Wariness in Egypt as Muslim Brotherhood seeks to capitalise on public discontent

Although the Brotherhood is almost politically dead in terms of a presence on Egyptian streets, it has a strong media presence.
Sunday 24/06/2018
A man carries bread along a busy street near a poster of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo. (Reuters)
Challenging phase. A man carries bread along a busy street near a poster of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - There are fears the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood could use public anger over subsidy cuts to destabilise the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has already started working on this by beginning a massive campaign to encourage the people to protest against the subsidy cuts,” said Mounir Adib, an Egyptian expert on Islamist movements. “This is an opportune moment for the Brotherhood to settle old scores with Sisi.”

Sisi, the army chief when the military backed an uprising against Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013, has carried out a merciless crackdown on the Brotherhood since he became president.

The Muslim Brotherhood was formally designated as a terrorist group in late 2013. Many Brotherhood leaders fled Egypt, seeking refuge in Turkey or Qatar.

Sisi’s government slashed subsidies on petroleum and cooking oil on June 16, with the price of petrol increasing as much as 50%, the Oil Ministry said. The announcement was just days after Egypt confirmed cuts to electricity subsidies, raising prices an average of 26% beginning in July.

Egypt’s commitment to enforcing deep subsidy cuts and other tough fiscal measures comes as part of a 3-year, $12 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan programme that began in 2016. The aim is to bridge Cairo’s budget deficit, reduce government debts and bring inflation down.

However, in the short term, the plan has seen major increases in commodity prices and transport fares and many Egyptians have complained about the harsh measures but economists said such moves are necessary if the Egyptian economy is to secure long-term stability.

“You can never build a strong economy while you keep selling commodities for prices far below their real market prices,” said Karima Kareem, an economics professor at al-Azhar University. “These subsidies are the main reason why local and foreign debts have reached record levels.”

For decades, the government has subsidised electricity, drinking water, transportation, food and car and home fuel.

In 1977, the government of President Anwar Sadat sought to shake up the subsidiary system, which led to the infamous “bread riots” in which hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Egypt. Sadat ultimately backed down on a decision to terminate subsidies.

The recent protests in Jordan, also over IMF-mandated austerity plans, resulted in the dissolution of the government and the partial reversal of austerity measures.

Cairo, however, appears committed to moving ahead with austerity measures because of an $80.8 billion foreign debt and tens of billions of dollars in local debts.

Since starting the economic reform programme, Sisi has stressed the need for the public to shoulder some of the burden as the country’s economy recovers. In May 2017, Sisi angrily rebuked a member of parliament in public after he asked Sisi to delay subsidy cuts and raise the salaries of the country’s more than 5 million civil servants.

“Do you realise what you are saying?” Sisi asked. “Do you want this country to rise on its feet again or continue to stay as it is?”

Although Sisi has since kept up the pace of economic reform, Cairo recently sought to include social spending along with its austerity measures, an indication the government is paying attention to the popular discontent.

Last year’s budget included $4.2 billion on social spending, mostly food subsidies that increased while other subsidies were being cut. More recently, the Egyptian Finance Ministry said approximately 5 million government employees would receive bonuses, 9.5 million would benefit from pensions and 20 million are to get relief via tax credits.

Tolerance for the subsidy cuts is growing thinner among many Egyptians as more people find it impossible to cope with commodity price hikes.

This discontent falls at the heart of a media campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood calling for protests against government austerity measures.

Although the Brotherhood, which was Egypt’s strongest political force before Morsi’s ouster, is almost politically dead in terms of a presence on Egyptian streets, it has a strong media presence because of its ability to operate from abroad, particularly via Qatari and Turkish media.

There are fears that Brotherhood members, hiding their affiliation, are using social media to call for protests. Egyptians often share videos on social media of people calling for protests or addressing Sisi directly about the austerity measures.

There is a good chance that Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated media could incite unrest or protest, analysts said, particularly given that many poor Egyptians are having a hard time dealing with the austerity measures.

“These calls are coming at a time most Egyptians are very angry at the economic reforms, even as they do not want to destabilise their country or agree with the Brotherhood,” Adib said.

“There is in politics the theory of unintended consequences, which is why authorities need to work to prevent the opposition from using public anger to destabilise this country and return to the political scene.”