Middle East in Focus
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has reached out to his regional neighbors to reassure them of his country’s support for its Arab allies, emphasizing the importance of economic ties and anti-terror cooperation. While Iranian influence continues to top the list of concerns for most Arab leaders, extremist violence continues to be a perennial challenge, whether in the Sinai or the streets of Cairo. Politically, some attention has begun to turn to next year’s presidential elections. A win for the incumbent president seems inevitable, considering the state of the political opposition in Egypt, but some observers expect a poor economy to weaken Mr. Sisi’s lead.
According to a staff report for the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, President Sisi has been keen to reassure his Arab neighbors that “Egypt will not allow threats to the stability and security of its ‘brother countries in the Gulf.’... Sisi also discussed regional developments in a meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamed Al-Sabah. The Arab Gulf country has backed Egypt's economy with billions of dollars in oil shipments, cash grants and central bank deposits since the 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi....Egypt has recently carried out several joint military exercises with Bahrain and other Gulf countries. In March, Sisi met with several top UAE leaders, including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, where he discussed the importance of intensifying Arab and international efforts to achieve political resolutions to the region’s various civil conflicts. Sisi also stressed Egypt's appreciation of its ties with the UAE and the support of the Gulf country to Cairo.”
These comments are meant as much to reassure its neighbors as to warn an increasingly assertive Iran against further encroachment in the region. Farh Bahgat, in a report for Daily News Egypt, points out that in his meetings with regional leaders, Mr. Sisi “asserted the need of Arab cooperation to counter the intervention of foreign forces in the affairs of Arab countries.... The talks with the Emir included means of fostering bilateral relations, among other regional issues where both parties agreed on the importance of enhancing the efforts to combat terrorism, according to a statement by the official presidential spokesperson, Alaa Youssef. Youssef said that the Emir of Kuwait described Egypt as the cornerstone of security and stability in the region, further praising Egyptian nationals in Kuwait, adding that his country is committed to enhancing bilateral relations with Egypt.”
While Iranian influence continues to be a concern for Egypt and other Arab countries, it is clear from this Asharq Alawsat article that the threat of terrorism also poses an important challenge: “Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stated on Sunday that the majority of Arab countries have in recent years suffered from dangerous challenges that have had economic, social and political repercussions. The greatest challenge facing Egypt is the threat of terrorism, he declared.... ‘The Egyptian army and police have and are still waging a fierce war against various extremist cells, most notably in Sinai,’ added the president. ‘We have suffered together from harrows of deceit and pain of the loss of loved ones,’ continued Sisi. He stressed that along with the fight against terrorism, Egypt will continue its efforts to ‘reform its house from the inside’.”
Meanwhile, at home, Egyptians are turning some attention to upcoming presidential elections, where it is expected that the general-turned-president will easily win another term. According to regional observers, Mr. Sisi’s success is inevitable due to the nature of the opposition, which has either been forced into submission or is too divided to present a viable alternative. For example, Al Ahram’s El-Sayed Gamal El-Din comments on the latest developments surrounding the now-weakened Muslim Brotherhood: “Egypt's Giza Criminal Court has sentenced Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and two other defendants to life in prison, two defendants to five years in prison and acquitted 21 others in the ‘Rabaa operations room’ retrial....In April 2015, Badie, along with 13 other defendants, was sentenced to death while 37 others were sentenced to life in prison for setting up an ‘operation room’ at a protest camp supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi in Cairo's Rabaa Al-Adawiya area in the summer of 2013. According to Badie's lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud, the Brotherhood leader does not face any other death sentences as all have been successfully appealed. After Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, the now-banned Brotherhood — from which the ex-president hails — and other supporting Islamist groups held a sit-in in Rabaa Al-Adawiya to protest his deposal.”
In an article for Daily News Egypt, Emad El-Sayed examines the reasons why another of Egypt’s formerly influential political parties has become irrelevant and therefore unable to offer a competitive alternative: “The 3rd of April 2011 is a historical day for political life: the day the establishment of the Free Egyptians Party was announced—a party based on the principles of freedom and citizenship. Everyone working in politics considered the party as a new liberal alternative after the 25 January Revolution. During six years, life inside the party witnessed many turbulences that divided the party into two fronts with each claiming to be the official representation of it.... Both entities claim that they are the ones legally representing the party....What happened to the Free Egyptians Party is not new to Egyptian political life: we have seen many splits before the revolution of 25 January 2011 in several parties, such as the El-Ghad Party, the Al-Amal Party, and the Liberal Socialists Party. Accusations have always pointed to the ruling regime and its security services—part of its secret task of weakening … political life.”
Despite the division within the opposition, Taha Sakr, writing for Egypt Independent, suggests that Egypt’s ongoing internal and external problems are likely to bring out a number of challengers against the incumbent president: “Next year's elections were recently brought to the forefront after prominent political activist and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy called for all political factions to unite and choose a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections.... Prominent political figures and former candidates from all ends of the spectrum have indicated, some clearly and some subtly, their intentions to run for the upcoming elections. Sisi has clarified multiple times, most recently at the state-sponsored National Youth Conference, that he will only run if the Egyptian people want him as president again…. Sisi's popularity may be under threat due to several economic reforms and austerity measures he passed, including the flotation of the national currency which lead to unprecedented price hikes and a lower standard of living. This has opened the door for other ambitious politicians to possibly run in what may be their best chance of winning the presidency from Sisi under the currently unsatisfactory economic conditions.”