At home and abroad, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has capitalized on fears of the chaos that has engulfed surrounding countries, the New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick reports:
If not for his takeover last year, he said in a recent interview with Time magazine, Egypt would be “caught in a vicious cycle of extremism” and “the U.S. would have felt the need to destroy Egypt.”
A catchphrase has become popular here: “At least we are not Syria or Iraq.” It is earnestly encouraged by pro-government television commentators and half-jokingly repeated by average Egyptians to shrug off bad news.
“No one in recent Egyptian history has been so firmly in control,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo. “What we are witnessing now breaks all previous precedents, and I don’t think we have seen the end of it.”
Presenting himself as the bulwark against disorder, Mr. Sisi has surpassed even President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his ability to command the loyalty of the many fractious and quasi-independent institutions of the modern Egyptian state, Professor Fahmy said, including the military, the internal security forces, the intelligence agencies, the judiciary and the rest of the bureaucracy.
Washington’s new war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, has forced a reappraisal of its regional alliances that is working to the advantage of Mr Sisi and his anti-Islamist regime, the FT’s Heba Saleh reports .
“The new Egyptian regime has the advantage of being on the political scene when Isis has become far more prominent in American eyes than anything that analysts might find problematic anywhere else in the region,” said H.A Hellyer, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Criticisms of the Egyptian government continue, but they are far more muted than they would be otherwise.”
Civil society struggling
“Civil society in Egypt has been struggling for a long time with the laws governing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, over the last few years, this struggle has become iconic in a conflict with the government,” Amira Mikhail of Washington College of Law American University writes for Open Democracy:
Egypt is a nation where historically any political expression was limited to football chants and to charitable volunteer opportunities. It is a country where a revolution was fueled by people’s desire to become involved and see positive change. It is a society that survives off civil society, a vast network of organizations that fill the voids where the government is unable or unwilling to do its duty….
With over 80 million citizens and around 40,000 registered local NGOs, despite a history of highly restrictive NGO laws, Egypt is described as having “one of the largest and most vibrant civil society sectors in the developing world”. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (“ICNL”) explains that the Egyptian government never used an outright ban on civil society; it conveniently provided “enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”
But Mr. Sisi’s success at starting the rollback of fuel subsidies without a public backlash may be the most striking evidence of his standing, Kirkpatrick adds:
Egyptian rulers have acknowledged for decades that the subsidies were increasingly unsustainable, but always avoided the cuts for fear of unrest.
“That is the one that surprises me,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a former United States deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, noting that the desperate economic conditions of most Egyptians have only grown worse since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak.