The re-election of Egypt's President Sisi came as no surprise. Despite irregularities at some polling stations, President Sisi won handedly because he remains the most popular president, and perhaps for good reason. A clear majority of Egyptians feel that unlike any of his predecessors, Sisi is dedicated to improving the socio-economic wellbeing of the people. Although he made tangible progress on the economic front, the impact has not been significant enough, given the magnitude of Egypt's dire economic conditions. Egypt remains saddled with a serious trade deficit, escalating national debt, and weak industrial base.
No president, regardless of his political ideology, commitment, or determination, can overcome these national challenges without massive financial aid, substantial increase in foreign investments, considerable increase in tourism, and sustainable development projects in particular.
The EU and the US have been publicly criticizing Sisi's government for its human rights abuses and lack of transparency based on democratic principles. The West often threatens to suspend financial assistance unless President Sisi acts to correct his government's record on human rights. There are obviously no excuses for committing human rights violations under any circumstances, and the Egyptian government must take every measure required to address such violations while showing political transparency.
The question is how to help Egypt economically while simultaneously charting a new course to address human rights violations, which is extremely sensitive to Sisi's government and to himself.
Top Egyptian officials tell me that the West's public rebuke and criticism only paints their president into a corner and puts him on the defensive. They prefer that concerns over human rights violations be addressed behind the scenes in order to not embarrass and weaken Sisi's position in the eyes of the public.
The problem is that the scope of Egypt's economic disparity, the lack of democratic traditions, and entrenched bureaucracy make it impossible to institute social, economic, and political reforms, especially when the population is growing exponentially and financial resources are limited.
The following statistics clearly highlight the uphill battle Egypt is facing and point to the priorities the government should pursue to address its socio-economic malaise, while at the same time mitigate the problems related to human rights violations.
Egypt's current total foreign debt is over $80 billion. It receives on the average $9 billion annually in financial aid from foreign countries (that it does not need to repay). In addition, Egypt generates a little over $4 billion in annual revenue from the Suez Canal, and a similar amount from tourism. The International Momentary Fund (IMF) has recently approved a $12 billion loan to be divided over a three-year period. Egypt's annual GNP is approximately $345 billion. In 2017, Egypt's trade deficit was approximately $36 billion, importing roughly $58 billion and exporting just over $22 billion.
Of Egypt's total population of almost 100 million people, the poverty rate exceeds 27 percent. Unemployment hovers around 13 percent (for youth under 30, it is 31 percent). There are 2.1 million children under age 5 who suffer from malnutrition.
Adding to the socioeconomic ailments is the rise of violent extremism concentrated in the northern Sinai, which is consuming tens of millions of dollars and poses a burden the authorities are struggling to address.
Western-style democracy, however, will do little to alleviate the dire economic conditions in Egypt, and will not provide a panacea to prevent human rights violations. Following the ouster of President Mubarak, fair and free elections were held. The Muslim Brotherhood won the elections and its leader Morsi became the president -- but this exercise in democracy had little effect on the economic and social well-being of the country.
Elections in and of themselves, however free and fair, do not provide food, education, healthcare, or other social needs. Moreover, in a country where there is no tradition of a political system that encourages the creation of rival political parties with no restrictions, irrespective of their political ideology, it is impossible to establish a full-fledged democratic government la western political systems.
Besides, a solid democratic form of government requires democratic institutions, including think tanks that provide comprehensive research on foreign and domestic policies, non-profit organizations that focus on social issues, free but responsible press, an unbiased judiciary, and above all economic development projects to provide job opportunities and foster social stability and better prospects for the future.
Whereas human rights abuses must not be tolerated, addressing this problem in Egypt cannot be accomplished by the West's mere public criticism of the Sisi government. As stated earlier, such criticism, however warranted, evokes only denial and puts government officials on the defensive, rather than choosing to tackle the problem more effectively by means consistent with Egyptian social psychology and culture.