarian politic as a measure to protect the country from terrorism and to allow its economic growth. Working for a resolution and establishing safety and security in Libya is vital to avoid terrorism expansion both in Egypt and in the rest of the world. Another important issue is the economic situation that became quite critical during the last years due to the terroristic waves. The cross border cooperation with Italy and Russia could be conceived as a concrete step towards its recovery. The democratization process is slowly being balanced by a necessity of payback spread across the society after a long period of repression and instability, due to false democratic policies and to the disastrous economic crisis of the Mubarak era. The brief period characterized by the Morsi leadership emphasized the old, obsolete and repressive system. The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to establish a government based on their principles demonstrating how the old political strategies, that generated the several revolutionary waves, can be considered inadequate for the current Egypt.

Today is also necessary to change the global view on Islam, because of its association with the idea of terrorism, and to create the bases for a modern State that does not deny its own origins. The example of Tunisia as the starter of the Arab Spring highlights the real possibility to build a government that responds to the necessities of renewal of the Tunisian society, and at the same time, respects the historical, cultural and religious background. The Tunisian example therefore shows that democracy can coexist with Islam, creating forms of government that do not imitate European models and that deny their universality. Egypt is a country that the long revolutionary phase left characterized by a very complex social and economic situation.

El-Sisi started a recovery process that is still characterized by lights and shadows: on one side, the government is creating all the conditions to guarantee safety and to promote the development of the economy but on the other side, the Egyptian society is still submitted to several restrictions. The international support gained by el-Sisi is therefore reinforcing the geopolitical position of the country but the domestic context is still characterized by several contradictions. The Tunisian case should be considered the model to renew the country and to establish an ad hoc government, one that does not ignore its country background but does reflect on its weaknesses and highlights his strengths. More than authoritarian we can define this phase as a transition, which is required to allow the country to grow into a real democratic perspective.

Lucia Vasta

Master’s Degree in Languages and Economic and Legal Institutions of Asia and North Africa (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

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