If Trump’s Looking for a Mideast Winner, He’s Made a Bad Bet on Sisi
Trump thinks Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is just the kind of ally he needs. After they meet on Monday, he should be disabused.
CAIRO—“Are you Christian?” were the only words the masked men asked Misaq, 58, an Egyptian hospital worker, as they poked their machine guns through the car windows.
Moments before, the Coptic father of four and his Muslim colleague had passed through an Egyptian military check point, and then watched as an Egyptian army vehicle passed them.
They were on their daily drive home to Arish city in North Sinai from the government hospital where they both work. Driving the short distance between two official checkpoints, it hadn’t occurred to them to be on the lookout for fighters from the so-called Islamic State. But now they were looking at the barrels of ISIS guns.
Misaaq, a devout Copt, refused to lie to the jihadists, his friend later told the family. The ISIS fighters, perhaps taken aback by the man’s bravery, demanded to see his ID card, which confirmed his religion. They even checked the cross tattoo on his wrist, which most Coptic Christians have.
“Convert, infidel, and we will spare your life,” they told him, as they dragged him out of the vehicle and forced him to his knees. But again he refused. So they shot him 14 times and left the corpse in the desert.
“The terrorists have no schedule. They appear out of nowhere. They hunt us down,” Misaq’s impoverished widow, Magda, 52, said as she described the nightmare Christians are forced to live in Arish. It is the largest city in North Sinai, a region that has been a battleground for four years between the Egyptian army and insurgents.
Magda’s is one of the nearly 300 Christian families who fled their hometown in February, after ISIS murdered seven Copts in less than three weeks. The majority, like Magda, fled to Ismailia, a Suez Canal city where they are now in partial hiding in ramshackle flats.
“This ISIS checkpoint appeared between two military checkpoints,” she told me. “The soldiers must have heard the shots. They have towers, they could have easily seen what was going on. My husband was driving behind a military vehicle but it never turned back. No one came to help him.”
Magda, echoing other families who spoke to The Daily Beast, said the security forces were worried about their own safety. “They are targets, too. They are often too scared to do anything.”
February’s mass exodus of Christians from the troubled peninsula, which followed the ISIS-claimed bombing of a major Cairo cathedral in December, are stark reminders of how the government is not winning its heavily-touted war against terrorism.
Many of the Christian families who spoke to The Daily Beast said they voted for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who promised stability, security and prosperity but that he had let them down. The Arish stories chimed with those from other parts of Egypt’s mainland, like Minya where Christian homes are frequently torched and family members kidnapped for ransom.
Support fighting terror, which is threatening Egypt’s population of 92 million, will be top of President Sisi’s agenda during his meeting with U.S. President Trump in Washington on Monday.
Sisi, who famously boasted of being the first world leader to call Trump upon his election victory, has built a strong rapport with his strongman counterpart in Washington—largely over their tough-on-terrorism stance, and hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood. Trump described the former military chief as a “fantastic guy” in an interview with Fox News in September. He “took control of Egypt, and he really took control of it,” the then Republican nominee said enthusiastically about the 2013 military overthrow Sisi presided over, which saw hundreds of regime opponents killed and thousands more jailed.
“The United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead,” Trump continued.
The firm belief in Sisi as a stabilizing force and partner in the region was echoed by White House officials at a Friday press briefing on the visit, during which indicated they would roll back on the policies of Obama administration.
Obama temporarily froze segments of the $1.3 billion of military aid the U.S. gives to Egypt each year, amid concerns of rights abuses during the 2013 overthrow of Sisi’s predecessor Mohamed Morsi. Although military aid was restored in 2015, human rights conditions were toughened, Sisi was never invited to Washington under the former president, who was vilified in Egypt’s heavily controlled press. Egyptian MPs made no secret of the fact they were gunning for a Trump win over Hillary Clinton, perceived to be Obama’s extension. Several articles claimed Egypt was the only country in the world that predicted a Trump win.
“Egypt is one of the traditional pillars of stability in the Middle East and has been a reliable U.S. partner for decades,” White House officials said Friday, applauding Sisi’s “bold” approach since taking the presidency in 2014.
The officials repeatedly talked about the desire to “reboot” and “improve the tone of the relationship.” There would be no public rebuking of Egypt’s terrible right record, they hinted saying the matter would be handled in a “private, more discreet way.” Sisi, who secured one of the earliest invites to the White House, was heralded as a key to a peaceful Middle East region.
But as Egypt’s economy has gone into free fall, as terror attacks have increased, and unfortunate relationships have been built with America’s old enemy Russia, one mush ask if the the country really is the lynchpin to Middle East stability or a powder keg that could blow up in Trump’s face?
As Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state in charge of human rights issues under Obama, told The New York Times, American aid to Egypt had never translated into the expected support that the U.S. wants. “We’ve given Egypt $70 billion over the years, and last I checked there are no Egyptian F-16s helping us fight ISIS over Raqqa or Mosul,” he said. “All we get from the Egyptians is political repression that radicalizes its youth and gives terrorist groups new life.”
Meanwhile Egypt, which has been through two uprisings and five presidents since 2010, is facing the rising specter of further unrest as it limps through its worst financial crisis in decades.
A crippling dollar shortage, sparked by a dearth in foreign investments, the halting of Gulf handouts and the Central Bank’s desperate desire to cling onto the value of the Egyptian pound, saw imports halted prompting massive shortages.
This forced the country to float the Egyptian pound in November to attract inflows of foreign currency. At the same time, it partially lifted unwieldy fuel subsidies, sending the price of gasoline skyrocketing and then imposed a 13 percent Value Added Tax for the first time.
The pound abruptly halved in value sinking form LE8.8 to the dollar to the rate now around LE18.
