Sisi Will Struggle Without A Scapegoat

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Egypt's would-be pharaoh, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has finally announced his candidacy for the presidency. But three crucial challenges are mounting and this time there's no Muslim Brotherhood to take the blame.

Egyptian and foreign media are dusting off months-old "President Sisi" articles and revelling in quirky stories about the former field marshal's attempts to be "of the people".

But once the fun and games are over Sisi, now just plain Mr, will face serious economic and security challenges that have undone his recent predecessors. Three issues are at the core of his problems: militancy, energy and labour.

Continuing militant attacks on security personnel and infrastructure are the result of a heavy-handed police crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Sinai communities.

Energy — blackouts and fuel shortages — was a significant cause of the mass outpouring of frustration on 30 June last year, and the union movement and anger over unemployment were at the core of the 2011 revolution.

The overt danger is security, as imprisoned innocents and activists — and their families outside — are radicalised, and as seasoned militants flee to the mainland.

David Barnet, a researcher for the Foundation of Defence of Democracies, keeps close tabs on the number and severity of militant attacks in Egypt. He says heavy Egyptian military operations have not squashed militant cells but forced them to flee, many into the Nile Delta.

“Reports have noted the movement towards the Nile Delta since at least December,” he said. “Attacks outside North Sinai undoubtedly garner far greater attention than those in North Sinai. I’d expect authorities to take a heavy hand should attacks persist in the mainland.”

Attacks, like yesterday's bombing, which killed a senior police officer and injured five others. Three bombs exploded outside Cairo University, a short walk from the Western banks of the Nile, and a fourth was later defused.

A Reuters journalist recently managed to enter the tightly-held area around North Sinai’s capital Al-Arish, and reported that the army was not coping well with militants’ guerrilla tactics. The use of helicopters to blast away at small targets continued to turn civilians against the military and had little effect on militant bases.

A senior official from one of the foreign military attachments based in Egypt, who wished to remain unnamed, told New Matilda the Egyptian army didn’t have any experience in fighting a guerrilla insurgency, but was refusing offers of outside help.

A more lingering threat to Sisi’s reputation and authority is the energy issue. Blackouts that normally begin in early summer started in the nadir of winter last year. Already in Cairo two or three power cuts of several hours at a time are normal, and they’re worse in the provinces.

Last year hours-long queues at petrol stations and lengthy rolling blackouts sparked a long-burning fuse of frustration with the Muslim Brotherhood. This year, there’s no such scapegoat standing between a President Sisi and the people.

Worse still, according to Oxford University energy expert Justin Dargin, sweltering weather, no lights and limited cooking gas made the Muslim Brotherhood government look incompetent.

“Egyptians who supported the military takeover are willing to give Sisi a fair chance to reform the sector. However, he will not have too much time to do so. The patience of Egyptians is not unlimited,” Dargin told New Matilda.

Subsidies are at the root of this problem. One fifth of the government's budget is currently spent on energy subsidies alone and the cost is crippling.

Officials throughout government and the private sector approached by New Matilda have all begun to independently lobby on the topic of subsidies — some out of hope that Sisi is the strong reformer Egypt needs and others out of desperation. They all want the government to reign-in programs which keep the price of goods down for consumers.

Yet with much of the population facing material hardship, Sisi is trapped. A quarter of the population live below the poverty line and a quarter are hovering just above. Removing subsidies would devastate these people.

Fail to resolve the subsidy issue, which defied the last two of Egypt’s military incumbents, and Sisi's image as the heroic saviour of June could be undone. But remove subsidies and he will face the prospect of riots similar to those of 1977, when President Anwar Sadat raised prices on gas, sugar and rice. Sadat learned quickly: within days the subsidies were back and the rioters pacified.

Austerity and subsidy cuts have, however, become a feature of Sisi’s recent speeches. Dargin thinks that in the energy sector at least, Sisi will spearhead the slow reform needed to wean the country off cheap gas, if not cheap bread.

Labour movements and employment are slower-burning issues. The latest numbers from CAPMAS, Egypt’s government statistics agency, show 2013’s fourth quarter unemployment at 13.6 per cent, up 57.3 per cent from pre-revolution 2010, and youth unemployment at 69 per cent. That's a significant number for any country but for one where police repression is increasing and economic opportunity declining, it’s particularly worrisome.

Moreover, the government doesn't have the cash to keep its minimum wage promise, enshrined in the constitution at $186 (Australian dollars) a month, says Stanford history professor Joel Benin.

Benin said Sisi had already lost popularity over the issue and may decide to crackdown hard on the hundreds of thousands of workers in textiles, aluminium factories, public transport, and postal services, as well as publicly employed doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and veterinarians who have been striking since January over wages.

"Since the Sisi government is unlikely to be able to meet workers' economic demands, and they have already demonstrated willingness to engage in collective action no matter who is president of Egypt, this will likely continue," he said.

"There is no reason to believe, based on the evidence of the last decade, that workers will cease collective actions if their demands are not met. The only thing that might deter this is massive repression, which would seriously undermine the army's public image."

A recent opinion poll showed 39 per cent of Egyptians planned to vote for Sisi. Benin said that although he will probably win with a strong majority, this is a "remarkably" quick decline from the heady popularity of last year.

Experts agree the response to popular anger over these issues is likely to be vicious. The security services are already showing opposition groups what they can expect in the future.

Police have imprisoned over 16,000 people since August, according to figures obtained by AP. Where once they would have been released after a few days detainees are now held indefinitely, some without charge.

Egypt is roiling under economic hardship and rising security threats, and the options available to any future government are limited. But for Sisi, lauded as the saviour of Egypt, any misstep will be judged harshly by Egyptians weary of instability.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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