PODCAST: Is Egypt on the Brink?

In this podcast we sit down with Geopolity analyst Shezad Choudhry, who just returned from Egypt . He highlights the political situation in the country, the state of the economy and where things are heading.
17th June 202225 min

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[00:00:00] Adnan: Welcome to the geopolitical horizons, the podcast from the geopolity.com. My name’s Adnan I’ll be your host today, Egypt for long was the political leader in the Middle East but ever since the Arab spring, over a decade ago, it would seem Egypt maybe losing its title to a host of countries like Saudi, like the UAE, or even Turkey. We have a growing population which now exceeds 100 million, a government dominated by an entrenched military, increasing national debt. Egypt doesn’t look anything like the regional leader it once was so to discuss everything Egypt I’ve got with me today Shezad Choudhry who is the newest addition to our analyst team has just returned from Egypt after spending about year studying there. How you doing Shezad.

[00:00:48] Shezad: Very well, thank you Adnan, thanks for having me on the show.

[00:00:51] Adz: I think for our listners it would be good Shezad if you highlighted what you were doing out in Egypt and how you found things

[00:00:56] Shezad: So I went to Egypt to study Arabic, something I’ve always wanted to do. Finally got the chance to do it. Went there with my family, my wife, and my two kids. And we stayed in a part of Egypt called Madina al nasr. It’s in Cairo the main city. It’s a very well-known area in Egypt, actually, because it’s the place that students learning Arabic or any of the Islamic sciences go to also students who are studying in the very famous, , a university that’s typically the place they stay.

[00:01:23] Adnan: Okay, good stuff. So I’ve been probably the main question I’ve got for you Shezad is, it seems a lot of infrastructure is being built in Egypt for the last few years. And for every new infrastructure project announced by the regime, there seems to be enormous challenges in Egypt’s economy. So what’s actually life like for Egyptians currently on the ground. What was your experience for the year you were there?

[00:01:45] Shezad: Okay, life is a struggle for ordinary Egyptions, I mean, everyone will tell you that. They’ve been, I mean, in the time that I was there, there were numerous price hikes. In that one year, the currency devalued three times over, I think the currency is divided about 40% since the last year or so. Commodities have really jumped up in prices. I mean, if you, if you combine a devalued currency with an economy where 90% of food is imported, it means food gets really, really expensive. I mean, Egypt was the biggest importer of food of wheat from Ukraine and Russia. I saw the price of my daily goods really, really increase. So bread, for example, when I first arrived, there was 20 Egyptian pounds. And by the time I left with 25 Egyption pounds, a chicken, believe it or not not, it’s more expensive there than it is here. So life in terms of food in terms of basic necessities is really a struggle. I was telling you earlier that water, something as simple as water, you know, you don’t know if it’s going to be there in the afternoon, come the morning. Because my first week in the apartment that I was staying in with my family, the water went out three times. It went out for a long time, actually went out for eight hours and then the electricity that would routinely go out. So load shedding is a common thing. And the price for those things have gone up as well. I mean, electricity, the prices jumped up by about 300%. And, I’ve heard that prices are still going up and going to go up even more. So life for people in Egypt, especially on the low wages that they’re earning is really a struggle and, you seem to hear that wherever you go, taxi drivers, teachers, even your doctor. So I asked my doctor, my doctor was saying, he’s struggling. So life is really…..

[00:03:29] Adnan: Whats the employment situation like at the moment there?

[00:03:30] Shezad: So, people are running around just in search of wealth that they can find. Soldiers they earn around 325 Egyptian pounds a month, which. The equivalent of 15 UK pounds teachers earn around 700 egyption pounds, which is the equivalent of around 30 UK pounds. So if you think about chicken being more expensive than it is here, and then put those numbers in context, it’s, it’s, it’s impossible. People just can’t live. Um, I’ve been served at juice bars by 12 year old kids. I’ve seen. I mean, my wife was telling me that when she go, when she went to our local fruit market and the boy who is there is this, it’s the same boy in the morning as the guy in the evening. I mean, he’s, he’s always there. He’s always, we asked, I mean, if you come in the morning, your hair, if we come in the evening, your hair, I mean, standing in the same spot day after day they, hour I mean, when do you get chance to rest? And he said, I don’t, he’s 19 years old. He’s there seven days a week, morning till night and he earns around I think it’s less than a pound a day. So life is a struggle for people over there. There’s zero prospects for employment for the youth most young guys I spoke to they’re looking for ways out of the country altogether. There’s no future. Even your most educated people are, are struggling to find work. I’ve had accountants drive me around as taxi drivers. One of my taxi drivers actually used to work in the US, he use to the work for the Kennedy space center. So he was an aeronautical engineer. He had to come back to look after his parents, but really, really educated guys are struggling to find decent working in Egypt. And when they do find any kind of work. The response is usually, thanks to God though I’ve got something. But most people are just struggling to find work. And then there is no prospects.

