Monday, 6th July 2015

Sisi hammers the Brotherhood, barters troops for Gulf finance

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi shows no sign of relenting in his campaign to totally subjugate the Muslim Brotherhood, despite suggestions Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdelaziz has asked him to take a softer line. The current administration in Cairo believes the Brotherhood poses a fundamental threat; this view is behind the brutal suppression of the organisation, which is unprecedentedly harsh, even by Egyptian standards. The security forces have rooted out suspected supporters from public life and from within their own ranks. Members have been arrested en masse. Three tiers of the top leadership have been politically annihilated – the most senior of whom are now appealing death sentences recently awarded by an Egyptian judge.

Riyadh is believed to have suggested a softer line, as in both Yemen and Syria it is backing supposedly ‘moderate’ Sunni Islamist factions. There is also a sense that King Salman does not feel the same loyalty to the Egyptian military as the late King Abdullah did. (The strength of the bond that formerly existed was underlined by one of the Saudi cables published by WikiLeaks in mid-June (see pages 6-8), in which an official suggests Riyadh is willing to pay the administration of Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi $10bn to secure the release of deposed president Hosni Mubarak.

Even if its enthusiasm for the Egyptian military is not what it was, Saudi Arabia continues to be a vital financial backer of the Egyptian economy, alongside the UAE and Kuwait. Together these Gulf states have provided in excess of $20bn in financial support to Sisi’s administration over the past two years. Riyadh’s share is at least one-third of the total, and this is divided between loans, cash grants and the supply of oil products. Egypt will continue to rely on similar massive handouts for several years to come. Despite some bold economic reforms in its late-June draft budget, including rapid moves to abolish subsidies on diesel and gasoline, the country is still entirely dependent on this financing. It will import approximately $2.25bn of liquefied natural gas in the coming financial year to generate electricity, which remains highly subsidised. The gas can only be afforded thanks to Gulf money

It is, of course, impossible for Sisi to march in step with both his Saudi and his Emirati backers on the Islamist question. If King Salman is taking a softer line, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan is not. His anti-Brotherhood stance is both long-standing and unequivocal – and matches Sisi’s instincts. In addition to cracking down on Islamist politics domestically, Cairo is also involved in Libya, acting as a channel for UAE support to the Tobruk-based government of Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni and, in particular, to the Libyan National Army under the command of General Khalifa Al-Haftar. Their main strategic objective is to crush the Tripoli-based General National Congress, which is backed by various Brotherhood-related and Islamist factions.

While such foreign involvements are risky and not necessarily politically consistent (in contrast to the faction they are backing in Libya, the anti-Houthi alliance in Yemen is not exactly secular), they may be the key to keeping both sides of Gulf opinion sweet. Sisi has been willing – at least in principle – to commit Egyptian troops to Yemen despite the negative precedent of president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s involvement in the North Yemen civil war in the 1960s. Critics of Sisi in Cairo believe he has bartered support for Saudi’s military adventure in return for continued financial support.

When, in April, he spoke about Egypt’s involvement in the pan-Arab military force being put together for the Yemen campaign, Sisi used the expression ‘masafat al-sika’ which literally means ‘the distance of the railway’, implying that nothing more than the length of the journey would delay an Egyptian deployment on behalf of the Gulf allies. Several months on, while rumours suggest that some special forces may be involved in the conflict, there is no sign of Cairo actually sending regular troops. At some point, however, the debt must be repaid.

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