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Is There Hope For A Democratic Egypt Under El-Sisi?

Egypt has a long history of being one of the major and key players in the Middle East (ME). Thus, this dates back to the times of the Pharaohs, thousands of years ago. Even if gone through tough times, in recent years and decades, especially with the events of 2011 to 2013 and the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ it still has not totally lost its place in the political arena of the region. Although it’s true that Egypt is no longer the player it once was, for instance, under the reign of Mohamed Ali in the mid-1800s (Marsot, A. L. A. S. 1984), or even Nasser. When it was able to go against a 500-year old giant for the former and stand its ground against the Ottoman Empire, or for the latter, with his Pan-Arabism politics and military might, it was one of the leading powers in the ME. 

Nowadays, even if the situation is different, and the country is not THE leader of the region anymore, it is starting to gain back some influence and weight in the region’s political matters due to its leader’s efforts, President El-Sisi. Indeed, under his regime, and even though it currently presents a rather authoritarian apparatus, the regime does try to get further on its way to Democracy. Although, if only for the purpose of calming and appeasing the country’s population or improving its current status in front of the Western powers of the international community, it is yet to establish. But, from El-Sisi’s own declaration, he is working to bring about the changes necessary to the establishment of Democracy. (Winter, O. 2015). Such a statement can be seen as raising as many questions as it answers. 


President El-Sisi’s Goal For Egypt’s Betterment

Indeed, what could be considered as ‘necessary changes’? Is President El-Sisi only stating these to appease the international community and the Western powers in order to buy some time and cement his own regime and power? Being educated as a westerner, he has a very good idea of the Western world’s expectations, and he might be playing along with it. 

He uses his knowledge as much as he could to secure his position or be serious about his goal. As he himself said in one of his speeches, “Democracy does not come cheaply, and never in two years as such history can be taken as a witness.”

Indeed, even today’s strongest democracies had to follow a long path, spreading on dozens, even hundreds of years before achieving the state of liberal democracies. How, then, can one really expect a country like Egypt to achieve it in only a few year’s time? Reasonably speaking, it would be fair to assume not, and that today’s situation is the first of the many milestones that Egypt will have to go through before maybe achieving the state of real Democracy – but this does not mean it is not on the right track, even if setbacks and bloodshed occur. 

Analysis To Where The Egyptian System Will Direct

Take the most famous of example, France. How many thousands died in the process of establishing this system? How many revolutions failed only to be taken over by a coup d’état? Like the ones of Napoleon the first and third (Chappey, J. L. 2001), only for Democracy to finally take hold and cement almost a century later, to be again the victim of the Vichy regime and a Second World War casualty. 

Therefore a question arises, which will be the leading research question of this article and would be analyzed throughout it. To what extent is the evolution of the Egyptian system toward a democratic regime possible and likely, and whether or not it would be possible based on analysis of the Regime’s policies and the society? In order to answer this, this article will study three essential sides of the country’s set up – First, the social security side, then the economic one, and finally the military part. So, let us see what steps and arguments the regime is taking to improve toward its pronounced goals.

Busy market in Egypt

President’s El-Sisi’s Goal Towards Democratic Egypt

Again, the stated goal of President El-Sisi is to bring about Democracy in the long run, and the rhetoric he adopts about it is very much aimed towards it. But, looking at a leader’s rhetoric, especially one that got to power through a military coup, what he did (Smith, B. 2012), is not enough, not even by a long shot. Notably, as already said, he is a Western-educated leader, as many of the other authoritarian leaders of recent history were, he knows all about what discourse to adopt to convince the Western world. Hence, looking at the actual actions and policies, putting forth is a must for him. 

