At the Middle East Policy Platform (MEPP), our purpose is to monitor what English language-based international think tanks are publishing on the developments in the Middle East region, with Egypt as our main focus. Every quarter, MEPP issues a report stating the amount of published papers by think tanks, comparing trends with the previous quarter and analyzing the juncture’s main topics.
The second quarter of 2019 saw 93 published papers by 22 think tanks, a slight increase from the first quarter which saw 81 published papers by 23 think tanks. This amount is significantly greater to the 53 publications observed in the second quarter of 2018. Attributing to this upsurge of papers is perhaps due to the substantial coverage of controversial Egyptian developments in the second quarter of 2019. Consistent with the first quarter of 2019 is the amount of published papers by think tanks. The Egyptian Institute for Studies remained the top publishing think tank with 21 papers in the second quarter, followed by The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy with 14; at third was the Century Foundation publishing 9 papers and closing this ranking was the Carnegie with 8, respectively.
In regards to the content of these papers, there were overlapping topics covered in both quarters as well as distinct subjects in the second. Spewing from the first quarter, judicial affairs, human rights and foreign relations continued to be prevalent topics. At the beginning of the second quarter, publications dealt with the inevitability of Egypt passing its proposed constitution amendments. With regards to human rights, think tanks addressed the Egyptian government’s usage of probation as punishment, death sentences and executions. Foreign relations dealt with various issues, notably Egypt’s position in regards to Sudan, Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, and Trump’s relations with Egypt.
New to the second quarter was the topic of Islamic movements and institutions due to Donald Trump’s attempt to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. Ending the second quarter, think tanks were focused on the tragic death of the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. His tragic death while in court has raised questions about the government’s treatment of prisoners and political opposition. In terms of the economy, think tanks addressed numerous aspects such as new laws, IMF’s stress test, the informal economy, and the overall health of the economy. And lastly, despite the topic of Sinai being pushed under the radar since the termination of Egypt’s ‘Operation Sinai’ alongside the rise of other topics, a noteworthy mention goes to Human Rights Watch who published an in-depth look at the atrocities taking place in Sinai.
At the start of the second quarter, think tanks continued to post their analyses about the proposed amendments. The proposed amendments was submitted on February 3, 2019 with minimum voices of opposition in the questionable parliament. Ultimately, the process of amendment required the approval of the people in a referendum scheduled for April 19-22. With doubtful results of 88.8% voting for the amendments, think tanks have questioned the results of the referendum as well as issuing the consequences of such an outcome. Contentions surrounding the referendum dealt with the lack of time afforded to the citizens of Egypt in order to make an informed decision in conjunction with the government’s blockade of supporters and websites supporting a ‘no’ vote. (1) (2) With this in mind, Michele Dunne and Cassia Bardos at Carnegie further questioned the credibility of the results stating that “Although government-dominated media in Egypt reported “heavy turnout” repeatedly over the three days, there was scant photographic or anecdotal evidence of this from journalists or individual voters.” (3) Nonetheless, the results were upheld and such amendments will see an increase control of power in the hands of the executive, notably new term limits for the president, elongating the former set of term years from 4 to 6. Charles Dunne summarized the possible effects of such amendments arguing that president Sisi is “pushing the country toward an unabashedly totalitarian model.” (4)
Egypt’s poor track record on human rights has continued into the second quarter of 2019 with the government’s usage of death sentences, executions, and probation as punishment. According to Amnesty International, Egypt witnessed a staggering 78% increase in death sentences, from around 402 in 2017 to approximately 717 in 2018. (5) Although the number of executions is nowhere as close to the death sentences, there was an increase from 35 in 2017 to 45 in 2018. (6) In terms of probation as punishment, The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy have suggested that authorities systematically abuse this non-custodial measure. (7) Despite the Tokyo Rules which encourages alternatives to imprisonment like probation, concerns about erosion of the law occurs when authorities force individuals to serve their probation periods at police stations rather than their residences. (8) As a result, individuals have been harassed by some police officers.
