A River of Challenges for Egypt's Sisi
Forty-one years ago this month, Abdel Halim Hafez, the Egyptian heartthrob who defined Arab popular music of the 20th century, died in a London hospital of a parasitic disease called Bilharzia. Last week, the Egyptian pop singer Sherine Abdel Wahab was sentenced to 6-months in prison for spreading fake news. Her crime? Joking that she wouldn’t sing the song “Have you Drunk from the Nile” because the river is rife with Bilharzia.
She wasn’t wrong, but it’s the latest example of strongman president Abdel Fattah el- Sisi’s pitiless crackdown ahead of the presidential election later this month. The vote itself won’t be competitive — all serious opposition candidates have been cowed or imprisoned, and his only opponent is an obscure politician who openly supports him.
But after the vote is over, Sisi faces a daunting set of challenges. Economic reforms have stabilized the government’s finances, but ordinary Egyptians are still reeling from painful subsidy cuts and discontent is high.
At the same time, Sisi’s bargain with millions of middle-class Egyptians — security at the price of political repression — has been shaken by a spate of jihadist attacks and an intractable Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
And about that Nile again… the river’s political significance goes beyond the recent bacterial ballad: Ethiopia is building a massive new dam on its portion of the Nile that could sap vital water supplies from Egypt. Failure to reach a negotiated solution with Addis Ababa could stoke tensions between two governments that each have an interest in using nationalism to distract from domestic challenges…