Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi is under increasing pressure amid multiple crises coming from different directions
After a series of crises over the past few weeks, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s government has come under deep domestic and international criticism for repression and inadequacy.
As widespread flooding in Alexandria has brought pressure upon Sisi domestically, his government has drawn global condemnation for its repression of journalists, so soon after his visit to the UK.
At the same time, and only a few weeks after a group of eight Mexican tourists were killed in the Egyptian desert, a Russian plane crashed in Sharm el-Sheikh killing all 224 passengers on board. The incident, suspected to be the result of a terrorist act, has raised questions about Egypt’s ability to maintain domestic security and provide the West a dependable regional partner.
This series of calamities has led to speculation among observers about whether President Sisi’s time in power may be slowly coming to an end.
Political analysts and observers have commented on the increasing instability in the country, saying that the crises highlight the government’s inability to deal with a wave of issues.
“Egypt, which was already unstable, is growing more unstable by the day,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "This isn't surprising."
“It's one crisis after another and the Sisi regime has only one response: maximise state power, deny responsibility, and force the media to stay quiet.”
After the recent plane disaster in Sinai, thousands of tourists continue to be stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh amid a wave of embarrassing reports of inadequate security measures, including tourists who say they were offered to pay bribes to avoid security checks and hotel staff using fake explosive detectors on luggage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered all Russian flights to Egyptian airports to be cancelled, following the suspension of routine British flights between the UK and Sharm el-Sheikh.
The decision to suspend UK flights came just hours ahead of a scheduled meeting between Sisi and British premier David Cameron and was reportedly announced as Sisi was thought to be en route to London.
Senior Egyptian diplomats reacted with frustration at the decision, with one official telling the BBC that, as a result of the cancellations, the Egyptian delegation would likely be less receptive to issues which the British brought up in the talks.
Meanwhile, investigations have revealed that an explosion was heard in the flight recorder of the Russian Airbus, leading observers to believe that the plane crash was a terrorist act caused by a bomb being smuggled aboard, rather than because of structural failure.
The US, UK, and other European governments have condemned Egypt's poor security measures in the face of an increasing terrorist threat, although the Cairo has maintained that no theory can yet be provided about the plane crash and claim that security is under control.
But analysts believe the incidents have created a dramatic shift in foreign governments' perception of Sisi.
“There is greater awareness that the Egyptian government is inadequate and cannot be seen as a partner, not even when it comes to maintaining stability,” said Nagwan al-Ashwal, an Egyptian political analyst and PhD researcher at the European University Institute.
“The US and Europe had prioritised stability over democracy, putting their hands into Sisi's and thinking he would be able to maintain that,” said Ashwal.
“But when they saw the Mexican tourists killed and the Russian plane crashed while Egypt remained incapable of properly investigating what happened, these governments began losing faith in Sisi’s regime.”
Investigation of the incident has been primarily carried out by American and European teams, while Egypt has remained mainly silent on the matter.
This has also led many Egyptians to become outraged by the incident at what they perceive as their government's inadequacy in the face of foreign intervention.
"Foreign governments have used this as a pretext to get involved in Egypt; they now control some of our airports and have sent personnel into the Sinai,” Haitham Ibrahim, a 44-year-old engineer from Cairo, told Middle East Eye.
“With the absence of a strong Egyptian leadership, their plans [to infiltrate Egypt] will succeed,” he added.
Civil and press freedoms
Apart from the Russian plane crash and tourism crisis, Egypt has faced a wave of international condemnations over a series of attacks on press freedoms, specifically with the detention of several journalists and human rights activists in recent days.
Most prominent among the group is the recently released Hossam Bahgat, an investigative journalist and founder of human rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was released after three days of questioning and charged with distributing false information by a military prosecutor.
Bahgat published a statement on Tuesday stating that an investigative piece he had written about the sentencing of 26 military officers for allegedly plotting a coup was the reason behind his detention.
Although Bahgat is now free, several journalists and civil society activists - including the owner of al-Masry al-Youm, Salah Diab, Hesham Gaafar, the chairman of Mada Foundation NGO, Azza al-Henawy and Hossam el-Din el-Sayed (both members of journalists syndicate) - remain in detention.
“When it comes to academic freedoms and the freedom of expression, Egypt today is much worse than during Mubarak’s time. The government is demonstrating that it is not ready to hear any criticism and is closing down every public and civil space available for that,” Ashwal told MEE.
