Leo Docherty is Director of the Conservative Middle East Council and a former soldier.
In Cairo last weekend, the prevalent mood among the many politicians, business people, journalists, government officials and taxi drivers I spoke to was a mixture of relief and apprehension; relief that stability has returned to Egypt after five years of unprecedented political upheaval, and apprehension about the huge challenges that face the Arab world’s most populous country.
I share the Egyptian sense of relief. Stability is a scarce commodity in the Middle East, and Egypt has emerged from a tumultuous period of political chaos in remarkably good shape. This is especially remarkable given the disastrous outcomes in other countries swept along in the wave of Arab uprisings of 2011. Syria and Yemen are consumed by war. Da’esh terrorises a swathe of Iraq and Syria. Egypt’s neighbour Libya is a failed state riven by warring militias and jihadists.
Egypt came very close to going down the same road. The country’s brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule was a disaster – for its economy, its security and its society. That stability and security has returned to Egypt is something for which we should all be very grateful. Egypt’s Coptic Christian population of some 10 million are particularly grateful that their rights and religious freedom are now respected, which is particularly important at a time when Christians elsewhere in the Middle East are a fleeing their homelands.
That Egypt has emerged intact from the chaos of recent years perhaps reveals something about the cultural depth of Egyptian society. Egyptian civilization is five thousand years old. One in four Arabs is Egyptian. It is the cultural and historical lodestar of the Middle East and has the capacity also to be the region’s political leader. A stable Egypt that is a friend and ally to the UK and the West is in the best interest of everyone.
Stability has returned but huge challenges remain. Security is first and foremost. At the end of 2010, I travelled with a group of friends from Cairo to Gaza – a six hour overland drive in an unprotected minibus through the Sinai peninsula. Such a journey today would be unthinkable due to the rise of a Jihadist insurgency in the North-Eastern corner of Sinai – exacerbated by Libya’s descent into political chaos in 2011, and support from Hamas via tunnels in Gaza and the reported release of hundreds of jihadi fighters from Egypt’s jails by the Muslim Brotherhood government of 2012-13.
Centred on Rafah and the North-Eastern corner of Sinai, the area affected represents only a tiny proportion of the Sinai Peninsula’s vast land mass, but it nevertheless represents a significant security challenge and one which the Egyptian military is fighting hard. And we must do all we can – through expertise and technology – to assist them in this fight, knowing that we face the same jihadist threat on the streets of London and beyond.
Most importantly, on the economic front, we must seek to urgently resume British flights to the Sharm el Sheikh resort, suspended in November last year after the tragic downing of the Russia Metrojet over Sinai by a suspected Da’esh bomb. The huge importance of British tourism to the Egyptian economy and the painful impact of the suspension cannot be overstated – tourism constitutes 25 per cent of Egyptian GDP and British tourists alone make up five percent.
The labour intensive nature of tourism – in a country with a population rapidly moving towards 100 million and chronic unemployment – makes it even more important. Millions of Egyptians depend directly on income from tourism to feed and educate their families. Economic prosperity is a crucial weapon in the fight against terrorism. In a region where jihadist extremists prey on impressionable and jobless young men, economic prosperity and growing employment opportunities for young Egyptians are the foundation of its security.
But to grow its economy into the future Egypt need to tackle some very tough dilemmas. For decades, its growing population has been sheltered from market forces by a state that is an overbearing regulatory force and the country’s primary employer. Economic reform is sorely needed to encourage foreign direct investment and to allow entrepreneurialism and employment to flourish. But the risks of freeing up the economy – of ending subsidies on fuel, electricity and food stuffs, slashing taxes and, most critically in the medium term, of devaluing the Egyptian pound and letting it float on the free market – are significant. If sudden fluctuations in the exchange rate push up the price the price of bread, the Egyptian street will be outraged and – if the last five years are anything to go by – might take to the streets.
President Al Sisi and his government have a fiendishly difficult balancing act to perform: of maintaining stability and order in the short term against taking the risks of necessary longer term reforms. We must do all we can to help Egypt achieve this balancing act, for its sake and ours.