Seminal political events carry ripple effects

Sisi continues to lead a painful economic reform process but one that is beginning to show positive indicators.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inspects the progress of work during a tour of the Grand Egyptian Museum, December 27. (Egyptian Presidency)
Politics of reform. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inspects the progress of work during a tour of the Grand Egyptian Museum, December 27. (Egyptian Presidency)

CAIRO - Egypt’s failure to secure a deal with Ethiopia over its Nile dam, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s winning a second term and calls for changing the constitution to allow him to seek additional terms in office were the biggest political events of 2018 in Egypt.

Those events could decide the political course for Egypt in 2019, analysts said.

Egypt has been trying to convince Ethiopia to turn assurances that Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would not harm Egypt’s water interests into a written document. Addis Ababa and Cairo have been unable to come to an agreement, however, ramping up regional tensions as the multibillion-dollar dam moves closer to completion.

Sisi asked then-new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to swear a public oath during his visit to Cairo on June 10 that Ethiopia would not harm Egypt’s interests. “I swear by God that we will not cause harm to Egypt,” Ahmed said.

For many Egyptians, the dam is one of the most serious threats facing the country, particularly given that the Arab country’s population is growing by almost 2 million people every year and is already water poor.

Egypt, which receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile every year, suffers a water deficit of more than 20 billion cubic metres.

The new dam will only make things worse for Egypt, exacerbate its water shortage and threaten its food security, some predict.

In November, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli visited Ethiopia and agreed with Ahmed on starting a new round of talks on the dam. Those negotiations should take place sometime in 2019, the year Egypt takes over the rotating presidency of the African Union.

“The African Union presidency will put Egypt at the heart of decision making in the African continent,” said Ahmed Abdel Monem, a researcher at local think-tank Middle East Studies Centre. “This will help it influence African positions in favour of its stance on the dam.”

Equally important for Egypt in 2018 was Sisi securing a second — and technically final — term in office. Sisi became president in 2014, one year after an army-backed popular uprising against Islamist president Muhammad Morsi.

Sisi has mounted ceaseless campaign against political Islam throughout the region. Egypt, along with other Arab Gulf countries, formally designated Morsi’s movement — the Muslim Brotherhood — a “terrorist” organisation, striking a major blow against political Islam.

The downfall of the Brotherhood in Egypt had a domino effect on its ideological offshoots in other countries, especially in Tunisia, Jordan and Libya where branches of the Brotherhood lost control or were politically sidelined.

“Sisi is determined to maintain his war on Islamist movements to the end,” said Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at Cairo University. “He repeatedly said that he has no problem with groups that want to live peacefully with Egyptians but, sorry to say, some of these Islamist groups cannot do this.”

There have been increasing calls for Sisi to stay in office beyond 2022, including one lawmaker filing a lawsuit calling on parliament to commit to discussing changing the constitution. Several popular media figures have publicly backed such a constitutional amendment.

“The president needs more time in the presidency to complete what he started: the economic development of the country,” MP Ismail Nasreddine said. “Four years are far from enough for him [Sisi] to do this.”

The Egyptian Constitution limits the number of terms a president can serve to two. Although Sisi has said more than once that he intends to abide by the constitution, he has also repeatedly said that he only ruled by the will of the Egyptian people. Sisi, unlike former President Hosni Mubarak, is an independent candidate with no ties to any political party. Both his presidential runs were preceded by national campaigns petitioning him to stand for president.

Sisi’s popularity remains high and he secured his second term in a landslide, winning with more than 97% of the vote against Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who had endorsed Sisi’s re-election before entering the race for the presidency.

Sisi continues to lead a painful economic reform process but one that is beginning to show positive indicators despite the effect it has had on Egypt’s poor and middle class.

With calls for changing the constitution getting louder and campaigns being organised on social media to back Sisi for a third term, parliament will likely have to include for 2019 a debate on amending the presidential term limits, analysts said.

“This is very likely in 2019 with the president inherently showing no opposition to staying longer in power and viable alternatives making themselves scarce,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Sorry to say this will deal a painful blow to political succession as a concept, even as some people want the president to remain in office.”