Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

2018 and Egypt

It has been a year of struggle for Egyptians, against terrorism and against economic hardship. For political stability to be maintained, 2018 must see positive change, writes Hussein Haridy

Egyptians bade farewell Sunday to 2017, a sad year in the contemporary history of Egypt. I doubt if any of them would regret it. It ended, two days before, in blood and tears when a terrorist, or a group of them, fired at a church in Helwan, a southern district of Cairo. Nine people died in the shootout, eight among the churchgoers and one brave policeman, whose courage and bravery in dealing with the terrorist, who was armed to the teeth, prevented a bigger carnage on the eve of the new year. The terrorist attack was claimed by the “Islamic State” group.

Undoubtedly, 2017 would be considered the bloodiest year in Egypt’s war on cross-border terror, a year that had seen the number of terrorist attacks in North Sinai and the Nile Valley multiply, and accordingly the number of victims, whether among the military, the police forces, or among civilians, Muslims and Christians alike. A few weeks earlier, a group of terrorists mowed down not less than 300 Muslim worshippers in Al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai during Friday prayers. No one claimed responsibility for this massacre unprecedented in the history of terrorism in Egypt.

After the defeat of the “Islamic State” group in both Iraq and Syria, it seems that Egypt has become the new battleground and territorial base from which it would attempt to resuscitate, and expand westward to North Africa, to link with affiliated terrorist groups operating in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the great efforts and sacrifices by the Egyptian army and the police forces in combating terrorism across Egypt, they are still fighting terrorists with classical warfare tactics. It is not working. One crucial challenge facing the Egyptian military and the police in 2018 will definitely be the mastery of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency tactics in order to gain the upper hand on terrorist groups within Egypt. Egypt stands to gain from more experienced armies in this respect, such as the US and Russian armies. As a matter of fact, the United States had taken a decision during the second term of the Barack Obama administration that starting in the fiscal year 2018 US military assistance to Egypt would centre around counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and maritime and border security. That’s welcome news, provided Egypt sees the worth of such a radical change in American military assistance.

Similarly, the police force badly needs financial resources to adapt to the new security challenges it has faced lately. Old and traditional police training is highly inadequate to deal with today’s terrorists, particularly those battle-hardened in the killing fields of Syria and Iraq during the last four years, some of whom have, reportedly, infiltrated Sinai. Also, the police force needs new recruits and new weaponry. Old-fashioned guns and rifles are no good to deal with automatic weapons and explosive belts. The traditional policeman is no longer a match for those kinds of terrorists. 

If terrorism has daunted the spirits of Egyptians in 2017, so has the economy. In the course of the outgoing year, Egyptians in their entirety have borne, stoically so far, the burdensome and costly brunt of the government’s economic reform programme that has seen the purchasing power of Egyptians reduced to a half by the floating of the Egyptian currency in November 2016. The decision to float the Egyptian pound had come amidst an increase in the prices of government services, from electricity bills to transport fees. The price of the underground ticket was doubled, and another increase has been broached by the government. Fuel prices also increased and with it the prices of all commodities, food, cigarettes, health costs, if available. In sum, the majority of Egyptians find it difficult to make ends meet in the first 10 days of the month.

2017 had seen the public debt mushroomed to levels unheard of in the economic history of Egypt. It has crossed the bar of LE4 trillion. In January 2011, it had stood at LE1.6 trillion, approximately. This figure of LE4 trillion includes foreign debt that stands, today, at the frightening figure of $79 billion, without adding the $26 billion that will be owed to Russia to finance the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Egypt.

Judging from official statements, hope is scant that the government would reconsider the fundamentals of its economic and borrowing policies, that have not only burdened Egyptians today, but will hold future generations hostage to mushrooming borrowing levels that we have witnessed in the last few years. In 2018, a drastic correction is badly needed.

2018 will be a crucial year for Egypt, from a political and governance point of view. In the first half of the year, Egyptians will be called to vote in presidential elections, for the second time after 30 June 2013. The first presidential elections had brought President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to power in May 2014. So far, the incumbent has not announced, officially, whether he would run for a second term, although few doubt he will. If he does, many raise questions about his campaign platform. Would it be the same as in the first term, or there would be much-needed changes to respond to the needs of Egyptians, and provide them with a respite and from an economic reform programme that has alienated them from politics to the extent that political observers and pollsters actually debate what would be the percentage of the low turnout that they predict?

What Egypt is looking for in 2018 is a flourishing economy, an open political system based on a large popular consensus, good governance, and the defeat of terrorism. Egyptians would not settle for anything less. The presidential election campaign will guide us in understanding what will be the priorities of the next Egyptian government, once the country elects its new president.

A complete and radical rethink is the only viable path, once the new government is sworn into office next May. The political stability of the country will very much depend on the choices it will make.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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