Is Egypt About to Fall Into Chaos—Again?
For Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it could not have come at a worse time.
On Saturday, October 31, a passenger plane carrying mostly Russian nationals fell from the sky over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 on board. Initially, the Egyptian government (as well as the Russian) did their best to quell any suggestion that terrorism was the cause. Yet within a week, the United Kingdom had halted flights in and out of the popular tourist destination of Sharm el-Sheikh, declaring that the crash was most likely the result of a bomb on board.
After holding out for an extra couple of days, Russian President Vladmir Putin one-upped the Brits, not only ordering the immediate cessation of all flights in and out of the Sinai Peninsula, but also canceled Russian flights everywhere in Egypt. He then declared the moratorium on Egyptian travel would last “for months.” With Egypt being the most popular tourist destination for Russians, Cairo stands to lose in excess of $250 million of revenue per month, the tourism minister said on Wednesday. Before the crash, the tourism sector comprised about 14 percent of Egypt’s economy—an economy that was already faltering due to high unemployment and the low oil price, which has all but dried up Gulf investment in the country.
This latest blow is just one more crisis that Egypt’s president must weather in order to stay in power.
All over Egypt, there is a groundswell of support to oust the former coup leader as tough times hit Egypt’s citizens. In this part of the world, economic struggles tend to manifest themselves into revolutionary fervor. This fact has many wondering whether Sisi will last in power.
“He is under constant death threats,” Vin Weber, cochairman of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, said last week after discussions with senior Israeli security officials. “Many people said we’re not sure where he sleeps at night. And I think there is a question mark in the minds of Israelis about whether or not the government can succeed.”
Israelis are understandably worried about Sisi’s longevity. Not since the era of Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s former president who signed a peace agreement with the Jewish State in the late ’70s, has Israel had so firm an ally in the Arab world as Sisi. In response to Sadat’s overtures to Israel, the Arab League suspended Egypt and moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis. A couple of years later, while attending a military parade in Cairo, Sadat was assassinated by an Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group.
Sisi seems to be following the same precarious route. Not only has he reaffirmed the 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel, he has actively encouraged other nations in the Middle East to join the treaty. Just over a week ago, Egypt voted with Israel in the United Nations for the first time in history. While the vote was over an insignificant topic, admission of Israel into the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Affairs, it still enraged the Arab world.
No wonder Sisi has experienced a number of assassination attempts since he came into power in 2013. So far, the Islamist extremists have been unsuccessful.
But putting the foiled plots on his life aside, Sisi has much more to worry about.
For the past three years, the Sinai Peninsula, an area in Egypt’s eastern region separated from Egypt proper by the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, has been a constant war zone. The Egyptian military has tried to put down a terrorist insurgency, resulting in over 300 deaths of military personnel. In 2014, the main Sunni terrorist group in the region pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and changed its name to the “Sinai Province” of the Islamic State. This is the same terrorist group that claimed it took down the Russian jetliner.
Things aren’t much better on Egypt’s western frontier, where warring factions in Libya are vying for position to rule. Because of this threat, President Sisi was in London a week ago pleading with Prime Minister David Cameron to finish what he started in Libya back in 2011, when nato took down the regime of Muammar Qadhafi but failed to follow up. “Now we have a situation where the will of the Libyan people is being held hostage by militant groups,” Sisi told London’s Daily Telegraph before his visit. “Don’t forget that we are plagued by terrorists along the 1,000-kilometer border with Libya,” he said in a separate interview with the bbc.
Viewing Sisi’s situation, Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Devin Nunes, said to Bloomberg View recently, “I hope Sisi can keep the country together …. [T]he Sinai is completely unstable where jihadis are roaming all over; and on the other side of Egypt you have Libya where we have no plan. This could potentially set Egypt into chaos.”
Sisi is a man besieged by extremist groups at his borders. However, many feel that the greatest threat comes from within the nation. Sisi has also undertaken a widespread crackdown on the former ruling party—the Muslim Brotherhood—sentencing many of them to death, including former president Mohamed Morsi. Justified or not, this has only intensified the rage of the younger, less experienced Muslim Brotherhood recruits who are impatient and more likely to use terrorism as a tool of protest. This tense reality was witnessed in Cairo earlier this year when the chief prosecutor for the government was assassinated on his way to work by a car bomb.
In an effort to put down any type of radical incitement against his rule, Sisi has rounded up media agencies on grounds of corruption or “publishing false news that harms national security.” In turn, international human rights agencies have pushed their respective governments to pressure Sisi to step down or change his policy on human rights.
All in all, Sisi faces a veritable witch’s brew of serious problems, none of which are going away and any of which could take him down. Is the downing of the Russian jet, along with its economic impacts, going to be the straw that breaks this Middle Eastern leader’s back?
Continue to watch as Sisi struggles to keep the Islamists from taking over, all the while doing his best to neutralize negative world public opinion against his internal policy decisions. To read the Trumpet’s long-view forecast of Egypt’s future, read “Iran-Egypt Alliance Prophesied.”