Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1227, (1-7 January 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1227, (1-7 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Looking 2015 in the eye

What opportunities and challenges face Egypt in the new year? Dina Ezzat seeks answers

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Al-Ahram Weekly

An intensive schedule specifically designed to reposition Egypt as a key regional player and to give a substantial and sustainable boost to its ailing economy are the top priorities, as designated by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his top aides, informed official sources say.

“The president is convinced that Egypt needs two years of hard work, essentially on the economy. He is also convinced that for the economy to pick up, Egypt would have to reassume a position of leading regional influence — something he is targeting as a key objective through his presidency anyway,” said a presidential source.

With the advent of 2015, Al-Sisi, according to statements made at the close of 2014 by Egypt’s foreign minister, will be making a series of visits with the dual objective of expanding the scope of regional consultations and of prompting foreign investment.

Cairo-based Western diplomats argue that Egypt is well positioned to rework its regional posture in order to be able to resolve crucial conflicts, like the one with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam, and to promote regional conflict resolution. “It might be a while longer before we can seriously talk about full regional influence, but this year could certainly see a higher profile of Egyptian foreign policy,” said one Cairo-based European diplomat.

In the assessment of Egyptian as well as Western and other foreign diplomats, the role of Egypt should be crucial in streamlining international and regional efforts to confront radical Islamic movements, given Egypt’s incremental “expertise” in “handling” radical Islamists.

“Egypt was always a partner; it was a partner in the war with Al-Qaeda; it has been a partner in facing radical groups in Palestine, and now in Libya and Syria,” said a visiting European official.

He added that today, Egypt is “offering” itself as a partner in the war against ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

Western diplomats acknowledge that concern in the West over the expansion of radical Islamic groups has been behind a change of attitude in several key world capitals towards the ruling regime in Cairo.

Some capitals, especially in southern Europe where the fear is high of potential waves of immigration, have moved swiftly to shore up and support the stability of Cairo.

Diplomats of these countries say that no matter the original position of their capitals over the political changes witnessed in Egypt in the summer of 2013, and that culminated with the ascent of Al-Sisi to head of state in summer 2014, “The reality is a stable Egypt is in the interest of a stable [southern Mediterranean and Middle East].”

The same diplomats say that enhancing Egypt’s economy is an immediate prerequisite of stabilising the country. And while they promise no generous aide, they are asserting a commitment to promote as many investment opportunities as possible.

The economic conference Egypt is hoping to host in the first quarter of the new year is, according to the same diplomats, an opportunity for Egypt to present to the world as many lucrative projects as possible. “You might not be getting exactly what you are hoping for, but if you have good projects to show, and if you have the right laws, then you could get something to start with,” said another visiting European official.

Originally, the government was planning to target $60 billion in investment to provide a required $2 billion monthly, in order to cover the budget deficit and to stimulate job opportunities. This seems too ambitious for now, government officials say.

They add that the immediate objective of the March conference is to provide the required $12 billion that should keep things going for the first year, and then to take it from there.

“In a sense you could say that we are reducing our expectations, but you could also argue that we are spacing our expectations. If we have a good first year then we could take it from there, especially as we hope that the [extended] Suez Canal would have gone a long way to allow for the next phases of mega development projects to get started,” said one government official.

The March conference, by the account of all sources, Egyptian as foreign, is an opportunity. However, it is also a challenge, sources told Al-Ahram Weekly.

In the assessment of Western and business sources alike, the government is not moving in a clear direction, in drafting projects, and if they keep to the same pace it might reduce the potential gains of the conference.

“The president is not happy with the pace of preparations and he made it clear to the government that things need to be handled in a more efficient way,” said the same government source.

Meanwhile, to enhance the chances of the March conference to yield significant results, Western sources say, Egypt would need to move faster towards the execution of overdue parliamentary elections. Some key world capitals made their participation in the conference conditional on the initiation of parliamentary elections, “in keeping with the roadmap that Egyptian authorities have committed to after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi”.

As the Weekly went to press, word was that parliamentary elections would be held in two rounds, the first to take place early March, before the conference, and the second to take place in April.

Some sources suggested that there might be a three-round scenario due to the increase in the number of electoral districts. This, they argued, would take in May, too, before the results are announced, to allow for parliament to convene before the end of the first year of Al-Sisi’s presidency.

Again, most political sources that are involved in drawing up lists of parliamentary candidates are talking of the elections as an opportunity and challenge. Their argument is that if the state decided to opt for the choice of empowering what would largely be old parliamentarians, in order to secure a president-friendly two-thirds majority, the next parliament would risk being considerably discredited with the entire political process put into question.

In the words of a leading political figure, “There is still give and take and we cannot say that the president has been fully convinced of this option. Yes, there are some that are proposing this option, arguing that it is safer, but there are others who argue that what would be really safe is to opt for a truly representative parliament that would not exclude any political group and that would make sure that basic social justice and welfare demands are not overlooked.”

The issues of social justice and welfare are certainly a clear challenge for 2015, government officials agree. Energy bills might drop a little due to the decline in international oil prices, but the overall bill of services is likely to increase significantly. Government sources say there is no opportunity in 2015 to secure a significant improvement in the quality of services, including electricity, health and education. This, they say, is not only due to a budge deficit but also a result of an efficiency deficit.

To add to the challenge, the same sources say, Gulf financial support is expected to drop while an inevitable new package of economic reforms that the government would have to adopt and bring about, probably towards the second half of the year, will lead to an increase in most prices.

Al-Sisi is less hopeful now, well-informed sources suggest, on the support of the business community. “He was hoping that by the end of 2014, the Long Live Egypt Fund (of $100 billion) would have been largely covered, but it is not happening, and I think he now knows that it is not going to happen in 2015 either,” said a source from the business community.

He argued, however, that what the business community is willing to commit to a higher rate of investment provided there are “supportive laws” given that “we are all short on fluid cash”.

The issue of political stability, in the assessment of many Egyptian, official and non-official, and foreign sources, is the toughest challenge for Egypt in 2015, both in the external (or regional) arena and internally.

“We are trying very hard to reach a deal on stabilising Libya and Syria and to give a momentum of sorts to peace talks to avert a sudden explosion on the Palestinian front, but things are taking a long time in view of the conflicting interests of regional and international partners,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

Meanwhile, political activists and members of civil society who say openly that 2014 was the year of clamping down on liberties are sceptical, deeming confrontation with the authorities inevitable if there are no signs of leaving some space for key rights and freedoms.

Very few in official quarters are willing to promise a change of attitude in any real sense on the part of authorities towards civil society and political activists, despite the recent replacement of the head of intelligence who was blamed by many for hawkish choices on this front.

According to key political figures that have been invited to meetings held by the president during the first six months of his presidency, Al-Sisi himself is convinced that “if given two years free of all types of protest, he could deliver on the economic front.”

It is not clear, however, that political forces — Islamists excluded — dismayed during 2014 over harsh sentences issued against political activists, coupled with the collective acquittal of top Hosni Mubarak security and business figures, will be willing to grant the president a protest-free year.

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