One must understand that some of the country’s most characteristic features are very different from the other Arab countries of the ME. Indeed, since the time of Muhamad Ali, Nationalism is the keyword defining Egyptian society. It’s not Arabism, not even Islam, even though it is a huge part of the country’s culture. And this is why the country has been able to better deal with internal security problems such as ethnic clashes or religious discrimination. It would be lying to say that they are not present of course, and underlying in society. Still, compared to most of the ME other nations, due to Nationalism’s embedded sentiment in civil society, they are still kept in check. They could be seen as the reason why the Egyptian state is in itself more stable than other ME countries. 

Indeed, even if you’re black, tan or whiter, Copt, Muslim or other, rich or poor, from north or south, you are of all Egyptians, no matter the differences. And such sentiment is preeminent inside the society. A situation that can be seen more than everywhere else, in the army, where the President is from. And as such, El-Sisi is more than aware that Nationalism is the strongest of his tools to keep the society strong and together, despite the many struggles and difficulties it is facing. The military coup of 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) can be seen as one of the prominent proofs of this statement. Indeed, when he undertook this endeavor, Sisi was supported by most of the population, which saw him as preserving the Egyptian state’s essence. Threatened by the MB led by Morsi, seen as trying to change the constitution and make the state more Islamic in a very short time scale. 

Even today, a lot of the population is still supporting El-Sisi because he is seen as working for Egypt’s greater good. And since he was coming from the army and stood up to religious extremism. It is very important to notice that in Egypt, the army has a very important place and is seen as the safe keeper of the Egyptian system and balance, as seen by the numerous coups that happened when it deemed that the situation was getting out of control. (Abdalla, A. 1988). He can therefore be seen as safeguarding the civil society against religious extremism, that would all but take away any expectations of Democracy in the near and further future. And therefore, trying to keep building and strengthening the country’s institutions, with the purpose to pave the way toward strong and enduring institutions that would not be taken down by any future regime even if democratically elected. 

Settling Sun in Egypt a possible future democracy under Sisi

Egypt’s Social Security Side Where Demographic Is A Significant Issue

Indeed, strong political institutions are hard to build and harder to keep safe until they are set in stone. But then, if well embedded into the system, they are even harder to take down and bypass without strong and lasting armed struggle. Although, it is important to acknowledge that such steps might come from the strengthening of the authoritarian regime at first. Very much, in today’s Egypt, liberalization and the creation of broader civic rights for everyone go through the country’s securitization first. (Fahmy, D., & Faruqi, D. (Eds.). 2017). This is because of the one outstanding threat to the Egyptian system as a whole, its demographics. Undeniably, the country’s demographic growth is a major problem for a stable and strong country. Thus, with a population that went from about 68 Million (M) in 2000 to 102M in less than 20 years, and is expected to reach almost 130M in 2030. (UN. 2019). It is sure to raise even more trouble with youth unemployment, social-economic disparities, security issues, and extremism. Indeed, it is vital to remember that the MB is a root based organization, helping and recruiting the poorest to its ranks. With such phenomenal demographic growth, without relevant economic, social, and institutional adaptation, this number is sure to grow. 

Therefore, the country is sure to fall into chaos or being overtaken if not strongly handled until it is ready to switch to Democracy, subsequently being in a strong and stable situation not to be instantly overtaken by any extreme party. Once again, the strengthening of Nationalism, and the institutionalization of an already existing Egyptian National Identity by the regime can be seen as an attempt to increase the chances of the country to overcome the struggles ahead and keep pushing toward Democracy in a form adapted to the Egyptian situation on the ground. As much as keeping religious extremism at bay is in order to have an easier way to deal with it later, as the MB situation shows as of today.

night at Egypt

Egypt’s Economic Side Which President’s El-Sisi Aims To Improve

As could be seen in this previous part, in order to succeed in attaining social security in the future, great emphasis needs to be put on reaching economic security too. And therefore, getting out of the pit is the country’s actual situation at the moment. And such to be able to deal with the growing population, social inequities, and so on, as much as to strengthen the security apparatus to secure the country from foreign and internal threats, will be seen further into this work.

