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New Suez Canal opening highlights conformity, rights restrictions in Egypt

The Suez Canal’s new extension was inaugurated on Thursday, August 6, in a ceremony that burst with nationalist pride. The extension involved dredging a 37 km waterway that runs parallel to the existing 193 km canal and deepening and widening another 35 km section of the old canal, so that ships can pass each other while making the passage. Once it is operational it will cut the waiting time for ships from 18 hours to 11 hours.

The project was completed in less than a year, and was mostly financed by means of a bond issue taken up by Egyptian citizens. The total cost was about $9bn. The Suez Canal Authority estimates that the improvement could double the number of ships using the passage, and the revenue accruing to the State from that, by 2023 – although the number of ships using the canal is not a function of how fast the crossing is, but of international trade. Public-sector employees have been given the day off to join in celebrations.

The fact that the project was completed on time, using Egyptian capital and Egyptian labour, is a source of understandable pride in Egypt, as was best illustrated by the front page of (State-owned) Al-Akhbar, which ran a picture of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as a captain steering a ship while happy citizens behind him wave Egyptian flags. Mr Sisi will reap considerable capital from the success of the initiative.

Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, who is in charge of religious affairs, issued a guideline for sermons to be preached on Friday, August 7, which calls the inauguration “a gift from God to the people of Egypt, and a sign from him of victory against the enemies of God and the nation, who wanted Egypt to be defeated,” and compares it to a legendary episode in the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Last weekend, a former Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, said: “Whomever obeys President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi obeys the Prophet and whomever disobeys him disobeys the Prophet.”

This nationalist zeal, and the excessive praise for Mr Sisi that goes with it, allows the State to implement repressive measures that concern us. The constant harping on the theme of Egypt’s enemies – mostly meaning the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – is the pretext used to censor the press, to violate the human rights of detainees suspected of terror links (or, often, detainees who express anti-government political positions) and to restrict labour rights. All these dynamics present long-term risk.

On Tuesday, August 4, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms released a report in which it records 658 violations of journalists’ rights in the first year of Mr Sisi’s presidency – instances of police preventing reporters from doing their jobs, confiscating their equipment and sometimes detaining or beating them. At least 18 journalists are behind bars in Egypt, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

And things could get worse still if a proposed anti-terror bill is passed: the bill would impose a fine of up to E£500,000 on journalists who contradict official statements, enough to bankrupt most reporters and a fair number of media outlets. The bill had originally included a jail sentence for such subversive reporting, but that was removed on an outcry from journalists (who have, by and large, been very supportive of Mr Sisi). We expect the new law to pass, probably by decree before the new Parliament is elected, and to make it hard to find out what is going on in Egypt.

In May, the Cairo High Court ruled that workers who go on strike can be sacked, and since then several hundred workers have been referred to disciplinary committees for stopping work, and many have lost their jobs. As with journalists, the State has used the nationalist argument to restrict workers’ rights, saying that work stoppages harm Egypt’s economy and so benefit the terrorists. There is also a more prosaic explanation for the policy: after lending and giving generously to Egypt, the Gulf monarchies have recently become more impatient.

On Monday, August 3, Oil Minister Sherif Ismail said: “Gulf oil grants are over. We are now talking about trade agreements.” We think the Gulf investors expect a more pliant labour environment to ensure profitable investment, and that Cairo will create such an environment at the expense of labour rights.

The nationalist feeling so rampant in Egypt today does reduce medium-term risk, by strengthening the State and boosting Mr Sisi’s political capital, but it entails a weakening of institutions that introduces long-term political risk. Egyptians who no longer believe what their media tells them, who have no options to press for better working conditions and who are criminalised for expressing dissent will tend to become easier targets for recruitment by radical groups.

At the same time, there are clear signs that the MB is becoming more disorganised and that lower-level elements have already adopted tactics of violent resistance. A key element in this dynamic will be corruption perceptions. If there are more signs that national and foreign economic elites are prospering thanks to State repression, then the environment will tend to become more volatile.

 François Conradie (Political analyst)

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