Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:
In recent weeks, Egypt’s government under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has revealed a modernized, economically driven vision for the country’s future. A concerted efforts to propel economic growth has gripped the nation’s headlines. Even as citizens across the country grapple with government plans to construct a new national capital, their leaders are working to attract investment from international business giants and economic powerhouses. To this end, they have already encountered early success: corporations and governments have pledged hundreds of billions of dollars to support Egyptian economic growth over the next several years, and Egyptian officials hope to entice even more funding in the form of additional investments in the near future. At first glance, it would seem that Egypt’s government is making serious strides to move the country forward, by improving the economy while leaving behind the social turmoil fermented by revolutions and widespread frustrations over nationwide living standards. Yet optimism over Egypt’s future may require substantial pause and restraint. Underneath these designs to refurbish its image, Egypt remains beset by structural shortcomings and institutional dilemmas. The status of its political freedoms, its adherence to human rights concerns, and underlying bureaucratic and economic dysfunction not only persist–they may prove to be immense barriers to true social progress for Egypt’s population. Unless steps to resolve these problems over time are adopted, the country’s efforts to make societal progress through modernization may ultimately flounder.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his cabinet have made it decisively clear that their top policy priorities lie in pulling the country out of economic stagnation. Throughout March, they have poured their energies into extolling a heady outline for the country’s advancement onto the global economic stage. The first step comprised the unveiling of plans for a new, modern capital city earlier this month. Although speculation began last year that a new major city might be in the works, the project was confirmed only late last month. The project is expected to unravel over the course of twelve years and will require developing approximately 70,000 acres to the east of New Cairo, the current national capital. Once it is completed, the new city will host Egypt’s national government buildings and embassies . Yet the new city will serve as more than the country’s political center: it is also expected to become a major hub of commercial and social activity. According to recently-disclosed plans, the city will include 21 residential districts, a 5.6 square-kilometer business district, and 91 square kilometers dedicated to energy production . Furthermore, Salman claimed, the city will be built without public finances–it will instead by private land development and construction firms, an attempt to signal Egypt’s deep commitment to a free-market system moving forward .
Yet an energetic and modern capital represents only one component of al-Sisi’s broader national development goals. At the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, economic officials worked diligently to portray their country as a promising target for public and private investors alike at Egypt’s Economic Development Conference. The summit, the first of its kind, hosted over 2,000 diplomats and public officials, businessmen, and other prominent figures from 122 countries, its hosts hoping to persuade their guests of Egypt’s potential for dynamism. Included among said guests were US Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah II, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Desalegn, and Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir . So far, the campaign has already enjoyed significant dividends: on March 14, it was reported that foreign officials and business leaders had pledged $45 billion in future investments , followed by $158 billion in international energy investments pledged the next day .
Altogether, these events cast a bright light on to Egypt’s future as a land of opportunity amid the deep discord of the Middle East. One can hardly be blamed for feeling optimistic about the country’s future amidst such grand designs. Yet Egypt’s future elicits full confidence from outside observers, one must contend with some stark realities of life under the current government in Cairo. Even as the government endeavors to dazzle its citizens and the world with grand visions for the country’s makeover, it continues to harbor numerous points of contention with its own people. Political rights remain a major sore-spot for al-Sisi’s government, as the vision for democratic governance that led protest movements to demand the removal of first Hosni Mubarak and then Mohamed Morsi has yet to be truly realized. Since al-Sisi’s seizure of power from Morsi in July 2013, arbitrary and politically motivated arrests have surged: although an Interior Ministry official placed the number at 22,000 by July 2014, independent monitors projected the number to be closer to 41,000 around that time. Human rights activists suspect the police of engaging or facilitating a number of abuses towards jailed individuals, including overcrowding cells, providing insufficient food or health care, and in some cases even torture. Under al-Sisi, the government has also suppressed public political dissent: a law enacted in November 2013 effectively banned public political demonstrations. When, a few days after the law’s enactment, activists staged a protest against military trials for arrested citizens, they were met with excessive police force including high-pressure water cannons and batons.
Independent media and central human rights have also found themselves at peril in Egypt’s current political environment, as attempts at government transparency and urging for liberal reforms have met harsh blowback. Human rights activists such as 28-year-old native Yara Sallam and lawyers Ahmed Heshmat, Mohamed Abdelaziz, and Osama al-Mahdy have been arbitrarily arrested for supposedly violating the anti-demonstration decrees and issued prolonged prison sentences . Journalism has also been subject to repressive tactics, as the case of Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed illustrate. Accused of working subversively with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false information following Morsi’s removal from office, the three men were arrested in June 2014 and each sentenced to seven years in prison. Greste was released thanks in large part to international outcry and pressure for fair retrials; his two colleagues have each been granted retrials . Still, the incident underscores the grim circumstances facing any attempts of fostering free political speech and press in the face of authoritarian practices.
Political freedom is hardly Egypt’s only present sore-spot. For all of its promotion of foreign investment and economic modernization, al-Sisi’s government has been negligent in terms of invoking socioeconomic equity and opportunity. Officials have failed to even minimally improve longstanding insufficiencies in health-care, housing, employment, and social security. Similarly, they have failed to substantially tackle both bureaucratic and business corruption and unaccountability. In fact, the government seems to be willfully miring itself in even deeper corruption: laws enacted within the past year have further enabled officials to indulge in irresponsible self-enriching behavior, particularly in regards to state contracts, investment, and bankruptcy procedures. Meanwhile, Egypt’s youth, lower class, and women receive scant attention vis-a-vis government resources. Youth unemployment stands at approximately thirty percent, yet Egyptian foreign direct investment (FDI) policies prioritize fossil fuel energy over manufacturing, agriculture, or services–the fields in which investment could best boost youth employment . Women, meanwhile, continue to suffer under a legal system that hardly even protects them from domestic violence and sexual assault, much less fairly represents their labor interests .
Altogether, these political and social inequities may ultimately undermine any endeavors to improve Egypt’s economic situation. Influxes of foreign money, expanded markets, and commercial activity alone won’t raise national living standards. Genuine and long-lasting prosperity will require that Egypt’s sociopolitical sphere fosters an autonomous civil society rather than discourage it. This in turn will require that Egyptian officials institute reforms that truly serve and protect ordinary citizens. This must include enshrining and protecting individual political freedoms, particularly those related to speech, press, and police conduct. Women must be guaranteed equal treatment and protection under the law—in the public sphere, in representation, and in economic concerns. Reforms must also be undertaken to counter bureaucratic corruption and allow for greater government transparency. Finally, the country’s obligation towards its most underprivileged citizens must be redressed: even as it continues to put resources into energy and land development, Egyptian leaders must revitalize the national social safety net and care for impoverished Egyptians’ basic needs. Without these crucial fundamental steps, the populace as a whole will continue to find itself unable to reap the benefits of economic developments.
It has been nearly four years since protesters first unified against Hosni Mubarak and demanded better government and society in Egypt. Yet after multiple demonstrations and two regime upheavals, true equity and freedom have proven as difficult to attain as ever. Al-Sisi’s present regime has endeavored to chart a new course–or at least create the image of such–for the country’s future through ambitious strategies for its makeover. The envisioned new capital and the campaign to entice global development funds may offer some short-term hope. Yet unless al-Sisi and his government are willing to confront the underlying shortcomings in Egyptian politics and society–many of which stem from their own actions–such hope will prove shallow and unsustainable. How the regime intends to address persistent injustices and societal ills will determine whether Egypt is pointed towards prosperity or will remain mired in its present circumstances.