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January 9, 2016

Will 2016 be a good year for Egypt?

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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(Cairo) Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi has achieved an impressive record over the past 18 months. Can his government maintain its ambitious pace in 2016?

Despite Sisi’s dynamic leadership, Egypt continues to face very real and significant challenges, including fighting home-grown and imported terrorism; tackling short- and long-term economic development; addressing the social justice, education and health care needs of 90 million people; and continuing to build or rebuild the country’s democratic institutions.

Additionally, the Sisi government still faces internal and external pressures that have slowed progress on an ambitious agenda of consolidation and reform.

Yet Egypt’s recent successes have not gone unnoticed.

National and international observers alike have recognized the new president’s multi-fold approach to 21st-century governance. And in this context, it’s important to remember that Sisi was not after Egypt’s top post; he’s said so more than once and there is no reason to disbelieve him.

To set things in context one needs to rewind nearly five years, back to January 25, 2011 when the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak marked a turning-point in modern Egyptian history.

At that time, Sisi was a well-respected and high-achieving career military officer, heading the army intelligence branch. A practicing Muslim, but no fanatic, Sisi publicly and privately reflected the pragmatic and moderate values of a middle-class Cairo family with countryside roots.

He was among many educated and loyal Egyptians who, along with millions of compatriots, watched in horror as the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country and within a year attempted to turn it into a theocratic state.

In the process, the MB alienated and antagonized vast sectors of society, including the majority moderate Muslims, Christians, army and security forces, judges and lawyers, business professionals, writers and academics, the media, women and youth. Egypt was quickly sliding toward a potentially catastrophic civil war, a fate played in several neighbouring failed states, such as Syria.

At that precarious moment, Sisi and his supporters stepped in and saved their nation from the kind of civil tragedy that has decimated not only Syria, but also Iraq, Libya and Yemen, causing numerous civilian deaths and resulting in today’s tsunami of refugees seeking safety in Europe and North America.

Since then he has modelled for Egypt and the world a good example of practical and selfless leadership. One of his first acts was to donate half his salary, as well as half of his family inheritance, to charity.

He also launched a serious war on internal terrorism and corruption that is now bearing positive results.

For the first time in nearly five years Egyptians can feel more secure. An example of Sisi’s zero tolerance toward official wrong-doing is that for the first time in Egypt’s history a serving government minster (that of Agriculture) was arrested and charged with corruption while still on the job.

Not only is corruption exposed, but incompetence as well. Sisi has repeatedly made it clear that mediocre performance from high-ranking officials and bureaucrats is unacceptable, period. In fact, he fired many of them within six months of their appointments.

Infrastructure rebuilding has always been high on Sisi’s priority list.

When he took office, Egypt had long been plagued by chronic electricity shortages, which severely impacted the manufacturing sector. He attacked the immediate problem by building new generators at an unprecedented pace, while planning for longer-term energy sustainability through investment in green energy alternatives. Over the next decade, Egypt’s goal is to generate at least 20% of its energy needs from solar and wind power installations – a very ambitious target by international standards.

According to Minister of Energy Dr. Mohamed Shaker, whom I am proud to call a colleague, new investment in nuclear energy has also gone ahead at Al-Dab’a, west of Alexandria, to cover the country’s mid-range energy needs.

From ancient times, Egyptian society cultivated only a narrow fertile strip along either side of the Nile River. The rest of the land is essentially non-arable desert.

However, Sisi has drawn on state of the art agricultural technology to promote desert reclamation in the western Nile Valley, a project that could potentially increase Egypt’s cultivated land area by 20%. The plan will establish integrated farms owned and operated by young farming families. Government-supplied infrastructure will include water-supply, electricity, roads, schools, hospitals, and other basic essentials.

In the matter of defense and security, Egypt under Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood was totally dependent on American equipment to supply its forces. Sisi signed new armament deals with France, Germany and Russia to diversify the country’s military sources and reduce its US dependency.

Foreign relations had also suffered under the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi and his government moved quickly to rectify broken and damaged ties with the international community and Egypt now has good-to-excellent relationships with most nations, as well as a respected United Nations role.

Social justice initiatives required a multi-levelled approach to what had become a complex web of neglected problems. Sisi again moved decisively to enforce minimum and maximum wage limits.

To reduce chronic unemployment and under-employment, his government established low-profit food co-ops run by youth to provide improved nutrition at affordable cost to consumers in poorer areas. The initiative was so successful that big chain grocery stores were forced to lower their prices to stay competitive.

Turning to the democracy file, a new constitution was brought into effect and was clearly reflected in the makeup of Egypt’s first parliament under Sisi’s leadership; it has a significant representation of youth, women, Christians and the handicapped. 

On the international front, the building of a new Suez Canal parallel to the old one (and in record time) has proved an economic game-changer, doubling maritime traffic between the Red and Mediterranean seas. Additionally, a new Suez Canal Industrial Zone for building and serving international ships has been established under the direction of my colleague Dr. Ahmed Darwish, another of Sisi’s competent choices.

The sprawling megacity of Cairo has also seen a rejuvenation under the Sisi government. Its once-congested downtown has been cleared of street venders who now have their own designated market areas. Many old buildings have been restored, and a new public transit system now serves the 20 million inhabitants. All this and more is being accomplished under the leadership Cairo’s Governor Dr. Galal Elsaid, another esteemed colleague of mine and a PhD graduate of my university, the University of Waterloo.

This new year of 2016 will bring continuing challenges to Egypt, not the least of which is how Ethiopia’s new dam-building project will impact the historic and much-needed flow of Nile water.

Terrorism also remains a real threat, still fuelled externally by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, a situation further destabilized by ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The current cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia poses an additional threat.

Adding to all of this, the country’s population is exploding by roughly 2 million annually and every single Egyptian, present and future, needs health care, education, housing, security and employment.

Egypt, wishing you the best in 2016.

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