The recent wave of surprise protests1 in Egypt present a rare challenge to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s iron rule. The demonstrations were sparked by videos uploaded on the internet by Mohamed Ali 2, a former disgruntled contractor of the Egyptian Army, currently in exile in Spain. Mohamed Ali called for mass demonstrations against el-Sisi, alleging corruption in the military and government economic mismanagement at a time of great economic hardship for common Egyptians. Since capturing power in a 2013 military coup, el-Sisi has consolidated control and systematically dismantled the country’s biggest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sisi’s coup was a reaction to mass public protests in Egypt against the rule of democratically elected President Morsi, who had rapidly lost public support after a series of hardline Islamist measures alienated many supporters of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The famed protests against Hosni Mobarak in Tahrir Square had included Egyptians from across the political spectrum and Morsi’s attempts to introduce an Islamist constitution soon drove a wedge between the numerous revolutionary factions. As armed clashes broke out in December 2012, the moderate and leftist factions of the 2011 Revolution quickly jumped ship, calling for President Morsi’s ouster. In addition to miscalculations made on Morsi’s part, it is important to note that the bulk of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, particularly its feared security apparatus, had survived the 2011 revolution largely intact. Egypt’s vast security apparatus, particularly its army, has a long history of enmity 3 with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian Army, which had effectively ruled the country since 1952, saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s grassroots appeal and Islamist agenda as a threat to its hegemonic position in society. The mistrust between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood government deepened as President Morsi embarked on a programme to widen the Suez Canal and set up an industrial zone along it in partnership with India, without consulting the Ministry of Defence. In addition, Morsi’s hostile anti-Israel foreign policy and his championing of pan-Islamic aspirations threatened to reverse the trajectory of Egyptian foreign policy since the 1978 Camp David Accords 4. These policy decisions, amongst others, meant that President Morsi soon found himself confronting a grand coalition of moderates, leftists, liberals and supporters of the Mubarak regime’s old guard. With Egypt clearly divided, the army made its move in July 2013 and removed President Morsi in a swift coup.
The leader of the military junta, Egyptian army chief el-Sisi, suspended the constitution and launched a massive crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood activists. The crackdown soon turned violent and Egyptian security agencies engaged in dozens of massacres, most notably at Rabaa in August 2013. With a large proportion of Egyptians behind him, el-Sisi projected himself as a force for stability and moderation. The new military regime immediately received the backing of GCC states Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who supported Egypt’s crumbling economy with billions in aid. The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise had been met with concern by the conservative Arab monarchies, who feared that Morsi’s democratic pan-Islamism would destabilise their countries and raise voices for widespread democratic reform in the Arab world 5. Reactions from outside the Arab World were also sympathetic to el-Sisi, as the new regime maintained a hardline stance against Islamism and acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas during their numerous face-offs. However, events of late indicate that el-Sisi is facing increased domestic opposition, despite his government outlawing any form of public protest.
El-Sisi’s most unpopular decision thus far has been an agreement to transfer sovereignty of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia 6 . Egyptians claim that their country’s control over the islands dates back to 1906, before Saudi Arabia was founded, whereas governments in both states maintain that the islands are Saudi territory under Egyptian protection since 1950. The uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir remain a sensitive issue in Egypt and el-Sisi’s decision in June 2017 to cede control of the islands is an indicator of his heavy reliance on the Saudis to prop up his regime. Despite billions of dollars in loans and investment by Saudi Arabia, major problems with Egypt’s economy still remain. The currency has been devalued and there has also been an increase in taxes. El-Sisi’s regime has announced plans to cut subsidies on fuel by 40.5 percent and on electricity by 75 percent in the current financial year 7. More than 30 percent of all Egyptians live below the poverty line, but the increasing inflation and the dire state of the economy has especially taken a toll on the country’s middle class 8 . Having played a decisive role in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and then obstructing Morsi’s attempts to centralise all power, Egypt’s urban middle class is considered the most vibrant and politically conscious in the Arab worl d 9. Successive regimes throughout Egypt’s history have attempted to court their support as a balancing factor against the conservative rural masses who form the primary constituency of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s ailing economy and the urban class’s increasing disenchantment with the el-Sisi government is hence one of the primary drivers behind recent protests in the country.
