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May 29, 2016

Why is Al Sisi's approval rating still high?

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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The independent research centre Baseera (Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research) reported recently that after 22 months in office 79% of Egyptians still approve of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi's performance, while 13% disapprove and 8% remain undecided.

Despite an 11-point drop from the 90% approval rating Al Sisi received in June 2015 following his first year in office, it indicates continuing majority support.

Why is Sisi's approval rating is still high?

Sisi’s election on June 8, 2014 is portrayed by many Western media as resulting from an army coup against the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.

But the facts are:

(1) A popular uprising supported by the army helped topple Hosni Mubarak in 2011; another popular uprising, also with army support, toppled Morsi in 2013.

(2) The ultra-conservative Islamist group, Muslim Brotherhood, was formed in 1928 in Egypt, but now operates in many countries, mostly under aliases. It uses violence to advance its political agenda; in its early days it was found responsible for the assassination of a number of officials including Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi. Egypt’s government banned the MB back in 1948.

(3) Despite its long violent history, in June 2012 Egyptians gave a supposedly-reformed Muslim Brotherhood the benefit of the doubt and voted in prominent MB leader Mohamed Morsi as President.

(4) During his campaign, Morsi vowed to establish a liberal democracy, work for economic development, promote social justice, and uphold the rights of women and minorities (especially Egypt’s Christians).

(5) To the horror and disappointment of most Egyptians, Morsi reneged on all of his promises, transforming instead from elected President to dictator on November 22, 2012 issuing decrees aimed at turning Egypt into a theocratic Islamist state.

In light of the above history and contrary to the majority will of Egyptians, the MB today pursues an ongoing violent campaign to regain power and influence. It is listed as a terrorist group in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, while its activities are closely monitored by many other countries.

Despite ongoing challenges, Egypt under Sisi now has a progressive constitution, created through broad representation, and approved by a majority referendum. Egypt’s newly elected lower house guarantees seats for marginalized groups such as women, youth, the handicapped, Christians, and expatriates.

In assessing today's Egypt, we should consider (1) civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, and (2) ongoing terrorism funding, weapons, and training personnel entering Egypt from Libya, Gaza and Sudan. Both Gaza and Sudan are ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood while Libya remains divided among competing Islamist groups controlled by Turkey and the Arab Gulf states (including Muslim Brotherhood militias).

Although Sisi’s record in office is impressive in many areas, he’s been criticized for failing to adequately address Egypt’s annual two-million-person population increase; the country’s 3.3 fertility rate is among the highest in the world.

Another area of criticism focuses on balancing human rights with the country's war on terror, a very difficult task indeed as we have witnessed here in Canada. Sisi’s promise to address the issue remains to be seen.

When Sisi was elected President, Egypt’s economy had been suffering since 2011, coming so close to bankruptcy that the government was about to default on payments to some foreign creditors.

Back then, Egyptians were used to frequent electricity, gas, oil and staple food shortages, with daily long lineups at petrol stations, or at bakeries for subsidized bread. After two years under the new government, all of that is now history.

When Sisi came to power it was dangerous in many areas for Egyptians to leave their homes to walk their children to school or shop for groceries. Terrorists and gangs ruled the streets and foreign tourists frequently vanished, along with their much-coveted hard currency. Today terrorism is mainly confined to northern Sinai, bordering Gaza.

The New Suez Canal (NSC) was completed in just one year, doubling Egypt’s shipping capacity. The $10 billion megaproject was totally financed by Egyptians through GICs. A free trade zone and planned urban centres around the NSC will create more than one million jobs over the next decade.

Millions have been added to Egypt’s budget for developing marginalized areas, including the Sinai and direct government support for small-to-medium-sized businesses increased.

Both minimum and maximum wages (not incomes) have been legislated, although the latter currently applies only to government employees.

Turning desert into farmland is another megaproject to eliminate shortages in staples such as wheat; Egypt currently imports most of its food.

Health care funding was increased, especially for treating widespread Hepatitis C among youth. Although spending on public education increased to 3.8% of GDP (in Canada it is 4.9), measurable improvement in quality has yet to materialize.

Public-private partnership companies have been established to sell basic food to the poor at only 1-3% profit.

Direct foreign investment now amounts to billions of dollars. New offshore gas and oil fields have been discovered and lucrative multinational deals have been signed for alternative energy generation, including solar and wind power. Nuclear electricity, still controversial, is in progress.

To alleviate the recent financial crunch caused mainly by high value of the US dollar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE offered grants and credits to Egypt’s Central Bank.

And Sisi just announced that Egypt is willing to mediate direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. If successful, Sisi could possibly repeat the Nobel Peace Prize achievement of his precursor, Anwar Sadat. Both presidents had their detractors, but ultimately left Egypt better than they found it.

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, an Egyptian-born Canadian, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He divides his time between Waterloo and Cairo.

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