Egypt’s El-Sisi Suffers a Stunning Reversal of Fortunes


Twelve months ago, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi seemed to be enjoying the best year of his reign. The general-turned-politician was presiding over an economic rebound that had made Egypt the Middle East’s fastest-growing economy and a honeypot for emerging-markets investors. A referendum had just allowed him to remain in office until 2030, making his political position well-nigh impregnable.

And he was enjoying the enthusiastic backing of Egypt’s two most important foreign allies, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia; President Trump thought he was doing “a great job.”

Like much of the region, Egypt is now reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and the fall in oil prices. Despite new assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the economy will continue to struggle. Business activity, already slow before the pandemic struck, has ebbed further. The government’s desperation is clear from its efforts to restart tourism even though cases of the virus are expected to keep rising.

Now, Sisi faces a pair of foreign-policy challenges on Egypt’s borders that could turn 2020 into his nadir. In Libya, he finds himself backing the losing side of a civil war. In Ethopia, negotiations over a giant hydroelectric dam in the Nile have failed, ending hopes for the resolution of an old, acrimonious dispute.

Worse, Egypt’s ruler can’t expect much help from his admirer in the White House. The collapse of negotiations over the Nile dam represents a failure of American mediation — the U.S. Treasury had tried to broker a deal — and Trump, beset with domestic problems amid a reelection campaign, is unlikely to give the matter much more attention. In Libya, the U.S. president seems to have come to an understanding with Turkey, which backs the other side in the civil war.

Nor can Sisi hope for much succor from Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudis mediated the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace accord, they have had little influence on the Nile negotiations. And Saudi relations with Turkey are openly hostile, ruling out any role for Riyadh in easing the Cairo-Ankara confrontation over Libya.

Egypt isn’t entirely friendless in Libya, but it is not clear that rebel commander Khalifa Haftar’s other backers — notably the United Arab Emirates and Russia — will boost their support if Libya’s government forces, with more help from the Turks, storm the strategic port of Sirte. Sisi had declared Sirte as his line in the sand, suggesting Egypt may intervene directly if Turkey crosses it. The Emiratis, no less hostile to Turkey than the Saudis, may hold the line; Russia, which is allied with the Turks in Syria, may not.

Sisi may soon be forced to decide. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have embarked on an ambitious nation-building project in Libya, and the government in Tripoli is keen to press home its advantage over Haftar. Sisi’s proposal for a cease-fire was met with scorn from Turkey as well as from Libya’s Government of National Accord.

Matters are not quite as kinetic in the south, despite the chest-thumping of prominent Egyptians and long-standing predictions of a war over the Nile waters. But if Ethiopia does follow through on its threat to fill the dam, Sisi would be under pressure to retaliate. (Egypt fears that the dam would restrict its water supply and harm its farmers.)

As if these two foreign-policy challenges were not onerous enough, a third looms to the north: Israel’s proposed annexation of large parts of the West Bank. Sisi has strengthened relations with Israel — a $15 billion natural-gas deal between the two countries is key to Egypt’s hopes of becoming a major energy supplier to Europe. But Cairo is opposed to annexation. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes ahead with  a plan that is bound to be unpopular with ordinary Egyptians, Sisi may be required to respond with something more substantial than a strongly-worded statement of disapproval.

Under such circumstances, the prospect of holding office until 2030 may come to feel more like a curse than a blessing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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