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Sisi’s charm offensive

Following a turbulent election season that saw President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secure a second term in a heavily disputed election, discussion has now shifted to what we might expect to see from him in the near future.

Long-term ills that have been exacerbated during Sisi’s first term as president include a flailing economy that has seen little promise of growth or increasing employment amid ongoing austerity; security woes, as the military continues to battle Islamist insurgents in North Sinai and an existential battle for resources, as a crisis over the Nile waters looms large.

An immediate focus for the Sisi regime might be to shore up support from abroad, after a hotly debated election brought little reassurance from foreign powers, most notably in the West. This will likely include a Cabinet reshuffle as an initial move by the incumbent president. While it has long been known, and admitted by the president himself, that he has no time for politics, nor for the engagement of civilian groups and political organizations, the new face of Sisi’s Cabinet may be a first step to securing western support, which was lacking during the recent electoral period.

After the election, western powers decided against outright support for Sisi’s actions in the run-up to the vote and chose instead to highlight the political sensitivities that occurred during the process. Despite a seemingly warm message of congratulations from United States President Donald Trump, the US State Department was much more critical in its assessment of the election, noting the restrictions on human rights and freedoms. German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to use the word “vote” or “election” in her statement, noting only Sisi’s incoming term. After a statement that directly alluded to the constitutionality of his second term by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Prime Minister Theresa May chose to explicitly outline the importance of Sisi’s public commitment to respecting Egyptian presidential term-limits,” and the fact that this would (or should), indeed, be his final term. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who has arguably been the European leader who has warmed to Sisi the most, merely highlighted the constitutionality surrounding the Egyptian leader’s second term.

Foreign diplomats also noted a change in attitude by Egyptian diplomats, with niceties and openness to criticism recently replacing despising accounts of harassment and bullying in the corridors of government institutions abroad. The UK has continued to defy Egypt’s attempts to have flights reinstated to South Sinai, in an attempt to shore up tourism in the country, and remains firm in its negative assessment of Egypt’s ability to secure the Sinai and its aviation. While Germany appears to have warmed to Sisi, and even floated its own attempts to have Egypt engage on its preferred migration policies, it has stood by pressure from German civil society and continued to push for a resolution to the NGO foreign funding case, (recently re-opened by the Egyptian courts), which included the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The German delegation in Cairo has been privately celebrated by its EU counterparts for its willingness to criticize and keep rights and freedoms publicly on the agenda.

The US, for its part, continues to pressure the Egyptian president, notably on matters of security and counterterrorism. While there had been discussions at senior levels in congress — mostly in the senate — over aid cuts, Egypt was able to secure the full US$1.3 billion aid package in foreign military funding from the US. However, previous cuts made in 2017 are still in place, and Egypt has not been able to ignore anger from US officials over its arms smuggling deals with North Korea, exposed last year as part of an ongoing UN investigation. Such cuts may continue, or even increase, as the US focuses on this issue.

Sisi, who is known to care deeply about his own image among his Western counterparts, will certainly not have taken kindly to the statements given by EU leaders. Having lost a battle in Brussels earlier this year to encourage election observers to monitor the vote in Egypt, Sisi may be keen to quieten critical voices that are ringing out in the hallways of power in European capitals, particularly in light of the strong bilateral relationship that exists between Cairo and Brussels, and the importance of other key relationships with EU member states.

Previous Egyptian statements, and on occasion threats — as some diplomats maintain — about migration flows Europe might see if the country becomes unstable, have certainly had a long-lasting effect, and one might argue continue to resonate among migration-centric policy makers. However, recent frustration with the Egyptian leader on issues like rights and freedoms, forced disappearances and press freedoms, which have until now been largely ignored, might trump any threats from across the Mediterranean Sea.

Much of this criticism, of course, surrounds continuous rumors and suggestions that Sisi will work towards amending the constitution during his second term, in order to remove presidential term limits, among a host of other changes that will empower the Office of the President. With a White House occupied by a president who seemingly cares little for the importance of maintaining democratic norms in a region like the Middle East, it has fallen to Europe to be the moral compass of the West. With Egypt as its largest trading partner in the Southern Neighbourhood, hosting an EU delegation, second in the world only to Turkey in size (an accession country since 2005), Egypt remains a vital and important partner for the EU. Lately, though, the EU and its member states have not fully acquiesced to the Egyptian leader’s repressive domestic measures, even as he deploys a charm offensive abroad.