[00:05:13] Adnan: I suppose my next question is how did it get so bad? So what is the regime or what’s Sissi’s strategy with the economy? How, how has it been managing the economy?

[00:05:22] Shezad: So, Sisi has been taken out on loans from the IMF and he’s been putting them mainly into vanity projects. You probably heard about new Cairo, it’s it’s a whole city built next to the next to the old Cairo, Sissi has been throwing whatever money’s been getting from the IMF into that and he’s, really really committed as well. Watching one interview with him and a journalist is asking him about a new Cairo and he’s saying to her if we starve, we starve and if we don’t eat, we don’t eat, but we will build.

[00:05:52] Adnan: Uh, new Cairo, just explain where that is and,

[00:05:55] Shezad: okay. So

[00:05:55] Adnan: is it like a gated community? thats what it sounds like

[00:05:57] Shezad: Yeah. So it’s basically a haven for the super rich, security people, military police, people close to the president. It’s a place for them to live in. It’s basically man friends, gated communities. It’s really, really nice

[00:06:11] Adnan: Did you manage to get in there yourself

[00:06:12] Shezad: I managed actually get in there. I actually went there to see to see a mosque. It’s the biggest mosque in Africa named after Sissi called al-fateh mosque. And it was really hard to get there actually, because, most of the different taxi drivers can’t go. There’s about three check points on the way and I was lucky enough to get in and quite funnily the driver who left me he happens to live in the area, which is why, he can can get there. He asked me, um, and he told me rather that it don’t worry. I’ll look after you. I’ll make sure you get inside. And I showed him my red passport and go, don’t worry, man. I’ll look after you because the way things work in Egypt is if you’ve got European passport, American passport, you’re treated a lot better than the guys who live there. But yeah, alot of money has been taken from the IMF thrown into vanity projects, unfortunately, alot that money before we even get to the projects. It’s kind of, it feels the pockets of some officials somewhere. I remember even hearing Sissi said, you have no plan, you have no deadline we just built, we just built. So, he’s really committed to building, he’s built a new express lane next to the Suez aswell, there’s bridges and

[00:07:10] Adnan: This Suez canal expansion project they’ve got, will that have any impact on the broader economy?

[00:07:15] Shezad: This is quite funny, actually. Sissi was advised before he built the new Suez canal that this will bring zero economic benefit to the country. And he said in response that we don’t listen to the specialists, to the experts. We build for the morality of the people. So, this is where he’s coming from. So in his view, building, that’s the way to get the economy to get the country out of it’s desperate situation, but it’s not worked because bridges and roads don’t feed stomachs.

[00:07:38] Adnan: Okay. So how does your average Egyptian get by then with this strategy being led by the regime.

[00:07:43] Shezad: People don’t eat chicken, people don’t eat meat. A lot of the population have access to these subsidised food cards, if you have one of these you can get bread. You can get, basically you can get basic bread, beans at subsidised prices. The problems, which, which has always been a good thing. And it’s kind of the only good thing that it just Egyptions had in their lives. These was just some of the crumbs that the government had to offer the people and it was good to get some kind of popular support. But as of last month, I think 8 of those food categories have now been excluded. So there’s even fewer staple foods to choose from. But people usually wouldn’t eat chicken meat, they would eat breads also and beans. some of them can’t even afford that and so there’ve been stories of people starving in their homes, being proud, too proud to, to go out and beg for money. It’s well-known that Egypt has about 1 million people living in graveyards, cemeteries and that number has increased, some people are saying is 3 million now.

[00:08:44] Adnan: So has this all had a knock on effect on crime, on violence, theft?

[00:08:49] Shezad: Not from what I heard or saw or read or anything like that. people would rather, like I said, sit, sit in their homes and starve they kind of put up with it to a point to a point. So for example, I was there for Eid and typically parents buy their kids Eid clothes. They didn’t this time, they just bought food.

