The real challenge for Egypt’s new President-Elect Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi wasn’t the ‘getting elected’ part. The former Field Marshal had that in the bag from the start, having gained widespread support from across Egyptian society as a result of his integral role in last year’s popular military coup. The job that al-Sisi has ahead, however, is a true Rubicon and will determine both the future of his burgeoning political career and the future of Egypt. Resurrecting the near-paralysed Egyptian economy, restoring domestic security and re-establishing a stable political system in a country so used to protesting in the streets, are the three key battles that the former Field Marshal must fight; a hard job for anyone, even moreso for someone with no political experience. Al-Sisi must very quickly achieve visible results in all of these fields, lest he experience the wrath of a populace that is now seasoned in the art of revolution, and low in tolerance for tyrannical and incompetent rulers alike.
The most difficult task for the new President is that of facing his country’s economic woes. The Egyptian economy is, to say the least, in a dreadful condition. Unemployment is at approximately 13% and a quarter of the population lives on less than $1.50 a day. The key tourism industry, which accounts for more than 11% of Egypt’s economy and one in eight jobs, has seen revenues halved. Inflation is over 8% and the deficit is also in chronic condition, sitting at 12% of the country’s GDP. An atmosphere of anarchy in the streets continues to keep investors uninterested in Egypt. As it stands, the country is precariously avoiding default only by virtue of financial aid from al-Sisi’s Gulf allies. During his campaign, al-Sisi has been silent about the specific details of any economic plans, but it is clear that he must lower the deficit somehow and increase budget priority on healthcare and education. One of the ways this could be achieved is through scaling back the costly government subsidies on consumer goods, which form over a third of the national budget. To compare, $22 billion is spent on subsidising oil, whereas the health and education budgets combined total to $9.8 billion. Cutting subsidies would invariably be an unpopular measure, and it is a step that al-Sisi has publicly expressed reluctance to take, but it would be appreciated by investors, create an opportunity to invest in educating the future workforce, and alleviate part of Egypt’s deficit.
Another economic measure that could be taken is to involve the government with the ‘informal’ economy, a vast web of enterprises that do not pay taxes and are not licensed by the government, estimated in 2011 to be worth over $250 billion. This is a root cause of tax evasion and monopolisation in the country, yet no concrete plan has ever evolved to tackle the problems. If al-Sisi could tap into this market and regulate it, it would be of tremendous long-term benefit to the country.
The next key element in attracting investment and in restoring stability comes from the political angle. Since the 2011 Revolution, the rule of law has been seemingly absent from Egyptian streets. Protests are constant and political passion runs high, painting a picture of widespread unrest to the wider world. Yet the way in which this situation could best be solved is through channeling the passion and demands of protestors into political engagement; that is, in allowing and encouraging the development of real and viable opposition factions and in protecting the political rights of citizens, namely the rights of free speech and assembly. Repression is no longer a viable means of ruling Egypt; it is a state of affairs that Egyptians will no longer bear, and given the current political and social climate there is a significant chance that such a policy could lead to another, bloodier revolution. Egyptians hope for al-Sisi being a strongman in the sense that he is able to make hard decisions, not for him to pioneer the restoration of an autocratic military regime. Following the recent election, there stands a real opportunity for the President to create an organised framework for the evolution of Egyptian politics, so that the unrest of the streets can develop into a long term source of stability.
Finally, the security situation is a critical area that the new President must deal with immediately. The potential for terror is high, given al-Sisi’s all-out war with the million-member strong Muslim Brotherhood. This comes with a deteriorating situation in neighbouring Libya, in turn leading to more weapons flowing to Egypt’s Sinai militancy. On this front, however, al-Sisi maintains his strongest position his military background. The Sinai militancy was recently dealt numerous blows, with its leader being killed in May and with most of its weapons caches having been destroyed by the interim government’s military operations.
Al-Sisi’s security position is further strengthened by the widespread unpopularity of the Muslim Brotherhood after both the 2013 July Revolution against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the conviction of many Brotherhood members, and numerous terror attacks for which the Brotherhood has been accused of perpetrating. The organisation, therefore, stands no chance of carrying out a popular revolution, especially given al-Sisi’s path of brutal repression which has seen hundreds of members set to receive the death penalty. There is no chance of reconciliation with the group, given its refusal to recognise the government or engage in dialogue, and al-Sisi’s expressed determination to ‘finish’ them. It will be a difficult task given the organisation’s size and funding, but the steps taken so far have caused it considerable damage. The group’s eradication seems to be the only possible step for al-Sisi to take, and measures taken towards this would receive great public acclaim.
Al-Sisi has won a four year mandate. Yet in such a tense political climate, he must proactively engage in the economic, political and security arenas of his country as soon as he is sworn in. Egypt’s economic success is deeply affected by its security and political situation and inversely, a weak economy and poverty ferments both civil unrest and extremism. In the time before Egypt’s parliament is elected, al-Sisi has room to act comfortably. If he uses that time to a positive ends, in order to make the most painful political and economic reforms, he could continue to be a popular figure in his country in the long term. But should he be an ineffective leader, or choose a path of repression over reform, the former Field Marshal will unfailingly fall victim to the very mechanism of revolution that put him in power.