Another troubling development for the el-Sisi regime has been signs of discontent in elements of the Egyptian Army. One of the reasons behind this is el-Sisi’s ‘revolving chair’ policy 10. To minimize chances of a coup against his regime, el-Sisi has rotated high ranking military officers from sensitive positions in an attempt to thwart them from gaining too much influence. In the past 15 months, el-Sisi has also dismissed several senior officers including the Chief of Staff, the head of the General Intelligence Directorate and the Director of Military Intelligence. The shake up has especially been prominent in the intelligence service, where el-Sisi has unexpectedly fired more than 200 officers. There are allegations of nepotism as well and el-Sisi seems to be planning to build a dynasty similar to the Assads in Syria by recruiting three of his sons to powerful positions in the security apparatus. Furthermore, in one of the many viral videos uploaded by Mohamed Ali, the former contractor claimed that scores of Egyptian Army officers are in contact with him, but the senior leadership is exerting pressure on the army’s rank and file to extend support to the government. The Egyptian army has traditionally conceived of itself as a liberating force for the masses, as it played a key role in the popular overthrow of the British-installed monarch King Farrouk in Egypt’s 1952 Revolution, led by the charismatic Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. Apart from decreasing public support for the government, el-Sisi’s handling of former Lieutenant General Sami Anan has also caused a dent in his popularity in the army. Sami Anan, who served as the Egyptian Army’s Chief of Staff from 2005 until 2012, was a popular figure in army circles and had a reputation of being an upright and capable officer. At the time of the 2011 Revolution, Anan was the army’s second-in-command and viewed as a better alternative to the stubborn Commander-in-Chief Hussein Tantawy, who was a close ally of Hosni Mubarak. Sami Anan was also held in high regard by groups opposing Hosni Mubarak, with the Muslim Brotherhood describing him as ‘incorruptible’ and an ‘acceptable’ figure for the post-Mubarak era 11. After President Morsi retired him in August 2012, Anan ventured into politics and formed the Arabism Egypt Party. Anan’s decision to run for office in the widely criticised 2018 Presidential elections led to his arrest by security agencies, who ensured a second term for el-Sisi by engaging in rampant electoral fraud and coercing competing candidates to withdraw. In the wake of demonstrations against el-Sisi, Sami Anan’s spokesperson, Dr. Mahmoud Refaat, has been urging more people to protest, arguing that the army would provide the Egyptian people with protection, 12 similar to January 25, 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.
Despite increasing domestic opposition to el-Sisi, the revival of Russia’s ties with Cairo 13 and Moscow’s growing presence in the region mean that el-Sisi can count amongst his backers a formidable great power that is not hesitant to intervene militarily in aid of its allies. Egypt has a rich history of cooperation with Russia, stretching back to the time of the Soviet Union and the Cold War’s numerous conflicts. The Soviet Union was the primary foreign investor in Egypt up until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after which their relationship soured as Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat pursued reconciliation with the western powers. Egypt’s powerful army was largely trained and equipped entirely with the latest Soviet weaponry. Sadat’s reconciliation drive culminated in the 1978 Camp David Accords, which marked the beginning of Cairo’s intimate relationship with the US. Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign witnessed further deepening of Egypt-US ties, until problems began to emerge after President Morsi’s electoral victory in the wake of the 2011 movement. Nevertheless, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s vocal anti-Israel stance, the Obama administration maintained a working relationship with Egypt’s first democratically elected government. The Egyptian army’s capture of power in July 2013 complicated matters further, as the US refrained from categorising the event as a ‘coup’ in explicit terms, hoping to reboot ties back to the pre-Morsi era. After a global outcry over the US’s muted response to the military takeover, the Obama administration announced a significant cut in Egypt’s military and economic assistance. The US decision was exploited by Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russia, which accelerated contact with el-Sisi, who himself was pursuing greater international legitimacy and patronage by a great power. Soon, the Russians signed a major arms deal with Egypt worth more than $ three billion 14. The Russian and Egyptian militaries have engaged in a number of joint military exercises, the most recent of which took place in August 2019.
