Jubilation greeted most Egyptians when on 11 February 2011 they successfully ousted their long-time President, Hosni Mubarak, in one of the first Arab Spring success stories. Whereas Syrians’ quest for democracy quickly turned into a nightmare, Egyptians it seemed were finally getting the free and fair elections and full democracy that they had for so long desired.
They were wrong.
One close, democratic election and a year of rule under Mohamed Morsi was enough freedom for Egyptians according to the powerful military, which deposed him in a coup d’état in July 2013. His successor, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is secular, Western-friendly and well liked – three attributes that set him apart from the President he replaced. Indeed, Western nations breathed a sigh of relief at his election, for a man they knew as an ally of Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem was back in Cairo’s Presidential Palace. The fragile ‘status quo’ of Arab-Western foreign relations had been – for now – restored.
However, since his election in 2014, Sisi has shown many autocratic tendencies that have proved remarkably similar to Mubarak, the President Egyptians marched to depose just three years beforehand. He’s wrapped himself in the flag of patriotism, promised better economic fortunes for Egypt’s beleaguered and shrinking middle-class, stability and a return to a de-politicized society. He’s not been afraid to scale back on individual freedoms either, suppressing the political opposition and especially the controversial Muslim Brotherhood – the party deposed Morsi belonged to – as well as restricting judicial independence and gagging the country’s media in a vain attempt to suppress negative information reaching the Egyptian masses. Granted, he’s nowhere near the autocrat or downright dictator in charge of Ankara (Erdogan), Riyadh (King Salman) or Damascus (al-Assad), but the completely free society millions of Egyptians marched for is, for the moment, a distant memory.
Several factors have, however, been largely out of Sisi’s control yet still had a huge effect on his presidency. Terrorist attacks and political chaos have rocked the region from Tunisia to Turkey, causing relatively stable regimes such as those in Amman, Cairo and Riyadh to take notice. Sadly, terrorism has not spared Egypt, causing misery to the millions who depend on it as their livelihood and primary source of income. Since the 2015 downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 by Islamist militants en route from the popular Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, tourist numbers have continued to free-fall, with 50 per cent fewer passing through Egyptian ports of entry in 2016 compared to the twelve months previously. Although 2017 has started well, it’s much too soon to make any further predictions regarding a notoriously fickle and volatile industry, especially as UK government bans on flights to Sharm el Sheikh – a destination favourite for nearly 1 million Britons a year before the Revolution – remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Tourism has however, rebounded from previous crises in the land of the pharaohs. An attack in Luxor on Western tourists in 1997 left dozens dead and devastated tourism to the area for years, as did several bombs and attacks on Western and Israeli holidaymakers in Red Sea resorts of Dahab, Sharm and Taba throughout the mid-2000s. Both spates of terror were dealt with by a firm and heavy hand from Egypt’s president at the time; and a similar response has been promised by President Sisi to counter attacks aimed at foreigners, as well as at Egyptian citizens – especially the country’s 12 million Coptic Christians – who have already been targeted this year in attacks in North Sinai, Alexandria and the capital, Cairo.
Linked to the downturn in international tourism is the country’s continued economic woes. Egypt has long suffered from an unstable economy, but with unemployment continuing to rise and the number of Egyptian youths out of work now over 40 per cent, the country is on the verge of another economic crisis. The Egyptian pound tumbled on the financial markets as it was floated for the first time late last year, contributing to depleting foreign currency reserves for the central government and panicked Egyptian investors. Enthusiasm and funding for an ambitious project to develop the large natural gas reserves off Egypt’s northern Mediterranean coast coupled with an $8 billion expansion of the vital Suez Canal has all but dried up, and ambitious plans to relocate the country’s capital from busy Cairo to a more suitable place where the government can do business has also been put on hold.
These so-called ‘vanity projects’ could kick-start the Egyptian economy, but many question their necessity in a country where millions live in poverty and with chronic infrastructure problems nationwide. These are all problems that affected Egypt – although to a larger extent – in 2011 when public protests ousted President Mubarak, and many Egyptians are feeling as though not enough progress has been made in the six years since to counter these issues.
The types of protests that rocked Egypt in 2011 are unlikely to be replicated for the foreseeable future. Sisi has severely curtailed Egyptians’ right to protest, and in the process the youth of Egypt have seen their dreams of living in a democratic country which upholds human rights and the rule of law dashed by successive governments with authoritarian leanings. Sisi isn’t in any danger yet, thanks to strong backing from the military, the West, fellow Arab autocrats and – for now – the majority of his population, but a Mubarak-style uprising should never be off the cards. Especially if Sisi proves incapable of curtailing unemployment, luring back tourists, preventing terrorist attacks and restoring Egyptians’ faith in their country and its potential. The land of the pharaohs is, as ever, an uncertain and unpredictable place to be.