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Can el-Sissi make Egypt great again?

Tom Allinson
April 29, 2019

The recent constitutional referendum gives the authoritarian Egyptian president unprecedented political power. But can el-Sissi return the country from regional muscle to leading light of the Arab world?

A man looks up at a giant poster of el-Sissi
Image: Reuters/M. Abd El Ghany

When the results of Egypt's referendum on constitutional reform came in on Tuesday, paving the way for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to stay in power until 2030, the head of state and the military's supreme commander took to Twitter.

Expressing his "appreciation and pride" for "the Egyptian people, who impressed the world with their national consciousness of the challenges facing our dear Egypt," el-Sissi showed he saw the vote to be just as much a step in returning Egypt to its former role of Arab world leader as it was a national moment.

"Cairo has always seen itself as being the center of Arab diplomacy, Arabic language, culture, television and everything else, and it wants to be taken seriously again," said Charles Gurdon, managing director of Menas Associates, a strategic consultancy focused on Africa and the Middle East. "And the reality is that, since Mubarak, it hasn't been taken seriously."

Since former President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign ended with his ousting in the 2011 revolution, Egypt has been through mass popular uprisings, the democratic election of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi and his subsequent overthrow by then-defense minister el-Sissi.

People on the streets in Egypt flee smoke and police
Activists see the new constitution as a death knell for the 2011 revolution (above)Image: picture alliance/AP/B. Curtis

The referendum has put an end to that period, with activists calling the vote "a death knell" for the revolution. But it has delivered el-Sissi unprecedented presidential power that he could use to try and restore Egypt to its former glory. 

"[El-Sissi's] position is stronger than any other leader since the 1952 revolution," according to Günter Meyer, an Arab politics expert from Mainz University in Germany, referring to the ouster of Egypt's monarchy and the British and the rise of popular pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who made Egypt the leading light of the Arab world. 

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the left and Gamal Abdel Nasser on the right
El-Sissi (L) has more power than anyone since the 1952 revolution, which brought the Egyptian leader and pan-Arab icon Gamal Abdel Nasser to power

Regional muscle

After all but eliminating internal opposition, el-Sissi has flexed his diplomatic and military muscle primarily among Egypt's immediate African neighbors, albeit with limits.

His diplomatic push in Africa over the last two years resulted in him taking up the chair of the African Union (AU) in February ― a significant step given that the AU suspended Egypt in 2013 for almost one year following el-Sissi's military takeover. As AU head, he was able to secure support last week for a three-month extension to the recently imposed military rule in Sudan

The ouster of Islamist President Omar al-Bashir in early April probably pleased Egyptian leadership, Gurdon told DW. "Having said that, they [Egyptian leaders] don't like any sense of uncertainty or any sense of major change that they can't control," he added.

In an attempt to shore up Egypt's western border and combat Islamic militants, el-Sissi has also provided vital support to fellow military strongman Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who is pushing to take total military control of the unstable country. But Haftar has also proved a strong-willed and unpredictable partner.

Read more:  Libya's battle for Tripoli — what you need to know

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
El-Sissi has consolidated power since ousting MorsiImage: Getty Images/A. Wong

Economic constraints

When it comes to greater regional influence, however, Egypt's economy is proving a main constraint, despite strong prospects in the energy sector.

Egypt's growing natural gas reserves could see it move from being a net energy importer to a regional provider, but its important agriculture sector is reliant on Nile waters partly controlled by Ethiopia, which is building its own dam. According to Gurdon, el-Sissi has to take this relationship "very seriously indeed."

Additionally, Egypt also relies on foreign funds. "Egypt is so dependent on international finance, whether that's from the International Monetary Fund, which supplied a $12 billion loan (€11 billion) to Egypt, or whether it's Gulf money; they need external support now," Gurdon said.

Economic cooperation also looks to increasingly define Egypt's relationship with Israel thanks to a gas pipeline connecting the two countries. Since signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Cairo has played broker in Israel-Palestinian disputes, in part to stifle insurgencies on the Sinai Peninsula.

The Gulf's junior partner

El-Sissi's partnership with powerful Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE has also brought tens of billions of euros into Egypt's economy. Yet it has simultaneously reinforced the sense that Cairo is a junior partner.

In 2017 el-Sissi signed off on an economic agreement that included handing over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a move that was highly unpopular among Egyptians.

And while the Egypt-Saudi-UAE alliance is based in part on a common enmity of the Muslim Brotherhood, the broader dynamics of trio's rivalry with Iran and its fight against political Islam make El-Sissi a middling player.

The islands of Tiran and Sanafir
The Red Sear islands of Tiran and SanafirImage: Getty Images/AFP/Str

"Essentially Egypt will have to do what it's told to by the Gulf states and by the international community," Gurdon said.

Nonetheless, there are signs el-Sissi may be trying to stand apart from these Gulf partners. He resisted fully cooperating with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen's civil war, in part due to painful memories of Egyptian involvement in its previous civil war in the 1960s, known as "Egypt's Vietnam."

El-Sissi also did not share Riyadh's support for anti-government rebels in Syria's civil war. Instead, Egypt expressed its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and has called for his return to the Arab League.

Making Egypt great again

It's in the international arena where el-Sissi has his wild card. Closer economic ties with Europe are high on his agenda, as is marketing Egypt as a stable partner in the face of EU fears of African migration.

His position is strengthened by a European desire to keep Chinese and Russian competitors out of Egypt. However, Russia already has concrete interests in Egypt, having signed a $3.5 billion arms deals in 2014 and agreed to build the first Egyptian nuclear reactor.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2019
US President Donald Trump and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hit it off in the White House in AprilImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Watson

Relations with the US under Donald Trump's administration are also warmer than they were under his predecessor Barack Obama, who criticized Egypt's human rights record. During el-Sissi's visit to the White House this month, Trump said, "We've never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than we do right now."

That is a big plus, Meyer says. "Being called a privileged friend by a president of the United States and at the same time maintaining good relations with Russia underscores the strength of [el-Sissi's] foreign policy position."

Egypt in the age of el-Sissi