EVER SINCE Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi led a military coup against a democratically elected Islamist government three years ago, his apologists in the West, led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, have hoped that he would launch economic reforms to revive the economy. The thinking is that more free-market policies, new flows of foreign investment and, eventually, growing prosperity would help stabilize Egypt after years of turmoil. In the meantime, Mr. Sissi’s brutal repression of domestic dissent could be overlooked.
For three years the former general ignored the entreaties of Mr. Kerry and other Western counselors. He squandered tens of billions of dollars provided by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies on wasteful mega-projects, such as a new channel for the Suez Canal, and on propping up Egypt’s currency. Meanwhile, he conducted the most sweeping and violent campaign against dissent in the country’s modern history, jailing not just Islamists but secular liberals, journalists and civil society activists, including American Aya Hijazi.
Now Mr. Sissi has finally embraced liberal reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund. He had little choice: Saudi Arabia cut off its largesse, and as shortages of foreign currency spread through the economy, staples such as sugar and cooking oil started to disappear from shops. This month the government finally floated the currency — precipitating a devaluation of more than 50 percent — and reduced gasoline subsidies. The IMF responded by approving a $12 billion, three-year loan program.
Mr. Kerry was quick with praise: “Egyptian leaders are making the difficult decisions needed to move their country towards prosperity,” he said in a statement. The State Department seems to be betting that Mr. Sissi will prove to be one of those rare leaders, like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who manage to liberalize and modernize their economies even while engaging in bloody repression.
It seems a far-fetched bet, given Mr. Sissi’s economic illiteracy, the vast corruption embedded in his regime and the military, and Egypt’s history of popular uprisings against austerity measures. The government survived one test on Nov. 11, when citizens failed to turn out en masse for protests called by the Muslim Brotherhood. But the regime’s response was not to relax. Instead, it began rushing a new law through parliament that would destroy what remains of independent civil society groups, like the program for Cairo street children that Ms. Hijazi directed. Any group could be banned on the grounds that its activity “conflicts with national security and the public order.” Five-year prison terms are mandated for anyone cooperating with a foreign organization or conducting opinion polls without prior approval.
The heavy repression, and the exhaustion of many Egyptians after nearly six years of political turmoil, may save Mr. Sissi in the short term from the eruption of unrest that some are predicting. Diplomatically, he is likely to get even stronger support from the incoming Trump administration than he has from Mr. Kerry. But it’s unlikely that the strongman can succeed in stabilizing Egypt’s economy while suffocating civil society. The bet on him by the IMF and the United States is not likely to pay off.