Egypt’s revolution has come full circle. The tens of thousands who in 2011 flocked to Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square and swept away a military dictatorship are silent now. Egypt’s current president, former general Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, was once widely greeted as a hero whose military intervention saved the country from a polarizing interim government run by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Today, rights groups say, El-Sisi’s grip on power is as tight, or tighter than that of the authoritarian regime Egyptians overthrew seven years ago. Now, the only noise emanating from Tahrir Square is the bleat of car horns.

The Situation

Egyptians are scheduled to vote in a presidential election March 26 through March 28. Government critics dismiss the exercise as a sham. El-Sisi is sure to win after all the credible opponents bowed out or were arrested. His only rival is a supporter who stepped in with minutes to spare before the deadline to register. Austerity measures have eroded the president’s popular support. The government is struggling to bring down what has been one of the region’s highest budget deficits. Billions of dollars in support from wealthy Gulf backers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have helped. But Egypt was forced to lift currency controls in 2016 to seal a $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan, sending inflation soaring to a peak of more than 33 percent. While the rate has since eased to around half that, Egyptians still struggle with high prices and a dearth of jobs. At the same time, a sweeping crackdown on Islamists and other dissenters has silenced all but the bravest of critics. After El-Sisi and other officers ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi from the presidency in 2013, security forces killed hundreds of Egyptians and jailed tens of thousands of others.

The Background

Military leaders have shaped Egypt’s history for more than 3,000 years. The army commander Horemheb quelled strife after the child-pharaoh Tutankhamen died in 1322 BC with no successor; a military junta then ruled for 13 generations. Slave soldiers known as Mamluks arrived in the early 1250s and created political, social and economic networks over a 500-year rule. Egypt stagnated under British rule. After independence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a general, sought to re-establish the country’s eminence, nationalizing the Suez Canal and leading Arabs in wars against Israel. As Egypt’s ruling general in 1978, Anwar Sadat signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel. The regime of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, became ossified, and with wealth failing to trickle down to ordinary citizens, he was deposed in the popular rebellion in 2011. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation and growing larger. Since the 2011 uprising, its population has climbed by 11 million — roughly as many people as live in Greece — to about 97 million. About 40 percent of residents are under 18. 

The Argument

El-Sisi’s supporters say he  rescued Egypt from Islamists more interested in power than the national good. They point to the deadly turmoil in nearby countries, such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, as evidence of what otherwise might have happened in Egypt. Critics say El-Sisi’s authoritarianism snuffed the country’s shot at democracy and that taking the same approach with moderate Islamists as with violent extremists risks radicalising the former. Many of Egypt’s allies — including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Israel and Russia — have embraced El-Sisi’s position. So too has U.S. President Donald Trump, who has shown little of the concern his predecessor expressed about human rights in Egypt, which receives $1.5 billion annually in U.S. economic and military aid. Critics say the support from Trump has emboldened El-Sisi.

First published May

To contact the writers of this QuickTake: Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net, Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.

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