You can imagine the telephone calls. A third heavyweight challenger has emerged to contest the presidential election and he is another former chief of staff, General Sami Anan. Military intelligence, loyal to the incumbent president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is working overtime to brief its hand puppets in the media.
“We have made this so simple even you can understand.”
“Three A’s. Anan. Age. Alzheimer’s. Got it? Anan repeats words because he forgets he says them. The president speaks fluently. Anan in a wheelchair. The president on a white horse. Like Gaddafi. No, forget Gaddafi. Like Putin. Remember Putin bare-chested on a horse? Youth versus age. Got it?”
“On it, sir.”
Dead man walking
Anan is the third challenger I identified over a year ago when I wrote that Sisi was a dead man walking. I compared him to King Solomon, who died propped up on his wooden staff. The only beings to know of the king’s death were the termites eating into his stick.
Since then, the termites consuming Sisi’s authority have come closer to the seat of power. Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister, who abandoned his presidential bid after being told he would be smeared with sex tapes and charged with corruption, along with his daughter, came close.
In exile, Shafiq assembled a wide list of potential backers. First and foremost from the deep state: generals from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and those “whores” in General Intelligence that Captain Ashraf al-Kholi, the security agent alluded to when instructing Azmi Megahed, the TV anchor, on what line to take.
At the same time as Iran attracted international condemnation for the crushing of its protesters, Egypt killed almost as many people by hanging them, without so much as a whisper of protest
The backing of the business elite around the family of Hosni Mubarak also came as no surprise, as Shafiq owes his career to the former president.
But visits from Salman al-Ansari, the founder of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee, a right-hand man of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and from a representative of the Coptic Church, were interesting.
Shafiq courted both the secular and Islamist opposition. The two camps of the Muslim Brotherhood, the reformist wing and the old guard, who have stopped speaking to each other, spoke with ease to Shafiq.
Sisi faced down another threat from within – his brother-in-law General Mahmoud Hegazy. The chief of staff of the armed forces was sacked when he stepped off his plane from Washington, where he had apparently presented himself as the president in waiting.
It was not clear whether Hegazy had been talking about running as candidate in the forthcoming presidential election or whether he intended to take a more direct route.
The economy, stupid
Anan, Shafiq, Hegazy are all insiders. None would shed a tear for Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Muslim Brotherhood president, let alone the 50,000 other political prisoners. But they are not the issue any more.
Sisi’s continued misrule, in their eyes, is threatening something bigger than a political movement. He is endangering the state itself. Have things got that bad?
Economic mismanagement tops the list of grievances, at least as far as his backers, the Saudis and Emiratis, are concerned. According to figures from Egypt’s central bank, Saudi, the UAE and Kuwait have poured $12bn in aid and $6.2bn in direct investment into Egypt since 2013. In reality, the figure is likely to be higher.
The emir of Dubai and prime minister of the UAE, Mohammad bin Rashed Al Maktoom,blurted out the truth when he said the UAE alone gave Egypt $14bn in two years. This fits with other figures culled from a series of leaked and authenticated conversations between the president and his then-chief of staff, Kamel Abbas, which totals nearly $50bn in aid.
One month after the leaks were aired in February 2015, the three Gulf states pledged another $15.2bn in aid. If you add that to the $6bn Egypt has already received from its three-year International Monetary Fund loan, that makes over $70bn in the past five years. In the same tapes, Sisi scoffed about his Gulf donors: “They have money like rice.” Well, it does not feel that way in Riyadh any more.
What, they would be right to ask, has Sisi done with the money?
The decision to float the Egyptian pound in November last year, forced on Cairo by the IMF, has restored foreign reserves from $19bn to $36.7bn by the end of October. But the price of that has been to push inflation to over 30 percent.
“We have increased prices on average by 15 percent because consumers’ purchasing power cannot take more, whereas the increase should have been more like 30 percent,” the Financial Times quoted an Egyptian cheese-maker, Ibrahim Soudan, as saying.
The new Suez canal, opened two years ago at a cost of $8bn, is struggling to maintain annual revenue, let alone double it – which was the promise made at the time.
Sisi has had to deploy ever more force to keep the lid on his own people. At the same time as Iran attracted international condemnation for the crushing of its protesters, Egypt killed almost as many people by hanging them, without so much as a whisper of protest. It was Egypt’s largest mass execution in recent memory.
As they use more force, Egypt’s army and police have themselves come under sustained attack. The semi-official Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies recorded 1,165 armed operations between 2014 and 2016, which translates to one operation a day for three years.
Omar Ashour wrote: “The lethality of the attacks is probably the worst bit of the recorded data. Under the current regime, the two worst terrorist attacks in Egypt’s modern history were perpetrated: the Russian Metrojet bombing (224 victims) and al-Rawda Mosque attack (at least 305 victims).”
“The latter is five times more lethal than the worst attack perpetrated under president Mubarak (57 victims in the Luxor massacre in 1997) and 19 times more lethal than the worst attack perpetrated under president Morsi (16 dead soldiers in Karem Abu Salem in 2012).”
Regionally, despite five years of covert and overt military intervention, Egypt has been unable to secure Libya using its place-man, General Khalifa Haftar. Diplomatic hostilities are mounting with Sudan, its southern neighbour, over a border dispute and water, and to the east, the militant campaign in Sinai is more potent than ever.
All of which could make Shafiq’s or Anan’s candidacy attractive to Egypt’s backers in the Gulf.
They would remain in control of the presidency, and the army would remain in control of Egypt. However, there would be a political path forward if prisoners began to be released, and a lot of talented exiles could start returning. Sisi’s replacement would not be revolutionary, and in many senses it would be a step backwards to the days of Mubarak.
But it’s a sign of how bad things have become under Sisi that even a return to the pragmatic despotism of Mubarak would look like progress.
Why then hasn’t this happened?
Softening Arab public opinion
Sisi, the despot, can still play a role for Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia, that Shafiq or Anan, or another replacement from the military, who will not necessarily be closer to Egyptian public opinion, cannot. This is to soften the opinion of the Arab street in favour of surrendering East Jerusalem to Israel.
If this policy faces one major obstacle, that obstacle is not to be found in the elites of modern Arab states. It is to be found on the Arab street.
This was the substance of the briefing between a security operative and a TV chat-show host, leaked to the New York Times. It is also the subject of other licensed voices like Youssef Ziedan, an Egyptian novelist and scholar.
Ziedan’s thesis is that al-Aqsa mosque, literally the “furthest” of the three Muslim holy sites, is not located in Jerusalem’s al-Haram al-Sharif compound and that Jerusalem is not a holy Muslim city.
The Israeli embassy in Cairo thanked Ziedan for his remarks, but the fact that they are being voiced and aired now on Egyptian television is no accident. He, like everyone else, is doing his master’s bidding.
None of this will work. The only way for Egypt to recover from the death spiral it is now in is to restore its own leadership, sovereignty, economy, parliament and ultimately democracy.
The current path leads to a terminal weakening and ultimately break-up of the Arab world’s most populous state.
“We are not a real state. We are a pseudo-state,” Sisi once said. This could be another of his self-fulfilling prophecies.
– David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.