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Posted on Monday, 17 August 2015 13:00

Egypt: Back to the future

altSisi's anti-Islamist policies hark back to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser

A year after winning national elections with 96.9% of the vote, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was back in army fatigues to rally the troops on 4 July.

The immediate audience were General Sisi's former comrades who had fought running battles with Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula in which more than 100 people died on 1 July.

Two days earlier, Hisham Barakat, the government's chief prosecutor, was killed when a bomber targeted his convoy in Cairo.

"I have come to salute the heroes of the armed forces and express to them my recognition," said Sisi in a live broadcast on state television that reported he was somewhere in North Sinai reviewing the troops.

A group called Sinai Province, which claims affiliation to Islamic State, said it was behind the attack on Egyptian army posts in the peninsula.
The battles between these militants and Egyptian forces in Sinai show signs of becoming a fully-fledged Islamist insurgency.

For its 1 July operation, Sinai Province was able to mobilise 300 fighters, who attacked several border posts simultaneously.

The group released videos showing lengthy convoys, with fighters carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns and crates of ammunition.

On television, the uniformed Sisi consoled his troops and insisted that "things are totally stable". However, according to Michael Wahid Hanna of The Century Foundation in New York, the likeliest prospect for Egypt is several years of "sustainable instability".

Several Egyptian reporters, who now face some of the toughest media laws in the world, say the view on the streets is that the military is again the only game in town.

Other factors – all negative – that are helping the Sisi regime include fears that the state could break apart and the country could be sucked into the spreading turmoil in countries such as Libya, Iraq and Syria, and the lack of a credible or coherent political alternative aside from the fragmenting and outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which is still reckoned to have the support of at least a third of Egyptians.

That partly explains the political nostalgia. Like the billboards and archive footage in the run-up to last year's elections, the government's political messages today are redolent of the revolutionary nationalist regime of another military leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Sisi is trying to steer a very different ship in far rougher waters. That is why some critics warn Sisi that Nasser's strategy – top-down rule and crushing the opposition – could exacerbate instability.

Apart from security, the other track of Sisi's policy is economic diplomacy, which shows international attitudes in a far more pragmatic, if not outright cynical, light.

Cairo continues to woo Gulf states, which have pledged more than $10bn to Egypt's state finances. Their initial sympathy for Sisi was based on their common antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are now signs that their enthusiasm for an alliance with Egypt may be flagging. In mid-July, Saudi Arabia's King Salman endorsed discrete discussions with Hamas, a Brotherhood affiliate.

Also important for Cairo is getting China to invest in its oil and gas industry. Beijing's foreign ministry, not known for sympathy towards Islamists, described Morsi's death sentence as "a domestic affair" that should be "decided by the Egyptian people themselves".

Finally, Sisi and his securocrats feel confident that they have done enough to persuade Western countries, especially the US, Britain and France, that Egypt is one of the few credible bulwarks against Islamic State in the region.

That triggered the resumption of the US's $1.3bn a year of military aid for Egypt, another green light for Western arms company executives to board that plane for Cairo.



Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.

 

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