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What next for Egypt, with its new president in America’s pocket?

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi may have won the vote by a landslide, but the honeymoon will not last long if the economy doesn’t improve

Wael Gamal is one of those guys who make you believe that journalism has a future. Inquisitive, humorous – with a streak of cynicism essential in post-revolutionary Egypt – he thinks fast, he thinks forward and he’s convincing. What’s his view of the election last week of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president? “It is a disaster. I think it is a very important step backward for the revolution, but it’s not the end.” In short, 41-year-old Gamal is a sub-editor’s delight.

We do not talk more about that 93 per cent victory of the former field marshal, although even Gamal, until recently the managing editor of the liberal and independent Al Shorouk newspaper, can’t avoid talking about those who had left the voting booths frighteningly empty. “It took me just a minute to vote – for Sabahi [Sisi’s opponent] – on the second day, Tuesday. I thought this would be the busiest moment; it was a day off, it was going to be hot later, but in Nasr City, there was only one other person in the polling station.” Everyone knew that Hamdeen Sabahi would croak at the polls – he picked up only 3 per cent of the votes – but Gamal says he’s a brave man, one who suffered for his actions at the hands of state security.

As for Shorouk itself – although Gamal says nothing of this – it is in pretty dire straits. With a circulation of around 150,000 just after the 2011 revolution, it plummeted to 70,000 and then, today, staggers along with perhaps 15,000 printed copies – partly, so say other journalists, because advertisers have failed to pay their bills. In fact, all Egyptian newspapers have seen their circulations collapse since Sisi kicked out the previously elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

“The general interest in buying newspapers is diminishing, because the political situation is not as cheerful as it was after the [2011] revolution,” Gamal says, hands splayed in the “what-can-we-do?” gesture that all journalists here know too well.

As for the immediate future under Sisi, problems can already be identified. “A dictatorship needs real support from all sectors of society. Yes, Sisi has support now, but it is conditional. The expectations of people are different from each other. Whatever he says, part of the alliance – which elected him – will be annoyed. If Sisi talks about revitalising the state’s role in the economy, the businessmen who support him will be angry and vice-versa.”

Nasser, the former president, is not Sisi’s model, Gamal says. “The international situation is totally different from what it was 60 years ago. In five years, Nasser had all the poor peasants behind him in agrarian reform decrees.

“The economic programme of Sisi is in the budget plan, it calls for slashing 22 per cent of energy subsidies in one year. And they are shrinking public investments …. This is austerity, the kind that the US and the International Monetary Fund wants. This is contradictory to public support.” As for Sisi’s relations with the United States – and with a Washington humbled by its own military catastrophes and hesitations – Gamal believes that the former defence minister, whose curriculum vitae includes a somewhat conservative thesis on society and Islam from his time at the US Army War College, has strong support from the Pentagon.

“Everybody knew from the beginning that the conditions with the United States were clear: his policy towards the border with Gaza, his policy towards Israel and his economic agenda. As for his policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, he gets a ‘tick’ [from the US] for that as well.”

Yet Sisi’s straightforward anti-Brotherhood line will be nuanced. “There will be some kind of a deal with Morsi,” Gamal says. “There were some kind of talks just before Sisi announced his candidacy. The Brotherhood demonstrations were getting quieter. Then something failed. The talks stopped. There had been a Brotherhood statement that they were prepared to enter parliamentary elections. And then the rank and file were not willing to accept that. This could mean people getting more violent. There are signs of this in some of the small explosions that have happened in Cairo; perhaps they were individuals who were very angry about the mass killings [at Rabaa, in Cairo] in 2013.”

Egyptians, Gamal reckons, will grant Sisi a “grace” period after the elections, just as they gave time to Morsi in 2012. “They think things will get better very soon – but if Sisi fails to deliver, they will be in the streets. This is what happened to Morsi. In his first 10 months, there were 7,000 strikes and protests in the streets. Morsi said this was a challenge to his role as president.” Prior to the elections, even old Hosni Mubarak began to give pro-Sisi interviews from his Nile-side hospital bed until – so the word in Cairo has it – the military told the former dictator to shut up.

“Sisi wants a stable role for the state – but the problem is that he is depending on some of Mubarak’s interest networks,” Gamal says. “They have already invested in him. Now he must pay. They want returns on their investment – so he can’t put taxes on the stock market. But if he wants to spend on education, he must raise extra taxes.” 

Wael Gamal is on leave from Shorouk while he prepares a book on the Egyptian revolution and its political economy. He’s lucky that small publishing houses are among the few businesses in Cairo to have flourished in the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow.

“I think the revolution created an awareness among young writers and novelists,” he says. “People are writing poetry and politics.” He beams with delight and talks – rather suddenly, and here I suspect he is not entirely against Sisi’s projects – about “a new wing in the business community” that accepts it must make “a concession”. Some sort of wealth tax, perhaps? Then we’d see how much power Mubarak’s former cronies have over Egypt’s future.