Egypt’s El-Sisi Suffers a Stunning Reversal of Fortunes

(Bloomberg Opinion) - Twelve months ago, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi seemed to be enjoying the best year of his reign. The general, who had become a politician, presided over an economic upswing that had made Egypt the fastest growing economy in the Middle East and a honeypot for investors from emerging countries. A referendum had just allowed him to remain in office until 2030, making his political position almost impregnable.
And he enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Egypt's two main foreign allies, the United States and Saudi Arabia. President Trump thought he was doing a "great job".
Like much of the region, Egypt is now affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the drop in oil prices. Despite new support from the International Monetary Fund, the economy will continue to have problems. Business activity, which was slow before the pandemic, continued to decline. The government's desperation is evident in its efforts to resume tourism, although virus cases are expected to increase.
Now Sisi faces two foreign policy challenges on the borders of Egypt that could make him nadir in 2020. In Libya, he supports the loser side of a civil war. In Ethiopia, negotiations on a huge hydroelectric power plant in the Nile have failed, ending hopes of an old, violent dispute being settled.
Even worse, Egypt's ruler cannot expect much help from his admirer in the White House. The collapse of the Nildamm negotiations marks a failure of American mediation - the US Treasury had tried to negotiate a deal - and Trump, who is facing domestic issues as part of a re-election campaign, is unlikely to get much more attention on the matter give. In Libya, the US president seems to have reached an agreement with Turkey, which supports the other side in the civil war.
Sisi cannot hope for much support from Saudi Arabia either. Although the Saudis brokered the 2018 Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement, they had little influence on the Nile negotiations. And Saudi relations with Turkey are openly hostile and rule out any role for Riyadh in facilitating the Cairo-Ankara confrontation over Libya.
Egypt is not entirely without friends in Libya, but it is not clear that the other supporters of rebel commander Khalifa Haftar - particularly the United Arab Emirates and Russia - will step up their support if the Libyan government forces storm the strategic port with more help from the Turks from Sirte. Sisi had declared Sirte to be his line in the sand, suggesting that Egypt could intervene directly if Turkey crossed it. The Emiratis, who are no less hostile to Turkey than the Saudis, may keep the line; Russia, which is allied with the Turks in Syria, is not allowed.
Sisi could soon be forced to make a decision. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have embarked on an ambitious nation-building project in Libya, and the Tripoli government is striving to bring its advantage over Haftar home. Sisi's ceasefire proposal was despised by both Turkey and the Libyan government of the National Agreement.
Things aren't quite as kinetic in the south, despite the drumming of prominent Egyptians and long-term predictions of a war over the Nile waters. But if Ethiopia meets its threat to fill the dam, Sisi would be under pressure to take revenge. (Egypt fears that the dam may limit its water supply and harm its farmers.)
As if these two foreign policy challenges were not stressful enough, a third appears in the north: Israel's proposed annexation of large parts of the West Bank. Sisi has strengthened ties with Israel - a $ 15 billion natural gas deal between the two countries is key to Egypt's hopes of becoming a major energy provider for Europe. But Cairo is against annexation. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pursuing a plan that must be unpopular with ordinary Egyptians, Sisi may have to respond with something more important than a strong wording of disapproval.
In such circumstances, the prospect of remaining in office until 2030 might feel more like a curse than a blessing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist in the Bloomberg Opinion. He writes on foreign affairs with a particular focus on the Middle East and the entire Islamic world.
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