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Al Sissi Still Popular Despite Reduction of Subsidies and Electricity Outages

Followers of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have been detected in 20 mosques across the Qena Province in Upper Egypt, according to statements by Qurashi Salameh, head of the Province’s Association of Imams. This particular province was known as a stronghold of Al Jamma’a Al Islamyieh in the 90’s, and in the recent period, the province broke the records in the number of anti-Coptic incidents including burning of churches and kidnappings.
This is not surprising. The appeal of the ISIL is not confined by the limits of actions stated in its own name. Jobless youth, poor peasants and bitter members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) all provide a fertile ground for extremism, and all of these factors are present in the Upper Egypt region.
But it is the situation in the whole of Egypt that is in dire straits. Four days of wandering in the streets of some of the poorer areas of Cairo in the brutal heat of August gave a sense of the disposition of the population towards the new president and the MBs.
When asked “if (former president Mohammed) Morsi were out of jail and allowed to run in a fair elections against the current president Abdel Fatah Al Sissi, whom do you think will win?”, seventy percent indicated that they are still willing to give Al Sissi a chance. The main argument that was echoed repeatedly concerning the choice of president is that the entire Middle East region is going through a destructive storm, and Egypt must be on its guard against a replay of what happened in Libya or Syria. The frequent unbearable electricity outages in the heat of summer did not change the mind of those poor Egyptians to whom we had a chance to talk.
The rest were divided between those who do not know if they would vote for Al Sissi again and those who supported the MBs. If measured by popular support, at least in Cairo where a quarter (20 million) of the population lives, it becomes obvious that the MBs lost a substantial portion of their public support.
But Al Sissi is still facing an uphill fight. Not only do scattered groups of the MBs continue to stage amateurish protest moves mixed with homemade bombs from time to time, but the business community is also expressing dismay over the Army interference in the markets. The business sector is particularly irked by a bold chain of infrastructure projects supervised exclusively by the military. The response to Al Sissi’s call for businessmen to contribute to a donation public fund was received coldly. In a meeting between Al Sissi and the highest echelon of the business community in mid-July, the Egyptian president pleaded for generous donations. He warned that the next eruption of social unrest will threaten all, starting with the commercial sector itself.
But the richest people in Egypt were not at ease. The reason is that the Armed Forces are not only relatively independent of the business community, but the military is also cutting the sector’s previous practices short. For example, Al Sissi said that any attempt to increase prices unfairly will be faced with swift actions from the military. He gave an example of increasing the prices of meat and said that the army will import large quantities of meat from Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere and establish makeshift sales points to crush local producers if they try to manipulate prices or unfairly increase it. According to several reports, the army controls somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of Egypt’s economy. It is difficult to verify that for lack of statistics.
The unease of the business community toward the military’s—and by extension, Al Sissi’s—role is translated into intense preparations to control the next Parliament. Parliamentary elections are due at the end of this year. And the military, through the administrative machine and the security forces is not standing idle. What Al Sissi wants is a Parliament that has a majority of his supporters. The silent competition between the two sides is currently entering a more overt phase with business-owned media getting ready to focus the spotlight on pro-business contenders.
The energy shortage in Egypt, along with the bold move to substantially reduce subsidies on fuel, is a tough test for the military regime. Yet, Al Sissi’s popularity is genuinely high. Egyptians seem to have understood that the country was edging towards bankruptcy and possible chaos. Cutting spending on energy subsidies enabled Al Sissi to move towards a budget deficit of 10% instead of the more than 12% that was predicted. Fuel subsidies went down from about $18 billion annually to around $13.5 billion. However, the price increase was 78% in gasoline prices, 64% in diesel prices, 40-130% in fuel oil prices and 12-75% in natural gas prices for industrial users.
At the current pace, and if Al Sissi is granted a few more years by a patient population, Egypt will have been saved from a possible financial and economic collapse. What is missing in this fight is adequate international financial support. And, what is hoped for is that Egypt will remain relatively immune to the regional cancer that seems to spreading in Qena.

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