The tough economic measures unlocked the first $2.75 billion tranche of a $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan in November, and other smaller loans from the World Bank ($3 billion) and the African Development Bank, that delivered their second $500 million tranche on Saturday.
And the pound’s drop did have the desired effect of making Egypt more attractive to foreign investors who have started to return, with substantial inflows into the stock market. New gas discoveries in the Nile Delta have also brightened the picture.
But as Ziad Bahaa-eldin, Egypt’s former deputy-prime minister put it a column in Shorouk, the figures do not tell the whole story. The economic reality witnessed by the people every day is totally different to those at the top. “It’s dangerous when the gap gets this wide,” he wrote.
Inflation has soared to 30.2 percent, a 30-year high. While food inflation topped that at 40 percent, according to Jason Tuvey at Capital Economics.
Soaring pries, new taxes and the plunging value of their pitiful salaries has made life for the 25 million Egyptians who live under the poverty line near impossible. It was only worsened with the state’s blundering attempts to reform its bulging subsides program, a further requirement of their much needed loans.
Protests against bread shortages, that were all too reminiscent of the devastating 1977 bread riots, erupted across the country in early March. The government had attempted to root out rampant profiteering by bakers by lowering how many subsided loaves bakeries could sell to certain customers. The ministry of supply was forced to roll back the measures fearing further unrest.
But in line with loan conditions the government is expected to further slash fuel subsidies this month and may be pushed to move again on cheap bread with potentially devastating results. A new tariff on electricity is also likely to be imposed in June.
“If nothing changes, if the governments pushes us, believe me there will be a poor revolution—a revolt of the hungry,” said Seif, 40, a father of two who said he has seen his salary plunge by a staggering 90 percent since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
The freelance lawyer, who spends his day watching football on a battered TV set in downtown Cairo, said tomatoes used to be LE5 a kilo but are now LE12. Lemons, bizarrely, are 15 times more expensive. Other expenses are also rising: The government doubled the price of metro tickets on Friday. Seif fears he can no longer provide for his two young daughters.
“The big companies make the money, the poor people get nothing and if you try to complain the state accuses you of being a terrorist. People are too scared to speak out,” he said.
Families are also affected by shortages of goods like medicines, he added. This will likely only worsen as imports sink by 30 percent, according to a statement last month by Tarek Amer, the Central Bank governor.
The ministry of health was forced to raise medicine prices by as much as 50 percent to make it financially viable for drugs manufactories to keep importing or producing medicines. But some 3,000 medicines have still disappeared off the shelves, according to Mahmoud Fouad, director of the Egyptian Centre to Protect the Right to Medicine, which monitors the country’s drug supply.
Among the life-saving medicines he said have disappeared are chemotherapy drugs, treatment for neurological and liver diseases and multiple sclerosis. The contraceptive pill, saline solution, syringes, and vaccines are also missing.
It is forcing Egyptians to turn to the black market, where prices have soared by 85 percent. Those who can afford are traveling abroad or bringing back treatments in their suitcases. The less fortunate are dying. In February a group of desperate people started a viral hashtag “Twitter Pharmacy,” so that people could get help locating vital drugs or could share their unused medicines.
The disappearance of the drugs has once again provided a lucrative business opportunity for the military which announced it would start building a factory for cancer drugs, saline solution and syringes.
The army, that experts estimate control anything from 5 to 40 percent of the civilian economy, is able to beat private sector competitors with its cheap conscript workforce and unfettered access to foreign currency. In March alone, the powerful ministry of military production announced separate military contracts for the manufacturing of solar panels, spare car parts, agricultural tools, wheat silos, as well as the syringes and cancer medicine.
While Egypt and Egyptians reel from the economic crisis, President Sisi will likely be looking to secure greater financial support from the States, possibly through economic aid packages or investments. Three separate MPs told The Daily Beast they expected several lucrative deals to be signed off the back of this trip.
Some experts argue this is unlikely to happen. “The States is looking to isolate itself, they are slashing $28 billion from the foreign aid budget, they are moving in a direction where foreign assistance is not anywhere near a priority for the administration,” said Timothy E. Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute of Middle East Policy.
White House officials awkwardly dodged the same point at Friday’s briefing on Sisi’s visit. The “budget process… is still an ongoing process,” the officials said.
President Sisi may also see warm ties with Trump as an opportunity to push for advanced hardware, like upgraded fighter jets, a request that the Obama administration repeatedly denied. But again it is unclear if Trump will support that.
“Both sides are looking at each other and overestimating how useful they each are. Sisi’s utility for the U.S. is pretty limited as he has been demonstrating with his relations with Saudi and his flirtation with Russia,” Kaldas continued.
Cairo and Riyadh relations soured over Cairo’s seeming unwillingness to vote on UN Security Council resolutions against Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Cairo’s warming relations with Moscow. U.S. and Egyptian officials in March told Reuters that Russian special forces unit and planes had been deployed to two Egyptian airbases on the border with Libya. Operations were apparently being carried out in support of Libyan General Khalifa Hiftar, a staunch enemy of America’s chosen ally in Libya the unity government in Tripoli.
“Sisi is focused on domestic issues. He is happy to juggle a million and one allies who may or may not contradict each other,” Kaldas said. “But making any serious sacrifice for any of them—that is extremely unlikely.”
Back in Ismailia, Magda’s family are living amid Egypt’s the multiple layers of misery. She says a new landlord is trying to evict her terrified family, and her son is on the ISIS hit list.
“We have nothing, no money, no future. I’ve even sent a fax to the presidential office begging for help,” she continued, standing on a pile of mattress that serves as the communal bed. “If we can’t find anywhere to live we’ll have to go back to Arish and risk death.”