Egypt faces many pressing problems
The massive evacuation of Russian, British and other European tourists from Sharm el-Sheikh in the wake of the downing of the Russian airliner is likely to damage Egypt’s tourism industry for some time. However, this is not Egypt’s only pressing problem.
Low voter turnout for the parliamentary elections, continued high levels of youth unemployment and intermittent arrests of journalists underscore a sense of malaise about where Egypt is headed.
Although the cause of the downing of the Russian jet has not been proved, intelligence agencies of major world powers (including Russia) are convinced the crash was the result of an on-board bomb.
Despite this consensus of expert opinion, Egyptian officials and government-owned media have been in a state of denial. Some pro-government Egyptian journalists said the suggestion of a bomb was a Western conspiracy designed to weaken Egypt.
Obviously, Egyptian officials did not want to face the likely fact that the downing of the aeroplane was the result of a bomb because it would point to a serious breach of security at Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport.
Perhaps worse, it highlights the continuing terrorist threat from the Islamic State-affiliate Sinai Province. Despite Cairo’s claims that it is winning the war against Sinai Province, the group has proved to be resilient. If, indeed, Sinai Province infiltrated Sharm el-Sheikh airport, it shows that the terrorist group can carry out brazen plots that differ from its usual hit-and-run tactics.
The tourism sector, which took a big hit in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, had been recovering prior to the Russian aircraft crash. The southern Sinai (where Sharm el-Sheikh is) was a particular bright spot because most tourists were able to fly directly to the area from European airports, bypassing what were seen as riskier areas of Egypt.
A European travel analyst told CNN that tourists had “dissociated this part of Egypt from the unrest elsewhere”.
In 2014, 2.8 million Russians, 1 million Britons and 600,000 Germans visited Egypt. These numbers are expected to fall dramatically after the October 31st air disaster.
Unfortunately for Egypt, the drop in tourism will adversely affect government revenues and jobs. According to figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism accounts for 13% of Egypt’s gross domestic product and about 12% of jobs in the country are directly or indirectly supported by tourism.
The tourism sector was one area in which university graduates, often because of their facility with foreign languages, had opportunity for employment. Now the government and Egypt’s friends abroad will have to double down on other avenues, such as entrepreneurial training, that can bolster employment.
The hit against tourism comes at a time when there is growing pessimism about where Egyptian politics is headed. The low voter turnout in the parliamentary elections indicates a lack of enthusiasm for Egypt’s political direction along with the sentiment among many Egyptians that pro-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi politicians would dominate parliament. Informed sources say the turnout was no more than 26% of the electorate.
Although Sisi won plaudits from most Egyptians for removing Muhammad Morsi from power in 2013 and cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and for his grand project of building an extension to the Suez Canal, these policies have not translated into more jobs.
Among the intelligentsia, there is growing unease about the arrests, albeit intermittent, of independent journalists and dissidents. Hossam Bahgat, a journalist for Mada Masr, was arrested for “publishing false news that harms the national interest”. He had reported on a case of 26 military officers accused of plotting a coup. Bahgat was released only after an international outcry.
And to add to Egypt’s malaise, Saudi Arabia’s generous financial support to Cairo since Morsi’s ouster is unlikely to continue on the same scale because of Saudi Arabia’s own financial worries stemming from low oil prices and its costly military intervention in Yemen.
These mounting problems do not mean the Egyptian government is in danger of collapse but they do suggest that it needs a course correction to overcome present difficulties. Egypt’s friends in the international community should continue to offer counterterrorism support and do what they can to encourage economic reform and ways to reduce youth unemployment. But Cairo should also understand that legitimate criticism should be tolerated and not be seen as a threat.