[00:09:09] Adnan: So, I was reading Shezad at the time that there was a ban on Eid gatherings on Tarawhi prayer. What was going on there?

[00:09:19] Shezad: In terms of Ramadan, I was there for Ramadan, and, a lot of restrictions are imposed on the Tarawhi prayers, evening prayers, the Tahujjud prayers. So what happened is the Tarawhi prayers were limited to 30 minutes. You cant pray more than that. The Tahujjud prayers are banned altogether. Itikaf which is seclusion in mosque was banned altogether. And iftar was banned altogether from happening inside the Masajids. So the excuse for all of this was Corona. Social distancing was enforced the mosques as well, you have to social distance, and this is all happening at time where all those restrictions were lifted and every other country you in Saudi Arabia. So you could do the ummrah , but you couldn’t do this in Egypt. Most of the population had been vaccinated because it’s mandatory in Egypt anyway. But for some reason, congregations weren’t allowed in the mosques and this for a lot of Egyptions was a red line. Even the Wazar al-Awqaf, which is the ministry of religious affairs, they came out on TV and said, look, if you find anyone in the mosques, we’re gonna arrest you and there was live, they broadcast live them knocking on mosque doors checking if anyone’s inside and threatening to arrest them. So this was really a red line for the people. And by the end of Ramadan, the last three days, Sisi had to lift all of these restrictions. But like I said, he had no problem with people gathering together for a football match between Senegal and Egypt, but when it came to the mosques, so a lot of people interpreted this as Sissi is an enemy of Islam and Muslims, he’s scared doesn’t want any congrehations to take place.

[00:10:44] Adnan: This leads nicely to my next question Shezad, how do you see Sissi’s grip now? It’s been, I think 2013 is when he did his coup, so next year will be a decade. So he’s been in power for a decade. So how is he managing to still remain in power. Despite the state of the economy what sort of tactics did you see on the ground. How’s he still managed to remain in power despite where the economy is and these challenges that you’ve outlined the people are facing?

[00:11:12] Shezad: I think the biggest thing is fear, the number of stories I heard about people getting abducted, disappearing from the streets or their homes, trials where no lawyers were present and no access to any kind of family or legal representation. I lost count. There are mass trials without evidence, there are executions that happen. Interesting story. I don’t know if you remember the Rabat killings, in the process in the spring of 2011, loads of protestors gathered in a place called Rabat and Sisi led a mass killing spree and he killed between 900-1,000 protestors and civilians. He accused them all of being Ikhwan and more recently he’s more blamed them for the entire incident. I think 1,200 civilians were prosecuted rather for the death of nine officers at that time. But no officers have been prosecuted for the death of 900 civilians. So there is really a state of fear. People are scared that if you speak up, something might happen to you, but even then people are speaking out. There was a there’s a media show. it’s a new series called the choice – al-Ikhtiar, , it’s a show about the rise of Sissi. It’s an endless source of memes, let’s put it out that way because in the show, Sissi is, brave he’s courageous he’s a hero, he’s pious And he’s tall. So there was a lawyer he publicly criticised, I think it’s hyped. Yeah. Um, his name was Nabeel Abi Shayr, and for that alone just just for criticising him in that way, he was sentenced to 15 years for spreading false news. But this is really what the government does. It keeps you in line and check by using fear. And even if they mock the show, something like that, something as simple as that might get you in some serious trouble. Then the other thing that he does is always the more recently he’s invited the dialogue with the opposition. So a few days ago, Sisi announced that he’d be releasing about 5,000 Ikhwan opposition from prisons. Because they they now feel the presence, He’s going to release about 5,000 of them and he’s gonna start dialogue with them to get out of the whole economic situation as if to say that blood is somehow on their hands as well. But yeah, some desperate moves by Sissi.

[00:13:25] Adnan: And Ikhwan. I dont know, Did you meet any of them on the ground? Whats their situation like currently.

[00:13:30] Shezad: Yeah I did I did um, so the situation is not good at the moment. Sisi has built loads of prisons since he’s come to power, actually a third of prisons are built by him in the last 10 years. And they’re mainly filled with with activists and political opposition, mainly Ikhwan. Some say upto 100,000 Ikhwan are in prison behind bars. So they’ve mainly gone quiet, but there are some people on the ground still. Yeah.

[00:13:53] Adnan: You wouldn’t say they’re going underground.

