After second inauguration, Sisi faces big challenges
CAIRO - Bringing the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai to an end, getting runaway commodity prices under control while maintaining economic reforms and protecting Egypt’s share of Nile waters will be some of the biggest challenges facing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his second term, experts said.
Addressing parliament June 2 after being sworn in to begin a second 4-year term in office, Sisi vowed to fix a creaky health system, reform education and allow more political freedoms. “Egypt can fit us all with all our differences. Accepting others and creating common ground will be important for us to create political developments,” he said.
Sisi asked one of the youngest members of his outgoing government, former Housing Minister Mostafa Madbouli, to form the new cabinet on June 8. Few had expected Sherif Ismail to return as prime minister because of health issues.
The president depended heavily on Madbouli, 52, during his first term, especially in initiating his national housing plan. Madbouli has been the president’s personal emissary, overseeing implementation of a number of large projects that created hundreds of thousands of jobs for Egyptian workers.
Sisi’s administration came under fire in recent months for showing little tolerance for free speech rights. Egypt’s health system is facing major challenges despite repeated calls for reform.
However, addressing the threat of terrorism remains Sisi’s priority, analysts said.
“This is by far the most serious challenge facing this country in the days to come,” said security analyst Khaled Okasha. “Terrorism was close to wiping some of the countries of the region off the map.”
Egypt has been fighting a branch of ISIS, based in the Sinai Peninsula, for almost five years, resulting in the death of hundreds of police officers and army troops. ISIS has carried out attacks across the country, often targeting churches and mosques.
In February, the army deployed nearly 40,000 troops and an equal number of police along with heavy weaponry into the Sinai Peninsula for an all-out offensive against ISIS militants.
Operation Sinai 2018 was to last three months; however, just days after it started, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohamed Hegazy demanded more time to root out terror groups. He warned that ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups had been operating in Sinai for many years and have developed a sophisticated network of underground infrastructure that it would take time to uncover and dismantle.
Okasha said that since Operation Sinai 2018 began, the army has acquired valuable information about militant hideouts, arms caches and supply routes.
“This information means that the army is better prepared to end the presence of the terrorists in Sinai but it must be noted that finishing terrorism off can drag on for years,” Okasha said.
One of the biggest challenges facing the army is the militants’ ability to change tactics and avoid decisive defeat, including going underground.
This is not an easy war. Many ISIS fighters, including some in leadership positions, have reportedly arrived from Iraq and Syria. Veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Syria are likely to be battle-hardened, with significant knowledge in small-scale warfare and explosives. Egyptian Army spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifae has told of foreign fighters among ISIS members in Sinai and the danger they represent to Egypt.
Finishing off ISIS is particularly important for Cairo as it seeks to attract investment, draw tourists back and encourage international maritime trade to make use of the Suez Canal, analysts said.
Compounding the ISIS threat is the need for Sisi to keep commodity prices under control as he puts the economy on track following years of unrest, economists said.
Sisi started an economic reform process in his first term, including major subsidy cuts, a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and the flotation of the Egyptian pound. The process has, however, pushed food prices up dramatically, causing hardship for millions of Egyptians.
“Millions of people cannot keep going as food prices keep going up,” said Yumn al-Hamaqi, an economics professor at Cairo University. “More people are expected to become poor if the prices keep rising.”
The national poverty rate of 27.8% is expected to rise after more subsidy cuts are enacted in the coming weeks. Subsidy reductions recently drove the price of drinking water up 45%. The government is also targeting energy subsidies while the price of oil is fluctuating on international markets. This, economists said, will push food prices up further and cause more suffering among Egypt’s poorest.
Sisi promised to move ahead with reforms but economists expressed fears that food prices could spiral out of control.
Sisi is also facing the major threat to Egypt’s share of Nile water posed by a hydroelectric dam being built in Ethiopia.
Seven years of negotiations among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia failed to produce an agreement regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. There was hope that progress had been achieved following the approval of a preliminary technical report highlighting the effects of the dam on Egypt and Sudan but many issues remain unresolved.
Sisi invited Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Cairo to capitalise on the consensus on the preliminary technical report.
The dam will significantly trim Egypt’s annual share of Nile water of 55.5 billion cubic metres. Egypt suffers an annual water deficit of more than 30 billion cubic metres and the filling of the dam reservoir, which should start soon, would likely increase the deficit, imperilling vital agricultural expansion projects and forcing spending on sewage treatment and desalination projects.
“Water is a matter of life or death for Egypt,” said Nader Noureddine, a professor of irrigation at Cairo University. “I expect this issue to be Egypt’s most important in the coming few years.”