One way Sisi could be sure to quieten critique in the West might be through the careful selection of prime minister. A long-held belief has been that he could move to appoint Egypt’s first female PM, arguably a win for gender equality proponents across the region and abroad. Some members of Parliament have even called outrightly for him to do so. In this vein, current Minister for International Cooperation and Investment Sahar Nasr would be the most likely candidate to succeed the ailing Sherif Ismail.

Originally well-liked by Sisi, Nasr has thus far survived every Cabinet reshuffle since his presidency began. This, even as foreign diplomats and investors have long bemoaned her organization, time management skills and lack of intellectual depth. She has enjoyed the president’s support, and has accompanied him on a number of important engagements, as he meets with foreign leaders across the world.

Even so, Nasr is not necessarily the popular pick inside her own Cabinet, and she has fallen out of favour with the president himself as of late. Stories of tension between her and other Cabinet members have emerged, notably with Planning and Administrative Reform Minister Hala al-Saeed and Finance Minister Amr al-Garhy. Some rumors point to Sisi’s own frustrations with Nasr, and sources have reported that the recent public distancing of the president from her is the result of rising tensions.

These tensions could force Sisi to take a step back from his overt support for Nasr, as he seeks to ease pressure in the Cabinet. Decreasing support from the president for Nasr, however, does not necessarily mean we will see fewer women appointed to the new Cabinet, as Sisi has introduced a record number of six female Cabinet ministers in the current Cabinet.

Meanwhile, other names have been floated for the post of prime minister, including Mahmoud Mohie Eddin, senior vice president at the World Bank (who has refused the position twice before already, and is unlikely to accept for personal reasons), and General Mohamed Irfan, the current head of the Administrative Control Authority, although it is believed to be highly unlikely that Sisi will appoint a military figure to the post.

Fingers are also pointing at current housing minister and short-lived interim PM Mostafa Madbuly as the more likely pick. Madbuly recently accompanied Sisi at the recent Arab League Summit, and sat alongside him. Nevertheless, the West should still be prepared to react to the smokescreen of a female PM. If not now, it is an inevitable eventuality in Sisi’s Egypt, as he makes efforts to divert attention away from serious violations committed against constitutionally mandated freedoms, targeting the press, civil society and academia, to name a few.

With the most recent cabinet reshuffle taking place only in January this year, signs also indicate that Sisi will not move to make major changes in the upcoming Cabinet, beyond the major selection of PM. Nevertheless, some senior Cabinet members, such as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Defense Minister Sedky Sobhy and Minister for Social Solidarity Ghada Waly have long been subject to rumors of their impending removal.  

While many foreign leaders would welcome the move to appoint Egypt’s first female prime minister, this decision should not deter them from continued critique of Sisi’s presidency. The president cares very little for any civilian involvement in leading the country, as can be seen by his lack of willingness to delegate any real power to his Cabinet. Sisi’s Cabinet is largely ineffective, even in terms of administrative issues, and is used mostly as a facade for the benefit of Western powers. Security dominates foreign policy and, on the domestic level, the Interior Ministry oversees much of civilian activity and internal bureaucratic matters.

The EU, US and others should not be fooled that any outreach by the president in their direction is anything more than an attempt to quieten the criticism he has received, and to divert attention away from the difficult electoral period and any future policy decisions. One should expect that the president — irrespective of his choice of PM — will use his new-look Cabinet to kick-start a charm offensive, as he is expected to delay the implementation of parts of the IMF deal, including further austerity measures, for some months in order to calm domestic waters, and shore up support for Egypt’s fight over the Nile, amid growing tensions with neighboring Sudan and Sisi’s Gulf counterparts, who are heavily invested in initiatives along the banks of the river.

Western powers would do well to keep focusing on issues related to rights and freedoms, along with the constitutionality of Sisi’s tenure. Not just as a way to protect their own values and moral integrity, but as a continued message to the Egyptian regime, and to Sisi in particular: No matter how tense and destructive parts of the region may be, Egypt is not too big to be called out. Western support is not, and should never be 100 percent guaranteed.

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