The situation in Egypt is not so good. Danger bells are ringing at home and abroad, warning of the deteriorating situation in a country whose importance could have repercussions on both global and regional levels. Enemies do not want the state to fall, but they do not want it to rise either. The current situation in Egypt features an intense political scene amid various economic crises that have caused a wave of price hikes that have hit the already poorer classes hard, threatening unpredictable social and regional disturbances.
All these issues compounded makes it hard to fully and accurately analyse the situation, instead limiting the debate to the fate of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and whether or not he will run for office again. Moreover, further questions arise about the leader’s responsibility for the problems spanning his two-year rule and if he would alter his policies to lead the country out of the bottleneck.
All these questions need expert answers. Columnist, veteran political writer, and former head of the Press Syndicate, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, was a witness to Egypt’s former presidents and close to former president Hosni Mubarak. Ahmed enjoys credibility among the Egyptian elite. Though he is nearing his 80th year, the renowned journalist still reports, conducts interviews, and attends seminars and conferences. He says he is a journalist who writes for himself and his readers, not for regimes. His life story positions him as popular source for those in pursuit of wisdom.
What is your evaluation of the current scene in Egypt?
The scene in Egypt is currently characterised by a chain of economic crises and price hikes that grind the people down while a government that is indecisive in some things and hesitant in others stays still.
Still, the majority of Egyptians have confidence in President Al-Sisi. His popularity may have fallen by 19%, according to Baseera Centre for Public Opinion Research, yet most Egyptians are willing to give the president another chance—they are convinced that he could lead them out of the bottleneck.
If we look closely, Al-Sisi did not commit any serious mistakes throughout his two years in office. Some people, of course, have a different perspective regarding certain decisions or projects, such as the Suez Canal Development Project or the New Administrative Capital. But any shortcomings are related to feasibility and timing—the Suez Canal, for instance, did not realise its set goal due to reasons related to global trade. Similarly, the New Administrative Capital is a vast and crucial project, but it will consume much-needed money.
Furthermore, there are conflicting views over the sovereignty of the two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, although geographical and historical facts prove the islands are Saudi. The latest Egyptian Geographical Society report confirmed this.
Thus, disagreements over Al-Sisi’s policies are not huge and most Egyptians still have trust in him.
At the international level, there were reservations from some countries about Egypt post-June 30th. For instance, the United States, with its pragmatist stance, has begun reconsidering its outlook on Egypt. It now understands that Egypt is an important part of the Arab world—resumption of military relations serves as a proof of this. There is a state of coexistence now following a period of suspending arms and ammunition delivery.
In terms of relations with the European Union, we can say that it is good despite the Saudi-Egyptian dispute on Syria. Egypt stands with those who wish to unify Syria and are against its division. Arab aid to Egypt is not same as before, due to the economic problems facing the Gulf as a result of falling oil prices.
Egypt’s relations with Israel are good. The Israelis have played it smart with Al-Sisi—they haven’t objected to his efforts in countering terrorism and have allowed the entry of weapons into Sinai.
Hamas on the other hand, as part of Muslim Brotherhood, has antagonised Egypt, although Mubarak-era Egypt had dealt with them in Palestinian reconciliation talks and hosted them in Cairo. Hamas has made itself a defence mechanism for Qatar and Turkey—they did not play smart with Egypt. Hamas should have realised their size and stayed away from any dispute with Egypt.
Certain professions have expressed concern about political freedom. What is your comment?
Some journalists are anxious about freedom of the press. Al-Sisi’s comments on former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s relationship with the press have been misunderstood. But no writers were banned and no papers were confiscated.
There are opposing voices and political parties. Real opposition is necessary. The security’s caution towards political parties is exaggerated. Security protects the system. Therefore its standards and cautious are exaggerated.
You called for a party that supports the president and another opposing him to be established. Can you explain this further?
I spoke about the necessity of adjusting the political situation by establishing a healthy political landscape along the lines of western democracy with guarantees of power transfer and fair elections. I did not demand the establishment of a political party headed by Al-Sisi. The Constitution prohibits that. Al-Sisi can run for another presidential term. I do not believe he would pursue amendments to the constitution in order to extend his mandate.
