Clinical Associate Professor in Liberal Studies
New York University
Senior Visiting Fellow and Scientific Advisor
Italian Institute of International Affairs
Sarah Leah Whitson
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Arab Center Washington DC
About the Webinar
On June 23, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a webinar tilted “Egypt’s Uncertain Future: Political, Economic, and Human Rights Challenges.” Panelists were Mona El-Ghobashy, Clinical Associate Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University; Robert Springborg, Senior Visiting Fellow and Scientific Advisor, Italian Institute of International Affairs, and Adjunct Professor, Simon Fraser University: and Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. Khalil al-Anani, ACW Senior Fellow, moderated the event.
Mona El-Ghobashy addressed the current political impasse in Egypt by putting it in the context of the type of authoritarianism the regime of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi represents. Sisi’s regime, El-Ghobashy stated, is not the “garden-variety authoritarian regime” that the world has grown accustomed to, but is instead essentially a counterrevolutionary alliance with distinct features that makes it different from the era of former President Hosni Mubarak. This regime, she said, has three specific characteristics. First, it stands alongside and cooperates with similar regimes to act against bottom-up popular mobilization movements for social change, such as the Arab uprisings of late 2010 to early 2011. Second, the Egyptian counterrevolutionary regime begins, but does not end, with repression and the demobilization of society, which it uses to distance people from politics in order to provide an additional buffer against social movements. Third, it invests heavily in ideological framing and works to change Egyptians’ conception of the proper basis of political authority.
El-Ghobashy argued that an important tool for analyzing the Egyptian regime is to look at the “extraordinary amount” of cash it receives from the international community. In the period following the 2013 coup (2013-2016), the regime received $30 billion from the GCC, while from 2016-2021 it received $20 billion in different tranches from the IMF. And in 2022 Egypt has been promised another $22 billion from GCC countries, all while receiving annual assistance from the United States. El-Ghobashy detailed the regime’s repression and demobilization efforts, enumerating its tactics of preemptive policing, which include mass arrests, administrative detentions, trials in state security courts, and extrajudicial killings. She also explained that Egypt’s presidential elections have become meaningless facades, no more than plebiscites intended to “show popular adulation.” Meanwhile, Egypt’s parliament contains no opposition whatsoever, due to the fact that, according to El-Ghobashy, “legislative elections have been shut down entirely as an arena of struggle…The Sisi regime in both 2015 and also recently in 2020 has completely managed the parliamentary arena to the point that now in the 2020 parliament there is zero dissent.” She also spoke of the new administrative capital the regime is currently building outside of Cairo as an example of a military-managed project designed to keep the masses from influencing decision-making. Ideologically, the regime has created a new halo around what it calls “state prestige,” has redefined what is considered “moderate or tolerant Islam,” and has greatly expanded the military’s mission to the point where it has become “the be-all and end-all within the state and over society.”
Robert Springborg focused his comments on Egypt’s economy, emphasizing both its indebtedness and the military’s control over economic activities. He said that in a May 26 report, credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Egypt’s credit rating yet again, which will certainly affect foreign investment in the country’s economy. Springborg described Egypt as a “rentier state without rents” that wants to be like the oil-rich GCC states, but cannot because it does not possess the necessary assets or resources, such as hydrocarbons or import substitution industries. And in fact, he said, the Gulf states do not treat Egypt as anything close to an equal, but are “extracting the eye teeth of the Egyptian state economy,” demonstrated by the fact that shares in Egypt’s roughly 600 state-owned firms have been acquired by UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed “as a condition for his extension of funds to Egypt.” Springborg said that the Egyptian government under Sisi has resorted to extracting revenues from the Egyptian population, largely through consumption taxes, which are “very inegalitarian in their nature.” But even that approach, Springborg argued, is not enough to provide the government the funds it needs to launch an economic development plan. This situation forces Egypt to continue to seek foreign funding, whether from the GCC or the IMF, thus increasing its indebtedness. And although Springborg cautioned that economic statistics on Egypt are always suspect due to a long history of cooking the books, Egypt’s indebtedness is now approximately 100 percent of GDP, which closely parallels earlier stages of Lebanon’s economic collapse, and therefore portends a difficult path ahead.
A major burden on Egypt’s economy, Springborg stated, is the military. Not only are massive weapons purchases dragging down the economy, but the market dominance of military-owned companies and the cabals of military officers feeding off the state represent additional harmful factors. Springborg said that the military has taken over the management of the country’s budget and economy, excluding capable civilian economists from the process. He stated, “I don’t think any of us could name an economist now who is playing a key role in economic planning and decision-making.” Furthermore, Egypt’s economy is not well integrated, Springborg argued, citing as examples the country’s automotive and pharmaceutical industries, which utilize inputs that are nearly all imported, rather than being provided by local feeder industries. And although the IMF has conditioned further lending on the military’s relinquishing its control over the economy, Springborg said that Sisi is merely pretending to comply with these conditions in order to receive more loans. Meanwhile, on the political front, he stated that Sisi is launching a national dialogue to try to take some of the pressure off the system, but that the effort will be circumscribed by state repression. Springborg said that he does not see a way out for the regime, adding that, “It is going to be very hard…for this counterrevolutionary regime to come to terms with the challenges it is facing.”
Sarah Leah Whitson noted that despite Egypt’s ongoing domestic and economic crises, as well as criticism due to its constant human rights abuses, recent global and regional developments have led to a “political windfall” for the Sisi regime. This comes, she said, after a rocky patch in US-Egypt relations. While Egypt’s treaty with Israel has long ensured the steady flow of military aid from the United States, the Biden Administration promised early on to “recalibrate” its relationships with autocratic regimes in the region, and Congress moved to block a portion of aid to Egypt. What saved the Sisi regime, Whitson posited, was the 2020 war in Gaza, in which Egypt played a supposedly essential role in organizing a ceasefire and mediating negotiations, actions that for the Biden Administration justified a reconsideration of its hardline approach. “It was on the heels of this manufactured diplomatic effort of Egypt,” Whitson argued, “that the Biden administration waived the block on $170 million of the $300 million in military aid that Congress had conditioned.”
According to Whitson, Egypt has also benefited from its relationship with Israel through the emerging “authoritarian axis” that was facilitated by the Abraham Accords. The agreement, she said, effectively brought its signatories, which include Saudi Arabia and the UAE, into a coalition with the existing Egypt-Israel partnership. Egypt’s membership in this group means that other signatories are likely to lobby for weapons transfers to Egypt, even though the country is already the world’s third largest purchaser of weapons, and as a result wields significant influence with suppliers, including the United States, France, Italy, and Russia. Whitson went on to describe the concessions that Egypt has extracted as a result of these deepening regional and international ties, such as gaining permission to increase its military presence in Sinai well beyond the limits allowed by its treaty with Israel. She also stated that Egypt’s political leverage has grown considerably in the wake of the war in Ukraine, which has led the EU to seek out gas sales from Egypt and Israel, and has caused the US to facilitate military aid to Egypt and other regional governments as it pursues support against Russia. Meanwhile, increased profits from rising oil prices due to the war have encouraged the Gulf states to promise even more financial aid to Egypt. Whitson argued that these considerable political gains may suffice to shield the Sisi regime from being held accountable for its human rights violations, and to help it compensate for its economic failures. As Whitson put it, “The authoritarians of the Middle East, including Egypt, are the biggest winners of the blunders of the authoritarian in Europe.”