President Sissi’s Egypt is an ally of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, but in contention with Libya and especially Ethiopia, the source of almost all its water. Its influence in a multi-polar Middle East is waning
Egypt’s security services will have a special reason to stop any demonstrations against the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi (see Tahrir Square, Egypt’s heart, in this issue) on 3 March, which will be exactly three years since the Supreme Constitutional Court gave its final approval to his decision to hand back the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Many Egyptians were unhappy at their country losing sovereignty over these tiny islands, which control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba at the top of the Red Sea, seeing it as a blow to national pride and an admission of weakness towards Saudi Arabia. Sissi’s critics may be tempted to hold street protests again, as they did on a massive scale throughout 2016 and again in spring 2017. Sissi, who represses all opposition ruthlessly. cannot tolerate accusations that he has humiliated Egypt: the saying Misr, umm al-dunya (Egypt, mother of the world) is the keystone of his chauvinistic and vengeful official discourse.
Egypt is seeking to reposition itself at the centre of the Middle East chessboard and reaffirm its influence after the difficult period that followed the 2011 revolution. Sissi does not publicly admit to regretting the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, but he does frequently remind Egyptians that the chaos which followed — including the election in 2012 of an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and his removal by the army a year later — stifled promising economic and geopolitical developments.
It is true that six months before the revolution the World Bank — deliberately ignoring recurring strikes in companies in the Nile delta and Egypt’s high degree of inequality — pronounced it one of the world’s ‘top reformers’, on account of its neoliberal modernisation plan. Internationally, Egypt was proud that Barack Obama had chosen to make his New Beginning speech, aimed at rebuilding relations between the US and the Muslim world, at Cairo University