Egypt's Sissi Is Going the Extra Mile, but Life’s No Better on the Nile

The Egyptian president is trying to improve relations between Copts and Muslims, combat terrorism in Sinai and prop up a flagging economy. Maybe one day he'll become the fifth Egyptian to win a Nobel Prize.

A man walking past a currency exchange bureau advertisement showing images of the U.S dollar and other currencies in Cairo, August 3, 2016.
Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Egypt has had four Nobel Prize winners. The first, author Naguib Mahfouz, died at a ripe old age. The second, former President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. The third, chemist Ahmed Zewail, died on Tuesday. Only Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is still alive.

Zewail, who died of cancer at 70, will be buried with full state honors. The Egyptian media is full of stories about the great scientist, who spent much of his life outside the country. In contrast, Mahfouz is controversial, because his 1959 book “The Children of Gebelawi” was seen as being critical of the regime. Sadat is also controversial, both for making peace with Israel and for his “opening” Egypt to the West – which flooded the state with Western investment, but also laid the groundwork for massive corruption and created an economic elite vastly wealthier than the masses. And ElBaradei, who ran unsuccessfully for president after the 2011 revolution, is today considered persona non grata.

So that leaves Zewail all alone.

The results of Egypt’s matriculation exams were also published this week. Some 480,000 students took the exams, out of 560,000 registered students. But it’s doubtful Zewail would be proud of the results, especially in science.

Only about 12,000 students studied hard science – down from 14,000 last year – and only 16 percent of them earned grades of 95 to 100. Now, they’ll enroll in universities that can’t assure them of jobs when they graduate, and then they’ll join the hundreds of thousands of other unemployed university graduates who have been waiting years for a suitable job.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has no delusions on this score. “Take a good look at your country,” he urged Egyptians in a speech in May. “This is the façade of a country, not a real country.”

In July, he celebrated the third anniversary of his ascension to power – first in a military coup against President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, then as an elected president. But Egypt still hasn’t managed to recover from the economic collapse caused by the revolution and Morsi’s short reign, which Sissi inherited and promised to fix.

His Education Ministry is now talking about reforming the matriculation exams, due to several cases in which copies of the exams leaked to students. But it isn’t discussing reforming the curriculum, which is based on outdated books, a lack of computers, horribly overcrowded classrooms and burned-out, poorly paid teachers who supplement their meager incomes by tutoring.

Reuters

As head of the executive branch, the hardworking Sissi is responsible not just for the unending war on terror, but also for public services. Thus, this week he spent time talking with the head of Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s most important religious institution, about the content of sermons given in over 200,000 mosques nationwide.

Al-Azhar grants the regime religious legitimacy. In exchange, it’s allowed to serve as Egypt’s chief religious censor. But now, its head, Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, is angry at Sissi because the president decided last month that all mosques should give short, uniform sermons prepared by the Wakf Ministry.

The preachers see this as undermining their status, cramping their creativity and, above all, preventing religious dialogue. They also argue that what’s suitable for a congregation in Cairo might not be suitable for a rural mosque.

But Sissi rejects these arguments. He wants to control the sermons to stop the preaching of Islamic extremism, and he deems this an inseparable part of the war on terror. Thus, the only compromise he agreed to was to let preachers write their own sermons, but on themes dictated by the ministry.

Aside from Islamist terror, Sissi is also concerned by the frequent clashes between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, which he fears could deteriorate into a religious war. There have been 37 such clashes in the last three years. During the latest, last month, Muslims burned Christian houses in the southern province of Minya due to rumors that one served as a church.

Such clashes are usually dealt with by a conciliation committee that includes representatives of Al-Azhar, the Coptic and Orthodox churches, and the government. In the Minya case, this panel agreed that the victims should get compensation of 30,000 Egyptian pounds (less than $3,000) from the perpetrators’ families, plus about another $1,000 from the provincial governor.

But such local solutions don’t satisfy the Copts, who comprise 10 percent of the population. They want a more fundamental improvement in their status.

Unlike his predecessors, Sissi seems willing to make dramatic legal changes that could satisfy the Copts’ aspirations. This week, he ordered the government to prepare changes to a discriminatory law that imposes numerous restrictions on building new churches. The law dates back to 1856, when the Ottomans ruled Egypt (with some minor amendments made in 1934). Because of it, no new churches have been built in decades, and even repairs of existing churches have been seriously hindered.

The proposed bill would eliminate most of these restrictions. But it’s not clear how parliament will respond, since the changes will likely be hard for religious conservatives to swallow.

Yet church leaders can at least take comfort from the fact that Sissi’s door is usually open to them. The same isn’t true of the Bedouin in Sinai, who are still waiting for Sissi to keep his promises about developing the peninsula. Saudi Arabia did pledge some $1.5 billion for this purpose, but the money hasn’t arrived because the development plans still haven’t been drafted.

Sinai, which has long suffered from extreme governmental neglect, is the Islamic terrorists’ most important base. And the government understands that absent alternative economic solutions, the Bedouin will continue taking money from extremist groups. But meanwhile, the army continues raiding houses in Sinai, arresting residents and erecting checkpoints that hold up traffic for hours.

This was on Sissi’s agenda this week, likewise a $12-billion loan he is seeking from the International Monetary Fund, and the galloping depreciation of the Egyptian pound. Altogether, it was a busy week for the president, who is trying to pull his country up the banks of the Nile.