In Egypt, al-Sissi Shifts PR Into High Gear

Egyptians have already learned that President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi works all days, lives modestly and is an expert bicyclist, but they still have no idea what their future will look like.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi during TV interview, May 6, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi begins his work day at 5 A.M. and ends it at 9 P.M.,” the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported last week. “The other ministers also start early, at 7 A.M., and work into the night.” The health minister has been making surprise visits to hospitals and has already fired one hospital director because he didn’t show up for work on time, while the education minister recently began his day with an event celebrating publication of the “Teacher’s Guide to Values and Civics.”

Blaring headlines in another paper, Al-Ahram, informed readers that Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab decided at his first cabinet meeting to banish peddlers from the streets and install them in a new building where they can set up their stands without bothering people walking down the street. The state, at least as depicted in the media, is now following military discipline, and ministers are expected to act as master sergeants.

Nevertheless, the “high-speed government” — as Al-Ahram termed it when describing the variety of decisions the government made in the first few days of al-Sissi’s term — has yet to even touch on the serious chronic problems from which Egypt suffers. For instance, there has been no attempt to draft an economic plan, whether long-term or short-term, setting out economic goals to which the government would aspire. It’s not clear how al-Sissi plans to deal with government workers’ demands for a raise when his treasury, which was full just a few months ago thanks to aid from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, is once again empty. Perhaps the Saudi king, who paid a lightning visit to Egypt last week and met with al-Sissi, promised a few more grants, but such gifts tend to evaporate if no useful way of investing them is found.

Nor is there any program detailing how al-Sissi plans to entice foreign investors to invest in his country, given that it’s not clear what he can offer them in exchange: Tax breaks? Free land? Cheap, unskilled labor? True, a hospital director was fired, but Egypt’s medical services infrastructure has been waiting for years for a top-to-bottom overhaul, including new equipment, standardized procedures and, above all, someone to teach medical staff how to treat patients nicely.

Granted, some 20 students were thrown out of an exam at Cairo University because they wrote political slogans denouncing the army and the regime in their test booklet. But when neither these students nor hundreds of thousands of others have any chance of getting a suitable job, either in the government or outside it, the education minister cannot make do with boasting of his long work hours. He needs to provide a solution to the private tutoring industry, which is estimated to be worth billions of Egyptian pounds per year, and satisfy numerous burning needs, including upgraded laboratories for natural science departments and modern computers for classrooms.

The police have also been working at “high speed.” One of the most important jobs they have taken upon themselves is removing fliers saying, “Have you prayed today?” that have recently been stuck on the rear windshields of minibuses and taxis. They suspect, apparently correctly, that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are responsible for this “dangerous” development, which is liable to bring down the state. About 1,000 such posters have already been removed, the traffic police announced.

Nor is the Muslim Brotherhood the only focus of the police’s wrath. Two weeks ago, Alaa Abd el-Fattah was sentenced to 15 years in prison for participating in an illegal demonstration. Alaa may be Egypt’s most famous blogger. He is the one who, together with his wife Manal, exposed the corruption of the regime of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak long before the revolution; he also reported on policemen who beat prisoners in the jails. But now, under the “high-speed government,” there’s no time to worry about civil rights.

People who have visited Egypt recently say many residents avoid walking down the streets after dark — less for fear of criminals than for fear of being hassled by the police. The police force that was considered a disgrace before the revolution and was banished from Cairo’s streets during it has now apparently returned to its old modus operandi. Parents report that policemen often visit their houses at night to “suggest” that they keep a close eye on their children’s behavior.

Nevertheless, there is some good news. For instance, Egyptian citizens were recently informed that their president is one of the world’s most modest leaders. He earns 42,000 Egyptian pounds a month (a little less than $6,000), which is the maximum salary a government official can earn by law. That’s “in contrast to the ruler of Qatar, who receives $3 million a month,” as one report put it.

Al-Sissi also set an example for his citizens two weeks ago when he organized a bicycling marathon in which — surprise, surprise — he placed first, while his prime minister came in second. Since he was seen on a bike, the number of bicycles sold has jumped by 100 percent, according to the heads of the bicycle sellers’ association. Nor did they forget to point out that a bicycle only costs about 700 Egyptian pounds, roughly four times the monthly minimum wage. They even asked the government to pave bike lanes along the sides of major roads.

Anyone who is familiar with Cairo’s teeming streets knows just how detached from reality this request is. But then, there’s no tax on dreaming.