The narrative dominating Egypt in Washington revolves largely around either human rights or security. Those who criticize President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cite his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, diminishing press freedom, and a general intolerance toward civil society and especially international and non-governmental organizations. Those who praise him cite his no-nonsense approach toward political Islamism and Islamist terror groups. The former group can too often suffer Sisi derangement syndrome, unable to recognize any good in a man whose path to power they disparage. The latter group can be too apologetic and paper over criticism of a crackdown on media and civil society that at times goes too far.
Sisi’s efforts to reform Egypt economically may, however, be his greatest legacy. The Egyptian economy has long been moribund. Decades of centralized control and kleptocracy under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak eroded Egypt’s economic vibrancy. Egypt hemorrhaged hard currency through ill-conceived subsidies on pretty much every necessity. Every Egyptian liked cheap gas, bread, water, and electricity, but few understood that they were all paying the price. Strict controls over currency gave Egyptians an illusion of wealth and stability, but the bill for keeping the Egyptian pound artificially strong would one day come due.
Many Egyptian politicians understood what needed to be done, and certainly Egyptian economists did, but none had the political courage to do it. Sisi has expended great political capital to undertake reforms, which, frankly, are more than a half-century overdue. Last November, for example, he free-floated the Egyptian pound, which immediately lost more than half its value against the dollar. He is cutting energy and bread subsidies and is liberalizing other aspects of the economy. Even his own supporters acknowledge the deep pain Sisi’s reforms have caused.
Even if Sisi is doing the right things, there is still much to criticize: There’s a tendency among his inner circle to blame shopkeepers for rising prices rather than to explain economic realities to the population. At times, the military has also moved into neighborhoods to distribute food, undercutting local businesses. (Government officials said this is not meant to compete against local businesses but rather to give a safety net to areas where there is not yet an adequate private sector distribution network). It’s also not clear that Sisi has broken the military’s stranglehold on the economy. If he does fail, he risks repeating Mubarak’s mistakes. Even if he does not fall into the Mubarak and military trap and even if Sisi sets a firm base for the economy, rectifying past wrongs and having a plan for the future are two very different things.
What happens in Egypt matters. Sisi’s reforms are now at the tipping point. Egypt discovered significant gas fields off the Nile Delta in 2015 and 2016, and their exploitation will take some of the pressure off of Egypt so long as Egypt doesn’t fall into the rentier trap. The fields, however, won’t come fully online until late 2018 or 2019, and so the next 18 months are the riskiest. A crisis is coming. The price of wheat is up 40 percent in the past month, and planted acreage is at the lowest level since 1919. The price of wheat Egyptian Pounds is 138 percent higher than it was when Mubarak fell.
Egypt is fragile. Its stability matters. Pundits and analysts can criticize Sisi, but a full-blown food crisis or economic collapse will not bring democracy closer. A populist response in Egypt that once again changes the regime will not repair Egypt but, in terms of the economy, would be a disaster. Band-Aids won’t repair Necrotizing Fasciitis. It’s healthy to debate the balance between human rights and security in Egypt, but both Democrats and Republicans should not let that debate distract from a more holistic Egypt policy as Sisi works to transform the economy. What happens now will matter long after any future political transition in Egypt.