I think having Al-Sisi in office will be a good chance to rearrange the political landscape, but not by creating another National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP and its leaders have vanished and will not return. Nor am I calling for another Sadat by forming political platforms. Anwar Sadat and Ibrahim Shokri made a misstep when they allowed the Brotherhood to enter the political landscape. I am calling for a genuine opening of political space. I do not object to establishing pro-regime parties, but there should be a credible opposition. We have parties that could do so.
All these changes cannot happen suddenly or incidentally. We should prepare the political theatre for these relations between political forces, which is a kind of transfer of power and guarantee of integrity in the electoral process.
What is your opinion of the upcoming presidential elections amid rumours that Al-Sisi has no competitor?
Any presidential candidate wishing to compete against Al-Sisi in the coming elections will face a problem. I believe that former candidate Hamdeen Sabahi will play the same role. We need a bold step to break this impasse. I do not know how it could happen, but we must confess that this is a political defect.
I believe that Al-Sisi wants to run in real elections, rather than just a referendum—which requires competitors.
We hope to find competitors and a serious opposition—those who want to run should be bold and fearless of falsification campaigns.
What is your opinion on calls for Al-Sisi not complete his term in office?
I was surprised. Who is calling Al-Sisi to not complete his term? What is their political weight? It has never happened in the history of journalism that a newspaper demanded that Al-Sisi not complete his term. This is strange for these international newspapers.
Apparently, there is pressure from some countries to force Al-Sisi to step down. Some in the US and the UK think that it would better for Egypt to be ruled by the Brotherhood. They see them as partners. Moreover, they believe that the rule of the Brotherhood will bring stability and that they are an effective economic power. That is what the west believes. However, Egyptians had a bitter experience with the Brotherhood upon which they overthrew their regime. How could anyone impose reconciliation with them on the Egyptian people?
Has there been any reconciliation between the Brotherhood and the regime?
No, the Brotherhood does not want reconciliation. They are now more inclined towards extremism. Many thought they were rethinking their stance from the 1990s, but that would be false. The majority of them would be deemed guilty if that happened, especially during their ruling, due to their lack of experience, stubbornness and disbelief in democracy.
The Brotherhood did not realise that Egyptians changed after 25 January 2011. The people could not stand their strange thinking so they rebelled on 30 June.
What do you think about the military’s control over economic activity in Egypt?
I’m against it—not for fear of the military but because of the numerous challenges. It is better for the military to focus on its main mission of protecting the homeland. Official statistics show that its economic activity represents 20% of the total national economy. A large percentage of the state’s land is under military control.
Are you satisfied with the mechanism of selecting ministries through regulatory agencies?
These agencies make the worst choices. They lie directly to the people but get off scot-free. We have many conflicting agencies, with a conflict of specialties rather than institutions.
What is your evaluation of the crisis in the relations between young people and the authorities in Egypt?
It exists due to different ways of thinking and the absence of any political role for parties and other institutions that deal with the angry youth demographic. It is necessary to have resistance against regimes that are inclined to tyranny.
What is Egypt’s regional role amid the political and military changes?
Egypt is no longer a main player in the region due to the surrounding circumstances. This is an era in which Saudi Arabia has the say. I’m satisfied, however, with Egypt’s stance on the Syrian crisis and Egypt’s support towards Syria as a whole, not its divided factions.
I believe there have been changes in the region. The Americans are withdrawing after petroleum ceased to be an incentive to stay in the region as well as the rise in the existence of alternatives. Obama’s policies have shown a clear failure in managing relations in the Middle East. This does not mean that America was not behind the 25 January revolution—as Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin have stated before.
Regarding Russia’s role in the region, Russians have previous experience and are being careful. They adopt the pragmatic of thinking about “how it will benefit us first”.
Iran is a dangerous player in the region because of its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. There is a contradiction between Iran’s interests and Arabs’ interests. A dialogue is necessary to find common benefits.
Are you concerned about Egypt?
Egypt can help itself on its own, as its history shows. It does not tolerate racial conflicts or civil wars, however, the political scene is heated and there are many economic crises accompanied by high prices and the poor are bearing the burden.