[00:13:56] Shezad: Let’s put it this way their a lot quieter than they used to be. You don’t see them as much.

[00:14:00] Adnan: Reading around just yesterday, obviously the regime has got a narrative to try and explain why things are so bad. They been putting the blame on COVID-19 and now the war on Ukraine. So how much of Egypts current problems can be put down to these two?

[00:14:13] Shezad: So the regime keep changing their mind about what the problems happen in the first place. if you ask the people why, why the problem is happening, they’ll say Sisi. And if you ask the regime, why the problems happening? They’ll say it’s the people here too many of them population is growing too fast. And when they can’t use that excuse anymore, they’ll say Corona. And when they can’t say that, they’ll say Ukraine. And then when they can’t say that, they’ll go back to the population again. So it kinda just goes around in a circle. But the economic situation, even before COVID and even before Ukraine was pretty bad. You might remember just before COVID kicked off uprisings were starting in Egypt. They had started in some other countries already. So Corona kind of came and saved the day for Sisi but the situation was very bad to begin with. National debt before Sisi took power was about 360 million and now it’s 400 million. He didn’t just take, in the last one or two years, he’s been taking that the whole time that that’s been building

[00:15:04] Adnan: The IMF money has been taking that’s that’s not having any impact on people’s lives.

[00:15:08] Shezad: Well two things really, one, it hardly, it doesn’t reach most of money that comes in is well the officials, they loot it basically. And then the country have to pay it off. And then what does, what does get through goes towards these vanity building projects? The situation is that half of the tax money, that agent makes, goes towards paying back the interest on these loans. So it’s a pretty bad situation. So these are my, these are my friends and are helping as well. I mean, they, one of them came with a condition that Egypt can’t use its fields to grow wheat. It has to, it has to make cotton. Which is a disaster for Egypt because it needs wheat. It doesn’t need the cotton.

[00:15:47] Adnan: So Shezad, how do you see things playing out. When you were there could you see Arab Spring 2.0, anywhere in the horizon?

[00:15:54] Shezad: It’s a black cloud over Egypt. I don’t think it’s a question of if it’s a question of when. When I was there, my teacher said to me, he was buying some coffee, when he heard the price, he just started swearing at Sisi and the guy sitting on the coffee started swearing off as well. So the situation is that it’s reaching a boiling point. People can’t hold in anymore . Another one my teacher said enough talk, now we need to go to the streets. So this is the feeling that people are really boiling and I think they’re saying that the prices are going to rise again this month by 15%. How much can people take? People are really fed up. You’re not going to find one voice in the country who supports Sisi.

[00:16:28] Adnan: So Shezad, a decade ago, the people came out on the streets and the army removed a 80 year old man Hosni Mubarak. They removed him, but they maintained power. Uh, do you think 10 years on people have realised that the same institution still in power? Do you think this time around they’ll go towards the whole system change, or how do you see things playing out?

[00:16:51] Shezad: Honestly I do feel that people still think that if we change the guy, things will get somehow incrementally bigger. There’s still a better way to go in terms of. Seeing the system as a problem,

[00:17:04] Adnan: I suppose in a country where, you work on a daily wage and you’re trying to make ends meet, having a look at the system, thinking about system is just not the first thing on your mind.

[00:17:15] Shezad: A lot of people haven’t got time to think they’re so focused on where their next meal is coming from mean even guys who are middle-class you could say they get squeezed so bad that they’re just thinking about, okay, work, work, work, work. But you can’t, you can’t ignore the, the situation that’s happening and you’re living the problem day to day. Prices are going up, security situation getting tighter and tighter. People don’t, they’re not blind to what’s going on. It’s just have you got, have you got a time to, to do anything about it? I think the other thing is that people have lost, and this is really sad to say, but I did notice that there was a lot of hope, especially from people who were involved in the last uprising. They do feel that hope is lost, but it just takes one guy to come in and say, you know what? You know what, this guy, he needs to go, with one guy just takes one guy to speak up. I’ll give you an example. My wife was speaking to her teacher and I think the first time my wife and I are talking about prices, prices are going up and the first time my wife said, ah this Sisi makes such a problem. it gave my my wife’s teacher heart attack, her jaw dropped. But the second time my wife mentioned it a couple of days later that she was driving in, he was like yeah he has to go we need to get rid of this guy. So it just takes one guy to be vocal then everyone kind of starts speaking as well.

