Egypt’s current government has focused on improving national security as the panacea to their country’s political woes—but as Egyptian leaders should know well, harsh crackdowns and institutional fear do not always prevent popular uprisings. Addressing the real, practical needs of ordinary Egyptians would do far more to restore stability and faith in government.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in early 2014, just nine months after helping to oust his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who assumed the presidency after a 2011 popular uprising. Since the controversial 2013-2014 transition, and in many ways because of it, al-Sisi has been forced to confront a burgeoning multifaceted insurgency that has attracted international attention in the aftermath of the downing of Russian Metrojet 9268 and various attacks on Egyptian election officials and police officers. A key driver of Egypt’s economy, tourism, has almost completely collapsed, and the al-Sisi regime has responded by cracking down on any organizational presence deemed injurious to national security. Most visibly, Morsi and other former Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been labeled terrorists and either imprisoned or sentenced to death. Hundreds of non-governmental organizations and educational facilities have been shut down since the repressive surge began, and a heavily armed police and military presence has become the norm in the country’s major cities.
During a recent trip to Egypt, the effects of the government’s institutional fear were strikingly apparent at the country’s polling centers. As a member of an international observation delegation deployed to witness the multiple stages of the country’s parliamentary elections, my Democracy International colleagues and I were greeted at every center by a handful of military officers wielding shotguns and AK-47s. At many centers, the security situation was tense, with an additional armed presence also perched on the rooftops. Admittedly, given the recent security climate, such precautions are not entirely without merit. During my 16-day stay in Egypt, two separate attacks were launched by anti-regime extremists, the first at a hotel in North Sinai that claimed the lives of an election judge and six civilians and the second at a highway checkpoint just south of Cairo that killed four police officers. In addition, a polling center in the northern city of Tanta received a bomb threat and had to be temporarily cleared just seconds after my team and I departed.
Yet in focusing the majority of its resources on security, this regime, like others before it, have ignored other basic needs of the Egyptian populace. For instance, many of the polling centers we visited were surrounded by poverty-stricken communities. The country’s highways were cracked and deteriorating, and I quickly lost count of the unfinished apartment buildings standing uninhabited in many northern cities. Of course, Egypt is and has long been a military state. Its most prominent national memories—those that elderly taxi drivers still proudly recount while navigating the chaotic Cairo streets—are its displays of strength, and anyone with knowledge of Egypt’s tumultuous past would have been remiss to expect its priorities to change under the current president, himself a former military general.
The reality that Egyptian leaders must face, however, is that while they treat improved national security as the panacea to their country’s political woes, it is only one piece of a complex puzzle. After all, popular uprising has been the downfall of the last two regimes, and thus it is the will of the people that al-Sisi and successive leaders must take seriously. In addition to relaxing restrictions on civil society, the president and his newly elected parliament should reprioritize elements of the budget and divert a significant percentage of defense spending for public works projects, thereby lending domestic and international legitimacy to the regime while also improving the lives of everyday Egyptians. More specifically, the addition of robust state-funded programs would create jobs and increase consumer spending, which would in turn lead to the development of a sturdier Egyptian middle class and spur the domestic economy. In terms of public works, a decentralized waste management system would be a good place to start, followed closely by improvements to transportation infrastructure and more options for adequate and affordable housing in the country’s poorer regions. Though hardliners in the current regime would scoff at such suggestions, they must consider that addressing real, practical needs would go a long way toward building confidence among the Egyptian electorate. This would be especially true for younger Egyptians, almost all of whom chose not to vote in the recent elections and upon whom the country’s political fate will likely depend if recent history is any indication.
More nuanced domestic spending would contribute to Egypt’s nascent democratic development, but the United States will likely need to play a role in this reconfiguration as well. In March 2015, President Obama unfroze the U.S. Department of State’s $1.5 billion annual aid package to Egypt, the world’s second largest recipient of U.S. military assistance. Yet the delivery and implementation of this aid lacks proper oversight, and experts have argued that the U.S. should reconsider its assistance to Egypt altogether to protest al-Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown on civil liberties. The official U.S. government position, however, continues to prioritize broader stability in the Middle East and maintains that ties with Egypt must be preserved at all costs due to its shared firm stance on suppressing extremist movements.
However, a third option exists that President Obama, his eventual successor, and State Department officials should pursue in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), one that would both preserve U.S-Egypt ties and bolster the domestic progress that Egypt itself must initiate. Rather than reducing aid dramatically, Congress should instead creatively repurpose it. After all, of the $1.5 billion total planned for 2016, less than 10 percent of it has been set aside for social services and economic development. Rather than in-kind military shipments, a larger portion of our annual assistance should be earmarked for new and existing agriculture and food security, sanitation, and economic growth programs. These would both provide vital services to the millions of Egyptians who lack them and, by extension, replace the artificial backing that al-Sisi has generated through the suppression of opposition with genuine popular support. More broadly, it would push Egypt further along the path toward toward responsive and accountable governance and contribute more to its stability than weapons shipments have or will. With more money set aside for development, the United States can also rest assured that these funds will be appropriately spent, as USAID has recently made monitoring and evaluation of its many worldwide programs a top organizational priority.
The al-Sisi regime has yet to acknowledge the moral and strategic justifications for breaking from its autocratic tendencies in favor of an improved human rights record and enhanced domestic growth, and it must confront these prerequisite exigencies of authentic democratic progress before any substantial change can occur. If and when it does, Egypt will need help ensuring that its redefinition can proceed in the face of other obvious challenges, and the United States is well-poised to provide that necessary assistance. What Egypt needs right now is a partner in development, not an arms dealer, and it is time we forego our role as the latter in favor of the former.
Kirby Neuner is a 2015 graduate of Williams College. He currently works as a Program Assistant at Democracy International, a Bethesda-based democracy and governance firm. The ideas and opinions presented in this article are the author’s alone and are not intended to reflect or represent the organizational views of Democracy International.
Image credit: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons.