WRMEA, September 2014, Page 70
A June 16 event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC examined developments in Egypt. Speakers were Wilson Center scholars Emad Shahin, public policy professor at the American University in Cairo, and Marina Ottaway, an analyst on issues of political transformation in the Middle East. Moushira Khattab, current chair of the Egyptian Women in Foreign Policy group of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs, joined the conversation from Cairo via Skype.
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program, introduced the topic by noting that while there is a lot of debate regarding the legitimacy and significance of the recent elections and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s victory, Egypt’s future remains mostly unknown. This discussion was akin to “looking through a crystal ball,” Esfandiari said.
Shahin began by stating that under el-Sisi, the economy remains one of the biggest question marks. “Sisi needs to do the opposite of Mubarak: fight corruption and lead a radical reconstruction for the economy,” he said. The problem, however, is that “Sisi is a product of the old [Mubarak] regime,” Shahin said, citing Sisi’s declaration in a TV appearance during his campaign that “we should give the corrupt a chance.”
Ottaway based much of her analysis on a recent trip to Egypt in which she observed the three-day electoral process and the inaugural period. “My first impression was that we are dealing with a tense situation,” she said, reflecting on her attempts to get through the barb-wired Tahrir Square during el-Sisi’s inaugural celebrations. “The government is very nervous about crowds,” she noted. “The fact that the square was not even full says a lot. This is a country that is nervous on all levels.”
According to Ottaway, uncertainty seems to be what most Egyptians have in common. “Whether it is economic reform, electoral laws, [the future of] business and finance, the most prevalent answer is ‘I don’t know,’” she said. Ottaway agreed with other commentators that el-Sisi’s vision of the future of the Egyptian economy remains unclear, saying that the most concrete statement el-Sisi has so far given regarding the issue of fuel subsidies promoted the use of bicycles, which she described as merely a “cosmetic approach to reform.”
From Cairo, Khattab tackled the question of Egypt’s future from a different perspective. “Sisi presents himself as a president to all Egyptians,” she argued. “He has welcomed all those whose hands have not been stained by blood.” On the issue of national reconciliation raised by Shahin, Khattab said that the process is already ongoing and that several delegations from the Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Union have been meeting with el-Sisi to put forward a plan for national reconciliation.
On the issue of the economy, Khattab acknowledged the difficulties facing el-Sisi. “We have seen that over the last three years Egypt has been left with an economy [resembling] a ticking bomb,” she noted. To deal with it, el-Sisi will have to count on his popular support to take “painful but necessary steps,” such as the gradual lifting of fuel subsidies.
Finally, Khattab talked about what the future of Egyptian women looks like, and called women the “unsung heroes who gave Egypt the chance for a better Egypt.” She applauded el-Sisi for delivering an apology to a recent victim of sexual assault in Tahrir Square, describing the incident as “unheard of in the Middle East.”
—Dina Salah ElDin