When it comes to Egypt’s economical situation and ‘modern’ growth, some would say that it is more than unlikely that Egypt ‘lacks’ the ‘entrepreneurial culture’ tradition and that due to its’ fealty to traditional Islam’ as being the biggest obstacle to the economy as it is per definition incapable of evolving toward such an industrial situation. (Rosenberg, D. 2018, April 10). But even though faced with such criticism on Sisi’s efforts during his mandate, it can be proven as somewhat naïve. Indeed, when speaking about Egypt and the current leader’s situation, ‘fealty’ to Islam is a very big overstatement. Since as in Mubarak’s and Nasser’s regime before him, the government comes, as previously said, from the army, the most secular institution of the country, which is the representant of the Egyptian civil society, and Egypt’s Nationalism per se. Therefore, it is less possible inclined to be influenced by such a thing. And as shown by the 50 years of purges of Egyptian religious parties (Munson, Z. 2001), as much as the fight and ban of the MB from the political canvas by El-Sisi. (Brown, N. J., & Dunne, M. D. 2015). If only one thing, one could say that Egypt’s economic situation is as open and secular as it ever was. Even more so, what would have been inconceivable a few years ago is happening due to Sisi’s actions. 

Indeed, El-Sisi has shown the will to start economic cooperation even with the ‘Jewish’ in order to attract investors and potential accords to start dealing with the crisis and improve the country’s economy. (Winter, O. 2015). Putting aside past grudges, in order to be able to improve in the future and even maybe put forward a democratic agenda when the situation would have improved enough to allow to do so. Moreover, concerning the lack of ‘industrial preparedness’ of the country, one would only have to look at history. Per comparison to most of the other ME countries, it is the only one that could be seen as having undergone an industrial revolution, all the way back to Mohamed Ali and his construction projects (Sainte-Marie, A. 1974). Thus, the creation of an autonomous industry in the cotton exports and production and his massive construction project.

one of Egypt's Temple, in a possible future democratic Egypt

Egypt’s Military Side Where Attention Is Most Focused To

As much as the massive development in the military industry, it went through in order to reform and develop the army in order to fight the Ottomans. Therefore, it cannot be said that Egypt lacks such a culture since it already had one. Given appropriate conditions and an efficient leader, it could most definitely become a main economic and entrepreneurial leader in the region again. Which Sisi is already trying to achieve by strengthening relations with its neighbors, such as Libya, Israel, and the UAE, and others too.

When coming to economic security, one can see that Egypt is doing a lot of effort on the diplomatic front as much as on the internal front to progress, closing the gap and endure its demographic growth. But another major aspect of the situation still needs to be approached. Indeed, the country’s military and internal security are now in a dire situation. And in order to relaunch the economy, make the population feel safe, and attract foreign investors, tourism, and funds, it needs to be improved quickly. And this no matter the means, since it could almost be seen as the basis for the country’s further progress on all other fronts. Therefore, it is an essential part of the country’s potential future development toward a potential democratic system.

Cairo, a possible democratic Egypt Capital

Democratic Egypt? Point of View Statement

On this matter, a number of points can be approached to show the regime’s efforts to curb the rather endearing situation of the country and start improving. In matter to this article, only a few of the multiple points will be approached. Since analyzing the entire situation regarding Egypt’s security from a foreign policy-making standpoint and an internal one would be rather extensive.

First of all, concerning its direct neighbor – Israel, which the country has a rather ambiguous history with. But, when the last governments were only trying to keep the peace in a war they would probably not win, Sisi is trying to improve them; and this for a number of reasons. Economic ones, as previously seen. But most importantly, as a security tool. Indeed, with Israel’s help and military cooperation, it offers Egypt a potential ally in order to fight for the most problematic security front of all. The Sinai and Gaza front. Since the Hamas is seen as an ally of the MB, state enemy of Egypt political leadership, it, therefore, has an interest in keeping it isolated and unable to send reinforcement to the MB organization or offer them an enclave to go back to after political or military attacks on the government. Then and almost most importantly, ISIS and other terror organizations are very present in the Sinai, making governance almost impossible in the region, reducing tourism and foreign investments, and harassing the military and security forces. 

Therefore, a good cooperation with Israel, which also sees them as a threat, with intelligence-sharing operations, opening the Egyptian airspace to Israeli airstrikes against ISIS positions, and even potential combined operations are assets that Sisi is currently working forward to. In the purpose to improve the overall security situation of the country and avoid Islamic enclaves when such organizations can regroup and plan disruptive attacks on other parts of the country. (Kirkpatrick, D. D. 2018). For that purpose, Sisi is also seen as changing the discourse toward the Yom Kippur War approach. No longer putting forth Israel as the enemy but acknowledging the recuperation of Sinai without mentioning from whom and speaking about it like a war of liberation. And correlating it to push forth his agenda toward the fact that it needs to be liberated from the hands of extremism, hence from ISIS. 

This cooperation and improvement of the relations also aiming to secure the US assistance on economic and military matters. (Vogelsang, S. S. 2011). Furthermore, Libya’s current situation, Egypt’s neighbor on the Westernmost border, shows the will of involvement of the Egyptian’s leadership toward securing its borders and keeping the MB and terrorist organizations’ threat at bay. Indeed, the Egyptian military, as for now, has been allied to the Libyan National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s, and supporting it militarily, in the form of airstrikes and logistically toward its securing of the country. Thus, seeing this situation as an opportunity to avoid a safe-haven for the MB in the country, a strong potential military and economic partner with extensive energy resources, and a strong will to destroy terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Hence, which are a common threat and would be rather difficult for Egypt to deal with if they secured operational bases on their western border. Lastly, on a more global regional vision, Sisi’s Egypt is trying to ally with the Sunni states, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia in addition to Israel, in order to counterbalance the growing influence of the Shia powers led by Iran in the ME and considered as an increasingly threatening problem.

A Democratic Egypt Under El-Sisi? Conclusion

Even though the regime can be seen as increasing its grip on the country, it has stated its will to go toward Democracy in the further future. But first, it needs to improve the country’s security situation, as much for social security, the economic one, and foreign and internal security. And, as such, is acting on it to do so. In order to be able to create a strong and lasting Democracy in Egypt, the country itself first needs to be stabilized its current overall situation. The prospect of democratic elections before the improvement of strong institutions would only need toward an undemocratic takeover of the country by any of the factions and further bloodshed. Hence, which would only serve the purpose of setting back the country and delay potential future democratization. 

President Al-Sisi’s combined policy actions and moves are working toward the normalization and improving the country’s actual standpoint. Thus, balancing improvements in the three sectors and possible due to their interconnectedness to create the best possible outcome for Egypt. Even though it has a long way to go, and to answer the question, it is believed that Egypt, despite its current status and the strengthening of power by the current government, is on its way to becoming a potential successful Democracy. 

Of course, the likeliness of having it transformed into a modern western-style liberal democratic system is rather low. But having a democracy adapted to Egypt’s situation and culture with free elections and strong democratic institutions is possible in the near future. Thus, depending on how the government manages certain oncoming crises and how it plays its cards on the regional and international political struggle. As per the adage, ‘Rome was not built in a day,’ and the democratic process has been proven not to be easily rushed, to the peril of dire consequences. What took centuries to happen in Europe will not take hold in the ME in a matter of years only. Even more so when Democracy is so fragile and needs to be protected at all times, as can be seen in eastern Europe nowadays. Until the situation on the ground will not be stable and favorable to its establishment, the regime will have to keep a stronghold on the political power. Thus, in order not to slip into an even worst situation that it is actually and not give any space for destabilizing actors to take action. Like what occurred in Syria and, more recently, Libya.

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