With regards to foreign affairs, Egypt has and continue to deal with both neighboring and distant countries. Egypt’s southern neighbor, Sudan, is seeing its military take control of the nation, similar to events that occurred in Egypt in 2013. With the Egyptian government siding with the Transitional Military Council (TMC) led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Burhan, think tanks quickly addressed the importance of Sudan to Egypt. The Arab Center Washington DC lists that Egypt’s support for the TMC might be more secure than a new civilian opposition where largesse, prevention of any revolts in the region and repression against Muslim Brotherhood members, Sisi’s enemy, can be achieved. (9) Also important for Egypt, regardless of who gains power in Sudan, is the issue of the Nile River. Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam constitutes not only a political dimension that Egypt needs to consider but also for economic (water deficits) and social (national security) reasons. (10) Hence, Egypt would prefer to exert their influence on Sudan to withdraw its support for Ethiopia’s quest to develop the Nile River. (11) (12)
Further away from Egyptian borders but still as important is the Egyptian-American relations. Prior to the constitutional amendments referendum, Sisi visited Donald Trump in Washington where there was no mention of such development. However, the Middle East Institute noted two important developments in the Egyptian-American affairs. Firstly, Egypt’s withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), an American conception, has raised doubts whether this alliance can be successful without such a key player. (13) And secondly, Washington’s request for observer status at the newly minted Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum has called attention to the prospect of a new destination for gas exports. (14)
Near the end of the second quarter of 2019, Islamic Movements and Institutions became a hot topic as Donald Trump urged the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Experts quickly responded to the possible impact of such designation. Many echoed the sentiment of Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as he argued that Trump’s “designation would remove any pretense that the United States has even a passing interest in supporting Arab democracy.” (15) (16) (17) What is sure to happen if such designation becomes reality is the criminal prosecution of any known person or group that has any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hence, this classification will have ramifications both domestically and internationally far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood.
Relevant to the second quarter was the topic of economy whereby papers from think tanks covered new laws, IMF’s stress test, the informal economy, and the overall health of the Egyptian economy. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy published 4 papers describing new economic laws passed by Egypt. They included the Investment Law (Law No. 72 of 2017), (18) the Value-Added Tax (VAT) Law, (19) the Law on the Simplification of the Procedures for Licensing Industrial Installations (Industrial Licensing Law), (20) and the Bankruptcy Law (Law No. 11 of 2018). (21) IMF’s stress test on Egpytian debt concluded that it is subject to significant risks but currently sustainable. (22) Meanwhile, Egypt’s is attempting to integrate its large informal economy into the formal economy by issuing tax breaks as well as other incentives. (23) Abdelhafez Alsawy, an Egyptian economist, summarised the overall health of Egypt’s economy stating “There is some improvement in financial and monetary indicators that some see as an indicator of economic recovery that paves the way for achievement of economic stability in the country. However, this is a hasty conclusion that does not take into consideration the high costs of such improvement.” (24)
The conclusion of Egypt’s ‘Operation Sinai’ marked a decrease in papers written about Sinai in the second quarter of 2019. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch published an in-depth summary of the abuses undertaken by the Egyptian military and police as well as atrocities committed by Wilayat Sinai. These abuses took form through mass arrests and enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and killings at checkpoints, ill-treatment, torture, and death in detention, role of pro-government militias, possible unlawful air and ground attacks. (25) In regards to foreign affairs about Sinai, there have been strong cooperation between the current Egyptian regime and Israel, where Israel have been active militarily in the region with Sisi’s consent. (26)
In summary, the second quarter of 2019 observed overlapping topics from the first quarter, such as judicial affairs, human rights concerns, and foreign relations, as well as new themes like Islamic movements and institutions and the economy. Highlighting the notable developments of second quarter were the questionable referendum results passing constitutional amendments and the tragic news of Morsi’s death. In the upcoming weeks, MEPP will issue a special report about the coverage of the death of president, Mohamed Morsi.