On February 26, 2016, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi visited his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital. Despite Sisi’s rise to power “through the type of political upheaval that Nazarbayev [views] as anathema,” as Eurasianet Joanna Lillis aptly noticed, the two leaders appear to have more in common than first meets the eye.
According to the Egyptian State Information Service, the Kazakh President “hailed Sisi’s efforts, wisdom and role in bringing back security and stability” to Egypt. These are important themes for Nazarbayev, whose rulership has been predicated on maintaining stability to boost economic development. This has involved restricting the right to freedom of assembly, as well as relying on arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, and widespread torture and other ill-treatment in detention facilities, as Amnesty International has reported year in and year out.
Sisi’s Egypt is on par with Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan on all these counts. In 2015, Human Rights Watch described the general’s rule as marred by mass detentions, military trials of civilians, hundreds of death sentences, near total impunity for abuses by security forces, a de facto protest ban, and the routine use of force against anti-government demonstrators.
But, despite these authoritarian measures, stability and prosperity for the masses have been elusive in both countries, though to different degrees.
In 2011, the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen was rocked by prolonged strikes in the oil sector, a key economic sector for the country. The government responded with violence, killing at least twelve striking workers and injuring dozens others. Slow growth, partially due to collapsing oil prices, and steep currency devaluations are now sparking rare but growing protests in the Central Asian state, risking to shatter its self-promoted image of stability and development. While some of the country’s vast oil and gas wealth has trickled down to Kazakhstan’s poor, entrenched cronyism and corruption have ensured that a small clique close to the president and his family has become fabulously rich at the expense of the general population.
While, as reported by Aljazeera, Sisi “promised he would restore security and improve the lives of millions of Egyptians,” he has spectacularly failed on both counts. Under his watch, Egypt has faced an intensifying insurgency in the Sinai, so serious that The Economist claimed, at the end of 2015, that the country was “losing control” of the peninsula. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “Sisi has faced on average five times as many protests as Mubarak did between 2008 and 2010,” the year before he was toppled.
Above all, however, Egypt’s tanking economy weighs the most heavily on the general’s shoulders. Shortly before visiting Kazakhstan, Sisi presented the latest draft of his Egypt Vision: 2030. The reform agenda is intended to catapult Egypt into the top thirty countries worldwide, in terms of GDP, market competitiveness, and other indicators, by 2030. The goal is even more ambitious than Nazarbayev’s Strategy Kazakhstan 2050, which aims to achieve the same goal by 2050.
Writing in The New Arab, economist and former executive chief editor of Egypt Independent, Ibrahim AlSahary, gave a bleak assessment of the state of the Egyptian economy: “in less than one year of Sisi’s rule in Egypt, non-oil industries went bust, diving to an all-time low, with production down 30 percent in June 2015, according to the ministry of planning.” He added that the “non-oil industrial sector, which is a major contributor to economic growth, is facing the worst and longest contraction in its history.” Turmoil in the Sinai, including the shooting down of a Russian airliner, has severely affected the tourism industry – a major source of hard currency – that has witnessed a 15% slump in 2015 compared to the previous year.
Commenting on Egypt Vision, AlSahary observed that Sisi’s only concrete strategies for solving the country’s current economic woes have involved asking Egyptians to donate one pound per day to the government, via text message, and putting himself up for sale. Given the general’s proposed ‘solutions,’ it is hard to escape AlSahary’s conclusion: “many gloomy days are on the way” for Egypt.