Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Sisi uses popularity for austerity

Recent increases in fuel, alcohol and cigarette prices appear to have made no dent in Al-Sisi’s cachet, writes Amr Kotb

Al-Ahram Weekly

Can Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s popularity withstand the public discontent that is historically attached to an Egyptian president touching government subsidies and tax burdens?

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent decisions to raise energy prices and taxes on beer and cigarettes have only yielded minimal public backlash.

In the months leading up to Al-Sisi’s election, many analysts speculated that the former army chief’s popularity would allow him to take bold steps towards addressing Egypt’s ailing economy.

Mohamed Al-Menshawi, a scholar at the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute, spoke directly about this issue in late March, stating that the former general’s “broad popularity” gave him “a mandate to take tough decisions about the economy”. Al-Menshawi suggested that Al-Sisi “could take on subsidies, which no one has dared to approach in the last three years”.

Indeed, the issue of subsidies and tax burdens has always been a touchy one. President Anwar Al-Sadat’s decision to slash subsidies on basic foodstuffs to secure loans from the World Bank and IMF was met with the famous bread riots of 1977. After Sadat reneged on his decision, he sought to expand subsidies to address public discontent, leaving Hosni Mubarak to tiptoe around an incremental policy for their reduction.

Years later, in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood reversed a decision to raise sales taxes on a wide range of consumer goods and services just 24 hours after announcing the price hikes as a result of mass discontent.

Despite the Egyptian citizenry’s long history in being strongly opposed to the slightest austerity measure towards subsidies or taxes, Al-Sisi’s decision last Friday to raise the price of three of the most popular forms of petrol — octane 80 by LE.70 per litre, octane 92 by LE.75 per litre, and diesel by LE.70 per litre — was not exactly met with widespread civil unrest.

On Saturday, taxi microbus drivers held protests in several neighbourhoods throughout Cairo while police in Ismailia and Suez used tear gas to disperse a small congregation of angry microbus drivers.

Perhaps Al-Sisi’s popularity is enough to convince the 13.4 per cent of Egyptians who are unemployed and the 25 per cent who live in poverty that the rise in prices and taxes is a necessary sacrifice for the economy to improve.

Sayed, 48, a barber, certainly thinks so.

“I am fine with the fuel increases,” Sayed said, adding: “This is the price we have to pay so that our economy can rebound. Sure, it makes things a bit harder, but I am happy to tolerate it if it means a better future.”

One of Sayed’s customers, who asked to remain anonymous, added: “This is the medicine that we are taking to heal our wounds, and medicine never tastes good. If people would just spend a little less time smoking shisha at coffee shops and a little more time looking for a job, then they wouldn’t have such an issue with the cost of their microbus trip going up by 25 piastres.” He continued: “A litre of petrol in Egypt is still cheaper than a litre of bottled water, so people should be thankful.”

Sayed also agreed that the price increase was minimal and long overdue: “It has been three years since the revolution. Has the price of a ride on a microbus gone up once? No. So what’s the big deal if it goes up just 25 piastres now?”

Emad Attiya, a middle aged dermatologist who was having his hair dyed black, explained why Egyptians were, to him, demonstrating an unprecedented will to “deal with” such austerity measures.

“Al-Sisi could completely destroy the Egyptian economy and only be credited with getting rid of the Brotherhood and I would still support him,” Attiya said. “Have you seen Libya? Have you seen Iraq? Have you seen Yemen? This man cares about the well-being of Egypt and I trust all the decisions that he makes.”

Many were hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood’s same attempts at similar measures because of the perception that the group did not rule with Egyptian interests in mind.

“The Brotherhood was going to sell our country; this man got it back for us so we are confident in him,” said Ahmed, 50, one of Sayed’s co-workers.

But it is likely that these price hikes are just the first of many to come, as the country slowly weans itself off of a costly subsidy programme. With that in mind, how much more austerity can the former general’s popularity buy?

“The president asked us for two years so that is what I am giving him,” Ahmed said. “We gave Morsi 100 days and he did not accomplish one thing, while Al-Sisi is already making changes for the better. It’s not just that I am confident in him, it’s that I know what he’s doing is right.”

However, not all are willing to be so patient. A young taxi driver at Cairo International Airport said he feels that Al-Sisi’s popularity is no match for the hardships many taxi drivers face as a result of the rise in prices.

“We hate him now,” he said. “People are poor and tired and now we can’t even work. I have been driving around all day today looking for 92 (octane) gas, and I can’t even find any. If I want low grade 80, I have to wait in a line that goes all the way down the street. He has ruined everything.”

Attiya still believes it will be a while before Al-Sisi’s popularity loses out to austerity measures. “What do you want, another revolution? Forget it. As long as the Brotherhood is gone, we are happy.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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