[00:18:27] Adnan: Yeah, I suppose, what you just outlined, Egypt, a lot of these countries in the Middle East they are really security states, so when we take for granted, we’re having this conversation sitting in London if we’re in Egypt having this conversation, your life’s on them. And I mean, you were mentioning just criticizing the regime. You’d get 15 years in prison, which shows you how these type of regime maintain power is really through fear is through the, iron grip.

[00:18:53] Adnan: My last question Shezad is this something I’ve been trying to make sense of? If I was Sisi and I saw my predecessor was overthrown because the economic situation with soul bad, the one thing I would do is make sure I improve the lives of people to some degree. So I don’t get overthrown whats going through his is head. It seems situation far worse now than it was under Mubarak. And we saw what happened to Mubarak in the end. What’s going through his mind. I mean, does he, is he so far away from the people he can’t see these or is he just deluded? Because we’ve seen whether recent history or even European history. I like going back to, if the people are over here and their leaders are somewhere else, eventually the leaders get over from so whats Sisi thinking what’s, he’s doing everything you do to get yourself overthrown.

[00:19:44] Shezad: It’s almost like he’s, he’s the worst leader they’ve ever had. You know, Gamal Abdul-Nasser at least the guy had a silver time on him, right. This guys like we’ll build, we’ve got no plans, we got no vision, we’ve got no budget and we’ll just build. You know, the last time Egyptions had a say in who would rule them, they voted Ikhwan the Islamic option, , I think, where he’s coming from is the only way that he can stay in power is by having an iron grip. Uh, at the moment, he gives people room to breathe, room to think, room to vote, room to elect their leaders or have a choice, they can [or go to the mosque and pray] they keep choosing the Islamic option people there are very islamic. They still talk about Salahudeen and the greats of Islamic history, amar bin alaas that, that rich tradition is still alive in their brain, in their minds. They have this view that they have responsibilities to carry their religion to the world. That feeling of we are a great nation and we achieve so much and we have this amazing military pedigree. We can achieve so much, that this thought is very much alive in their heads. So they’re very connected to Islamic roots. And I think if you gave these people a choice in who would rule them, they wouldn’t choose Sisi

[00:20:53] Adnan: So, Shezad my final question, this really is my final question. Um, the economic troubles, and alot wht you outlined, how much has this seeped through to the wider army, as, is the wider army being taken care of? Or do they face the same problem as the people of Egypt are?

[00:21:07] Shezad: so conscription is mandatory in Egypt. You’ve got to be one to three years. If you’re doing that life is miserable in the army. It’s like you might as well be in prison. It’s torture. My son’s kickboxing teacher, when he was doing his conscription, uh, months, months would go they wouldn’t let him shower, have a change of clothes. Soon as the battery in his phone died out, there was no way to charge it, so he’d be, he’d have no way of contacting his family. And there were loads of horror stories like this for people in the Egyptian army time and service are the worst years of your life. So those people are not well looked after, but there are some guys who are well looked after the top brass are looked after very well, I mean, New Cairo for these guys, New Cairo is for them, police, security, ministry, big businessmen. The whole idea is you have a gated community away from the rest of the population and they’re well looked after.

[00:21:58] Shezad: So, the guys, you know, military and police, they’re not really feeling it. They had their own mosques, they had their own shopping centers, places to eat. They have everything, there own social places, sports area. They have their own kind of internal economy as well. They are, they are half the Egyptian economy. So in terms of being shielded from the problems, yeah they largely are.

[00:22:19] Adnan: So I suppose Shezad in summary, we’ve come full circle to the eve of the Arab Spring again, it seems like we’ve got the same circumstances again, there seems to be a big gap between the ruler or the rulers and the people. And as you mentioned, it’s a matter of when now rather than if so. Yeah. Something to watch, we’ll be keeping an eye on Egypt forward. It is the heartbeat of the Middle East. What’s the saying they said that when Egypt sneezes, the region catches a cold.

[00:22:47] Adnan: Um, but thanks for the time Shezad today. It’s a really, really good insight.

[00:22:51] Shezad: Thanks very much.

[00:22:52] Adnan: If you want to learn more about Egypt and the Middle East, please check out our website, www.thegeopolity.com all one world. You can also learn more on other regions and issues by accessing our website where you will find comprehensive insights.

[00:23:06] Adnan: I’m Adnan and thanks for listening.


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