Russia’s resurgent cooperation with Egypt is part of a greater push by Moscow to establish a permanent presence in the region. Such a move has profound geo-political implications, as well as an impact on Egypt’s domestic arena. Both Egypt and Russia are providing military assistance to forces led by Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is battling militias under the command of the UN-recognised Islamist government based in Tripoli. Libya’s protracted civil war has witnessed the country partitioned into two, with the Tripoli-based government being backed primarily by Qatar and Turkey, while General Haftar’s troops have received the backing of France, Russia, the Gulf monarchies and Egypt. Russia’s special forces are stationed at bases in western Egypt adjacent to the Libyan border 15. In November 2017, the Russians struck an unprecedented deal with Cairo that allows them to use Egyptian airspace for strikes against Islamist militias loyal to the Tripoli government. Military bases in Egypt provide Moscow with massive power projection capability in the Middle East and North Africa, having once been limited to a single Russian outpost in Tartus, Syria. Apart from booming military ties, Moscow has also agreed to build a nuclear plant in Egypt. As per the agreement, Moscow will fund the nuclear plant by providing Egypt with a loan worth $ 25 billion and the project would require Russian officials stationed in the plant’s premises for up to 60 years. On the economic front, Egypt-Russian trade has increased steadily, with a projected future worth of $ 10 billion. Egypt’s tourist industry has again started attracting Russians, whose influx was halted for more than two years in the wake of a Russian passenger plane bombing in October 2015. Economic ties are expected to further deepen in the coming years, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin seeks to include Egypt in the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union 16.
Egypt’s pivot to Russia is part of a growing realisation amongst regional Arab states 17 of the US’s inability to ensure the security of its allies. This also holds true for the historically pro-US Gulf monarchies, who are frustrated by the absence of US military action against Iran and Washington’s refusal of direct military intervention against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In contrast, when Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army was on the verge of military defeat in September 2015, Moscow opted for a decisive military intervention that ultimately turned the tide of war in the Assad regime’s favour. Similarly, cracks are appearing in the Saudi-Emirati alliance 18, which was for many decades the cornerstone of US hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula. The UAE and Riyadh have begun to differ on many sensitive security and foreign policy issues. The two Gulf monarchies are supporting opposing factions in the Yemeni civil war and the UAE has opted for reconciliation with Ba’athist Syria by resuming diplomatic relations. The Emiratis also favour a more lenient approach towards Tehran, as opposed to the hardline stance propagated by Saudi Arabia. Moscow views the split in the US-allied bloc as an opportunity to increase its geo-political sway, as it has maintained excellent relations with all Gulf states. In June 2018, the Russians inked a historic ‘strategic partnership’ agreement with the UAE, which would see the two countries cooperate in a variety of realms including defence, intelligence sharing and the economy. The Russians view the UAE as a rising trans-regional power and a key to Moscow’s pursuit of influence in the strategically vital Horn of Africa 19. In this regard, Russia sees the UAE’s intimate relationship with Eritrea as vital for its plan to establish a logistics base in the northeastern African country. The planned logistics base would then be used for access to other countries, most importantly Ethiopia, which is the second fastest growing economy in the region. Moscow’s relationship with Riyadh has also blossomed of late, and the two states are cooperating closely in the energy sector 20. Once considered fierce rivals in the crude oil market, Russia and Saudi Arabia have joined forces to prop up fuel prices, while the US instead pressures Riyadh to keep the high market price in check. In addition to oil, Saudi Arabia has decided to open its markets for the import of Russian wheat 21. Moscow has attempted for several decades to gain a larger share in the Middle East’s western-dominated wheat industry and Riyadh’s decision to relax wheat import regulations would provide an opportunity for Russia to further strengthen its economic relationship with the Saudis.
Although Russian investment and greater economic opportunities present an attractive alternative option for US-allied Arab states, their primary concern nonetheless remains matters related to security and the appeal of future Russian cover for the Middle East’s regimes. The importance of Moscow’s support for el-Sisi cannot be understated, especially at a time of domestic unrest in the country. Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule had received unparalleled support from the US, but as the regime grew unpopular and popular mobilisation against it began in 2011, the US abandoned it and called for a transition towards democracy. Russia on the other hand, remained firm in its support for Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s investment in Egypt and el-Sisi in particular, therefore provides the regime with a security guarantee that was absent in the country’s previous years under US alignment. Resultantly, this also makes el-Sisi less likely to compromise and offer concessions to his opponents or dissenting Egyptians.
- Ruth Michaelson, “Egyptian Authorities Threaten to ‘Decisively Confront’ Protesters,” The Guardian, September 26, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/26/over-1900-arrested-as-egypt-braces-for-more-protests. ↑
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