Their arrests came only days after Sisi’s visit to London, where activists condemned British Prime Minister David Cameron for his invitation to Sisi over what they described as a contradiction to human rights.
The protestors highlighted the mass killing of at least 1,000 demonstrators in Rabaa Square in August 2013, the detention of more than 40,000 people since 2013, as well as a list of ongoing human rights violations in the country.
While Amnesty International described Bahgat’s arrest as part of a “ferocious onslaught against independent journalism and civil society” in Egypt, the move also angered many Egyptian journalists.
“Sisi seems to be contradicting himself. He just came from England where he had promised to provide unprecedented freedoms of expression in Egypt,” said George Moneib, an Egyptian photojournalist. "None of that has happened."
On a more domestic level, the flooding of Alexandria and nearby cities killing at least seven people over the past weeks has provoked widespread outrage across the country.
Among the seven killed were two children under the age of five who were caught under a ceiling when their building collapsed, according to initial police investigations reported by state-run news agency MENA.
While deaths caused by flooding is an annual event across the Delta cities, this year's situation has been incomparable to past years.
"[The flooding] showed the extent the country has deteriorated; a small amount of rain showed how incompetent the government is dealing with a crisis,” said Ahmed Gaber, a 21-year-old student from Alexandria.
“Social media only covered what was happening here [Alexandria] but the disaster was felt across several governorates,” he said. “People lost their lives, their businesses and their houses, while the government just stood by," Gaber told MEE.
In a video widely circulated over social media, the lifeless body of teenage boy was seen being fished out of the water by neighbours. The unnamed boy was electrocuted when the floods hit an electric pole near his home.
In another video, a woman was captured addressing Sisi’s government: “If you can’t stop the floods from ruining our shops and our only sources of income, you should take the responsibility of raising our kids.”
“We voted for you and now we are all in black [a sign of mourning]," she said.
“Look at the New Suez Canal you just built, we are swimming in it right here,” the woman added sarcastically.
Sisi inaugurated in August a new lane of the New Suez Canal, a $9bn publicly-funded expansion of the historic waterway designed to increase shipping capacity and thereby revenues. The project has been widely criticised by experts who do not envisage the expansion as reaping much benefit for Egypt.
The Egyptian government reacted to the floods by arresting 17 members of the Muslim Brotherhood accusing them of "flooding Alexandria" by planting explosives to block the drainage system.
“The government is in crisis and is trying to throw the blame on anyone in order to run away from being held accountable,” commented Ashwal on the reports.
Analysts have instead blamed the crisis on a deteriorating infrastructure caused by years of corruption and those in government not being held accountable.
In a video posted online, a working-class man in one of Cairo’s poor neighbourhoods is seen complaining of the chronic corruption in Egyptian bureaucracy.
“I couldn't retrieve my teenage son’s dead body to bury him without giving 3,000 LE ($383) in bribes to the hospital and government staff,” said the man. “What has this country come to.”
While similar condemnations have regularly been expressed over the past two years among families of political detainees, the recent crises reflect a growing anger and intolerance among non-politicised Egyptians to Sisi’s government.
Sisi's final days?
In a recent report, Israeli officials expressed they were concerned that the government of Sisi could be under threat of collapse.
A former US lawmaker told Bloomberg News that Israeli government officials doubted the ability of Sisi to defeat the growth of Islamic State-linked militants in the Sinai Peninsula and head off destabilising threats to his government.
Analysts have cited the increasing oppression in Egypt as a leading factor threatening the collapse of the government.
“The regime has moved towards increased suppression, thinking it will secure itself. But in reality it is hastening its own downfall. It has reached a peak and is starting to decompose,” said Ashwal.
Observers have said that with the government becoming ever more unstable, Sisi’s hold on power is also becoming uncertain.
“Sisi’s bad reputation and inadequacy will encourage change. This change may come from the people or from within the military itself in order for it to maintain its image and standing,” Ashwal explained.
“The military might decide at some point to compromise one man for the sake of its overall interests. This happened with Mubarak, Tantawi and Anan and could happen with Sisi as well,” she told MEE.
While similar speculations have circulated in the media for several months, some observers still believe it is too early to say that the recent crises mark Sisi’s final days in power.
“Sisi has one thing going for him, and that's the willingness to use unprecedented levels of force to impose his will on a country which lacks a unified, coherent opposition," Brookings' Hamid said.
And while Hamid thinks violence does work, he says: “It won't work forever. It's a matter of when, not if.”