Egypt’s Sisi Begins Second Term Facing Public Anger Over High Prices

CAIRO—Working-class resentment and political tensions present tough challenges to Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as the Egyptian president starts his second term after a one-sided election.

Mr. Sisi took the oath of office in a lavish ceremony Saturday morning that included a salute by cannon fire and a flyover by jet fighters.

“I am the president for all Egyptians, those who agree with me and those who don’t,” Mr. Sisi said, addressing parliament before striding out on a red carpet.

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Preparations for the ceremony at the newly renovated parliament building had been under way for weeks. So had efforts to crack down on what the government sees as dissenting voices.

In the past month, security forces have arrested a series of high-profile critics of the Sisi government and snuffed out protests against ticket price increases for Cairo’s metro, a lifeline for the working class in the crowded capital.

Mr. Sisi’s grip on power isn’t in doubt, but the president is facing questions about the viability of his policies as he clamps down and cuts budgets. The former general came to power after leading the military’s removal of elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

“No one will be able to control the anger of the Egyptian people if you keep on pushing it in terms of their income and their basic needs,” said Khaled Dawoud, the leader of Egypt’s Constitution Party, who supported the military takeover but now opposes Mr. Sisi.

Mr. Sisi became president in 2014 promising stability and an improved economic future. Since then, his government has jailed thousands, seeking to quell the political unrest that followed the 2011 uprising that ended nearly 30 years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak and helped catalyze revolution across the Arab world.

His government has also slashed subsidies on fuel, electricity, and transport as part of a broad revamp of the economy urged by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for $12 billion in loans. The government floated the currency in 2016, contributing to a surge in inflation that peaked at more than 32% in 2017 before falling to about 13% in April. That is still too high for an economy that was growing at 5.4% last quarter, and unemployment remains in double digits, analysts say.

The persistently high cost of everything from food to transport is fueling resentment among ordinary Egyptians, though they have few outlets to express their frustration. But the depth of the discontent is hard to gauge, since protests are limited and there is no polling. as a result of the crackdown, which includes a ban on all unauthorized demonstrations.

People wait to board a train at El Sadat metro station in Cairo. In the past month, security forces have snuffed out protests against ticket-price increases for the subway. Photo: Reuters

In a rare exception, protests broke out after the government in May unexpectedly doubled and even tripled the cost of some rides on a transport network that serves more than three million people a day.

Authorities immediately arrested demonstrators and deployed riot police outside metro stations. Some 22 protesters are under investigation for supporting a terrorist group, which prosecutors haven’t named, an accusation that can carry a decadeslong prison sentence.

“If I don’t make the tough economic decisions, nobody will,” said Mr. Sisi in response to the metro protests. He said the price of metro tickets should be even higher.

The former general won 97% of valid votes in the election in March, in which his key opponents were jailed and sidelined, leaving one of his own supporters as the only other name on the ballot.

The uproar over the metro price hike illustrates the growing disenchantment even among Egyptians who initially supported Mr. Sisi.

“People are upset because everything is expensive, not just the metro,” said Kirollos Malak, 28, a technician. “If the pressure keeps increasing, people won’t accept it.”

The government is expected to once again raise the price of fuel by 60% and electricity by 55% in July, according to the research firm Capital Economics.

While the IMF has lauded Mr. Sisi’s reforms, the institution also says Egypt needs to change the way its economy operates, cracking down on corruption and correcting a system in which the private sector faces an “unwinnable matchup of competing with the public sector,” according to IMF official David Lipton, who visited Cairo in May.

Economic discontent was a feature of the years before the 2011 uprising with escalating protests, including a planned general strike in 2008 over low wages and rising food costs resulted in a deadly clash between police and protesters.

“There is anger. However, we cannot measure this anger,” said Abdelhamid Mekawy, an economic researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading watchdog group. “People cannot express it.”

Appeared in the June 2, 2018, print edition as ‘Egypt’s President Faces Anger Over Policies.’

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