Sisi de­fends Egypt’s lat­est aus­ter­ity mea­sures

Com­ments come hours af­ter de­ci­sion an­nounced to slash elec­tric­ity sub­si­dies

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - BUSINESS - By Samy Magdy

CAIRO: Egypt’s Pres­i­dent Ab­delFat­tah al-Sisi Tues­day de­fended his gov­ern­ment’s lat­est aus­ter­ity mea­sures aimed at re­build­ing the coun­try’s ailing econ­omy, amid a wave of ar­rests since his re-elec­tion.

The gov­ern­ment raised the price of elec­tric­ity and tap wa­ter as part of an eco­nomic re­form pro­gram de­signed to qual­ify for a three-year, $12 bil­lion bailout loan from the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, which Egypt se­cured in 2016.

A new round of fuel sub­sidy cuts is ex­pected soon.

Sisi said late Tues­day in tele­vised com­ments that the gov­ern­ment spends a to­tal 330 bil­lion Egyp­tian pounds ($18.6 bil­lion) in sub­si­dies to cover fuel, food and elec­tric­ity, an­nu­ally. Each fam­ily re­ceives an av­er­age of 1,000 Egyp­tian pounds, or about $60, he said, speak­ing at an out­door iftar.

His com­ments came hours af­ter the gov­ern­ment an­nounced that it would slash elec­tric­ity sub­si­dies, push­ing up the charges by an av­er­age of 26 per­cent.

Elec­tric­ity Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Shaker said Tues­day that elec­tric­ity charges for fac­to­ries would rise by 41.8 per­cent and for house­holds 20.9 per­cent. The new charges will take ef­fect in July, he said.

Sisi said he was in­sist­ing on not post­pon­ing “nec­es­sary re­forms” to im­prove the econ­omy.

He urged Egyp­tians to be pa­tient as the re­forms take ef­fect.

“All chal­lenges and dif­fi­cul­ties could be easy if we en­dure them. … We have to pay the price to­gether,” he said.

Egypt’s econ­omy is still re­cov­er­ing from a costly 2011 pop­u­lar up­ris­ing that top­pled long­time ruler Hosni Mubarak and was fol­lowed by years of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity.

The tough aus­ter­ity mea­sures have in­cluded slash­ing fuel and elec­tric­ity sub­si­dies, im­pos­ing a value added tax and a cur­rency floata­tion.

The mea­sures, which none of Sisi’s pre­de­ces­sors dared im­ple­ment, have hit poor and mid­dle-class Egyp­tians es­pe­cially hard.

Egypt has in­ten­si­fied its crack­down on dis­sent since Sisi’s re-elec­tion in a March vote in which he faced no se­ri­ous chal­lengers.

The crack­down has led to a wave of ar­rests of well-known ac­tivists and hu­man rights cam­paign­ers.

Among them are blog­ger Wael Ab­bas, pro-democ­racy ac­tivist Shady El-Ghaz­aly Harb, young co­me­dian Shady Abu Zeid and ac­tivist Amal Fathy.

They all face an ar­ray of charges in­clud­ing dis­sem­i­nat­ing false news and be­long­ing to an out­lawed group.

Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have linked the lat­est ar­rests to a new round of fuel sub­sidy cuts.

The au­thor­i­ties are con­cerned that ac­tivists help ag­i­tate peo­ple to protest against the gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions to slash sub­si­dies, like the rare protest against a de­ci­sion to hike fares on Cairo’s sub­way sys­tem weeks ago, the of­fi­cials said.

“All of us know that there will be a wave of high prices as part of the eco­nomic re­form pro­gram,” one of­fi­cial said.

“They [ar­rested ac­tivists] used to ag­i­tate peo­ple mainly through so­cial me­dia when the gov­ern­ment takes such de­ci­sions.”

An­other of­fi­cial ac­cused the de­tainees of be­ing “ei­ther [out­lawed Mus­lim] Brother­hood mem­bers or co­op­er­at­ing with them.”

Both of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to talk to me­dia.

The Euro­pean Union and hu­man rights groups have voiced con­cern over the lat­est wave of ar­rests and called for the de­tainees to be re­leased.

Sisi won more than 97 per­cent of the vote in the March elec­tion, with turnout of more than 40 per­cent.

He faced no se­ri­ous chal­lenger, af­ter a string of po­ten­tially strong can­di­dates with­drew un­der pres­sure or were ar­rested.

His sole op­po­nent, lit­tle-known politi­cian Moussa Mostafa Moussa, was a sup­porter of the pres­i­dent and joined the race at the last minute to spare the gov­ern­ment the em­bar­rass­ment of a one-can­di­date elec­tion.

Sisi was first elected in 2014, nearly a year af­ter lead­ing the mil­i­tary over­throw of Egypt’s first freely elected pres­i­dent, the Is­lamist Mo­ham­mad Morsi, amid mass protests against his di­vi­sive rule.

Since then, au­thor­i­ties have waged a sweep­ing crack­down on dis­sent, jail­ing thou­sands of Is­lamists as well as many of the prom­i­nent sec­u­lar ac­tivists be­hind the 2011 up­ris­ing that top­pled long­time au­to­crat Mubarak.

Unau­tho­rized demon­stra­tions have been banned, and hun­dreds of web­sites – in­clud­ing those of rights groups and in­de­pen­dent me­dia – have also been blocked.

Egypt says such mea­sures are needed to re­store sta­bil­ity af­ter years of un­rest and to com­bat an in­sur­gency led by Daesh (ISIS) in the Si­nai.

Egypt re­cently saw a rare protest against the de­ci­sion to hike fares on Cairo’s sub­way sys­tem.

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