Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Two years to go

Egyptians watched with great interest the extended televised interview with the president. But while some answers were provided, key questions remained unaddressed, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

In a wide-ranging interview telecast on Egypt’s Channel 1, on 3 June, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi spoke about the policies he has pursued since he was elected two years ago.

The interview was widely followed for two main reasons. The first is that most Egyptians wanted to hear from their president where the country is heading amidst tremendous security and economic challenges. The second is related to their desire to know what lies in store for Egypt under his leadership in the remaining two years of his mandate that is expected to come to its constitutional end in June 2018. In addition, the political opposition, that is becoming more persistent, was looking to the interview to see whether relations with the government would get better in terms of communication and dialogue around the fundamentals of democratic transition in Egypt. This opposition has expressed certain concerns in this regard. The crisis of the Journalists’ Syndicate that broke out a month earlier has raised concern over the future of the democratic transition in the country.

Strangely enough, this matter did not come up in the interview that lasted one hour and a half. The questions, by a prominent Egyptian telecaster Osama Kamal, stayed away from anything to do with the nature and the future path of Egyptian democracy. I personally believe that this interview provided a golden opportunity for the Egyptian president to expound his views on this very important issue, not only for Egyptians and Arabs, but also and it is not less important to the outside world which, on different occasions, has expressed its concern over the human rights situation and democracy in Egypt.

The interview dwelled mainly on the domestic policies adopted by the government during the first half of Al-Sisi’s presidency, as well as the programmes carried out, whether they have already been completed or are in the phase of completion. From the New Suez Canal waterway, to power plants, to infrastructure, to the new administrative capital east of Cairo, to ever-expanding bureaucracy and fighting corruption, to the reclamation of one and a half million acres of land, the Egyptian president explained the economic, financial and social reasons behind these projects and plans, and stressed that these ambitious plans have been elaborated on the basis of feasibility studies. He emphasised that every pound spent  or to be spent on these projects and plans would generate income.

The president spoke at length on the importance and necessity of reconstructing state institutions and bolstering the rule of law. He drove the message home that he would remain adamant in defending and protecting the state, and explained that its basic pillars for example, the army and the Interior Ministry were targeted in order to bring down the state, but that the tide has been turned, and the state has become stronger and more resilient. According to the president, state institutions are, today, out of the danger zone. In this respect, it was quite obvious that he avoided making explicit comparisons with other countries in the region, but those who followed the interview did not miss which countries he had in mind. In this context, the president spoke of new arms purchases by the Egyptian army, particularly of the navy and the air force, and made clear that it is essential for Egypt, from a strategic point of view, to master deterrence in a regional strategic void. He spoke of capacity building of the state, and put these arms purchases in this larger strategic concept.

The interview touched briefly on foreign policy and it was interesting to hear the president’s remarks on two important questions in this regard. The first is our relationship with the United States. He repeated what he has often emphasised; that these relations are of strategic importance from an Egyptian point of view, but he said that he is bound by what he termed “the former literature” that governed Egyptian-American relations prior to the January uprising of 2011. He said that he wants Egypt to have more independence in the context of these relations without prejudicing vital interests. This could explain the course of relations between Cairo and Washington lately, and could help us predict the same in the medium and long term.

The second question concerning Egypt’s foreign policy relates to the peace process in the Middle East. The interview was aired on the same day that the Paris Conference on peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis was taking place. The president stressed that the peace reached between Egypt and Israel should become the cornerstone of future agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis that would guarantee the establishment of the State of Palestine. With the composition of the new Israeli government and the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as the new Israeli defence minister, coupled with Israeli rejection of the French initiative, it remains to be seen whether the wish of the Egyptian president will see the light of day. We hope it does, but realities on the ground are not encouraging, taking into account in particular that there will be a new American president at the White House in January.

Has the interview of President Al-Sisi provided answers to the most pressing issues on the minds of Egyptians? To a certain extent, yes, but it would have been more successful if it had charted, in an unambiguous way, the road Egypt will take in the next two years. It has provided answers, but left some questions unaddressed: for instance, how to deal with the mounting national debt, and how to deal with the consequences of the sectarian divide in the country in light of the latest events in Upper Egypt. Make no mistake about it; the ship of state is sailing in rough seas.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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