Kwasi Kwarteng is MP for Spelthorne, and is PPS to Baroness Stowell, the Leader of the House of Lords.
A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to attend, with a number of parliamentary colleagues, the opening of the new Suez canal in Ismailiyah.
The event was striking in its confidence, and the strident way in which General el-Sisi’s regime projected Egyptian nationhood. In a six hour-long celebration, no reference was made to Islam or any religious symbolism. The commentary, provided by women in Western dinner dress, stressed the ancient civilisation of Egypt and its incredible accomplishments, such as the pyramids, that we all know so well.
Many foreign leaders were in attendance, including President Hollande of France, and several leaders from the Arab world. They would have been impressed by Egypt’s new-found confidence and the regime’s commitment to face down terrorism from wherever it arises.
The last few years have been some of the most turbulent in Egypt’s long history. The country has had four heads of state in the past five years. For those counting, Egyptians have lived under the rule of Mubarak, Tantawi, Morsi and el-Sisi since 2010. Mubarak’s political demise in 2011 led to a period in which many people had high hopes for the establishment of a secular democracy in Egypt.
These ambitious expectations were belied by subsequent events. The Muslim Brotherhood, far better organised than their more secular rivals, won a decisive victory in the Parliamentary elections. Even though they said they would not contest the presidential election, their candidate, Mohammad Morsi, won a close election for the presidency in June 2012. The Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt led to a rapid deterioration in the security situation, and Morsi’s rule ended with tens of thousands of people across Egypt calling for his resignation in mass demonstrations.
Perhaps controversially, the Army took over in the summer of 2013, and immediately made its presence felt. The Army’s tactics were rough and uncompromising, yet many people are right to think that the security situation has improved, and that Egypt remains a relatively stable country in a region which is particularly unsettled.
For geographical, cultural and demographic reasons, Egypt is a key country in the Middle East. When you consider the state of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen it is not difficult to see that Egypt’s continuing stability is essential if we are ever going to reach a resolution to the turmoil in the region.
Supporting Egypt’s current government does not mean condoning everything it does. As friends of Egypt, we should not be reluctant to point out failings of the Egyptian government. We should not be shy about defending human rights and the rule of law in this important country. Yet the alternative to the current regime scarcely bears thinking about. An Egypt run by Islamists offering a safe haven to any jihadist in the region would be worse than a nightmare. The case of Egypt shows how difficult many of the choices are in the Middle East – there are no clear options.
Egypt’s gravest problem is arguably its demographic explosion. From a population of roughly 20 million in 1952, there are now over 90 million Egyptians, making Egypt by far the most populous country in the Arab world. Expanding the economy to accommodate the needs of a greatly increasing population is its greatest challenge. A growing economy is absolutely essential to providing employment, food and a tolerable standard of living for its people. One of the tragedies of the past few years has been the flight of capital, which has meant that business and employment levels have suffered, coupled with the almost total collapse of the tourist sector in Egypt, which accounted for nearly 20 per cent of the country’s GDP, in the aftermath of the Brotherhood’s election.
A stable political environment is necessary for economic success. Business people need to feel they can invest in the county. Tourists need to feel safe enough to visit the treasures of Egypt’s heritage. We can regret the lack of democratic elections, and we can encourage wider political participation. Yet, at the same time, we must also support the very pressing need for the Government to maintain stability and order.
For those of us who have visit Egypt and met officials there in the past five years the pace of events can often seem bewildering. Egypt needs our support – even though we should not be afraid to speak frankly to its government.