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Egyptians are living in poverty underwritten by western institutions Open in fullscreen

Lyndon Peters

Egyptians are living in poverty underwritten by western institutions

One third of Egyptians live in poverty [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 November, 2019

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Comment: Understanding poverty in Egypt requires looking beyond Sisi and the military, and considering the harmful role of international institutions, writes Lyndon Peters.
Human rights violations and poverty are increasing in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's Egypt, and as many as 60,000 political prisoners are held in inhumane conditions, denied basic human rights and medical care.

Despite this, Egypt remains largely free from criticism as it is a key strategic, military and economic partner of the United States, the UK and the EU.

Egypt spends money it doesn't have buying arms that it doesn't need from western arms manufacturers, and all the while, poverty is rising. The arms trade with Egypt has avoided the same level of scrutiny from Europe that led to some restrictions on arms sales in the case of Saudi Arabia. For example, Germany banned arms exports to both Saudi Arabia and Turkey while continuing to export arms to Egypt and UAE.

A recent UN report described the prison conditions in which Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi was held as "brutal". 

The independent panel of UN experts led by Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, described Morsi's death as a "state-sanctioned arbitrary killing."

And yet injustice persists in Egypt, just as long as states with potential leverage over Sisi's government seek to maintain the status-quo. Widely considered pro-Saudi and pro-Israel, Sisi has the necessary approval from Washington, London and Paris. 
This is in no small part due to the role of the UAE lobbying on behalf of Sisi and Egypt.

As with Khalifa Haftar in Libya, secular, democratic states are supporting a dictator in Egypt, who, playing on fears of Islamism, markets himself as a bulwark of secular stability against extremism.

Egypt remains largely free from criticism as it is a key strategic, military and economic partner of the United States, the UK and the EU

Yet Sisi is closely allied with Saudi Arabia - a theocratic absolute monarchy - and Bahrain. According to Al Jazeera's documentary 'Bahrain: Playing With Fire', King Hamad al-Khalifa recruited Islamic fundamentalists to assassinate Bahraini opposition leaders.

It should be clear therefore, that by lending their support to the likes of Sisi and Haftar, at the request of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, western states are supporting dictators who utilise the same combination of ultra-conservative Islam and authoritarianism as Mohamed bin Zayed, Mohamed bin Salman and King Hamad. In Egypt the ultra-conservative Salafist Al-Nour Party has unsurprisingly thrown its support behind Sisi since Morsi's ouster.

According to Human Rights Watch, since 2014 when Sisi was first sworn in, over 2,500 death sentences have been issued. Egypt ranks in the top 10 countries worldwide for executions.

There have been over 600 deaths due to medical neglect or denial of basic healthcare and over 100 deaths due to torture.

Death sentences in Egypt must be approved by the Grand Mufti - a post created in 1895 during the Veiled Protectorate era of the early British occupation of Egypt. There has never been a clear distinction between secular and religious authority in Egypt. Egypt's divisions are often framed as issues of religion, yet, the underlying causes of discontent in Egypt are predominantly economic.

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With the exception of the democratically elected government which was in power for one short year after the Arab Spring, Egypt has been characterised by a complete absence of democracy.

The country's economy has been equally devoid of democracy. 
The military elite occupies a position of privilege, operating networks of clientelism and doing deals with investors from Saudi Arabia and China. These firms are once again flourishing under Sisi, while World Bank studies suggest that 60 percent of Egyptians are classed as "poor or vulnerable".

Commentator Jean-Pierre Sereni recently pointed out a study showing the income of the poorest 50 percent in Egypt to be less than that of the richest 1 percent.

The military's combined economic and political power means that poverty in Egypt should be understood as an abuse of human rights.

As Nelson Mandela said: "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life."

Economic reforms imposed on the country as a condition of receiving a bailout from the IMF have coincided with the rise in poverty

Understanding poverty in Egypt requires looking beyond Sisi and the role of the military, and considering the harmful role of international institutions which legitimise the system of despotism and disparity in Egypt.

The IMF and the World Bank recently celebrated Egypt as a success story, yet 
economic reforms imposed on the country as a condition of receiving a bailout from the IMF in November 2016, have coincided with the rise in poverty.

From the IMF's technocratic perspective, military dictatorships are easy to work with, and history indicates that Sisi's Egypt is far from an isolated case; Idriss Deby's regime in Chad being another case in point.

The unique economic role of the military means that in celebrating Egyptian 'success', the IMF is not just assisting Sisi, but entrenching the economic and political power which the military holds over Egyptian civilians.

In September, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest against Sisi, and in response 4,000 people were arrested, including lawyers, activists, academics and writers.

At the United Nations Universal periodic review last week Italy's ambassador Gian Lorenzo Cornado called for justice for Giulio Regeni, the Italian doctoral researcher who was brutally killed in Egypt in 2016.

Such calls for accountability are vital because unless Egypt is pressured to conform to international standards, they will continue to violate human rights with impunity.


Lyndon Peters is an independent activist and researcher. His work focuses on the UK's relationship with the Gulf states. He has worked with human rights organisations on many issues relating to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.

Follow him on Twitter @LyndonPeters01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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