Three years ago, Correspondents published an article entitled: Egypt between Two Dictators, which compared the regimes of the two former presidents Mubarak and Morsi and their approaches to the issue of farming outside the valley: two different patterns of despotic thinking and policies. Today, with President Abdel fattah al-Sisi inaugurating the Wheat Harvest Season in Al-Farafrah, a different pattern of tyranny looms, politically and socially.

Three years ago, Correspondents published an article entitled: Egypt between Two Dictators, which compared the regimes of the two former presidents Mubarak and Morsi and their approaches to the issue of farming outside the valley: two different patterns of despotic thinking and policies. Today, with President Abdel fattah al-Sisi inaugurating the Wheat Harvest Season in Al-Farafrah, a different pattern of tyranny looms, politically and socially.

Al-Sisi’s first image reflects a tentative version of a double personality, which develops dramatically over time, as a miracle maker with supernatural powers even in the smallest and tiniest details. Six months ago, while launching a large project of reclaiming 1.5 million acres, al-Sisi sat with Prime Minister Sharif Ismail on his right and Minister of Defense, Sidki Subhi on his left. The three chairs were next to each other but al-Sisi’s was a little bit higher and in front of him was a small table. This time, two tables were added, one on his right and the other on his left, to separate him from those sitting next to him. It might be a trivial detail but it seemed to be intentional; all the tables had the same stuff (flowers, a water bottle, a glass and tissues) while all other participants did not have any of these.

Were the tables meant to be a symbolic space? Did what al-Sisi said supports this suggestion?

To answer this question, we should look at some sporadic scenes which may help us diagnose the features of this newly-developed phase of tyranny.

Blood and fire

Al-Sisi has tremendous support within the parliament and the opposition is weak and timid. Ali Abdulal, the parliament speaker, expressed that support bluntly when, on many occasions, while discussing the government’s program he blocked all kinds of criticism to the government and ministers. In an article on the Misr Al-Arabiya website on April 10, he says: “At the times of crises, the concept of power separation is suspended. All powers should unite together in such difficult times. You know the conditions our country is going through right now. All powers should unite and there is no power separation now.”

The political biography of Hisham Sha’ini, Head of the Agricultural Committee in the parliament, provides an important indicator to how agricultural matters and policies are tackled.

On September 10, 2015, the Awlad Al-Balad website published that Sha’ini belongs to a big family that enjoys all aspects of social prestige, wealth and power in Upper Niles: money, tribal influence, political and parliamentarian representation, an organic relation with the security apparatus (he is a retired police officer). Sha’ini represents Naja’ Hamada district in Qena Governorate, 570 km south of Cairo, which is known as the district of “blood and fire” due to the fierce competition among major families. He inherited this seat from his father and uncles since the year 2000. He was one of the very few leaders of the Democratic National Party, dissolved by a judicial decision after the January 25 Revolution, to be reelected in the 2011 parliamentary elections. That parliament was dominated by political Islam and the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. On November 29, 2010, Al-Ahram Portal stated that, in his 2010 election campaign, Sha’ini killed a citizen and injured another by his machine gun during an election gathering. However, the case was solved through the traditional ways by paying the “blood money” and the collusion of investigators. After June 30, 2013, Sha’ini and others from other Egyptian regions especially the border provinces, founded the Arab Tribes Shora Council to support the army and police.

Easing the conflict

Egypt consumes 16 million tons of wheat every year but produces only five million tons. This huge gap is addressed through imports, making Egypt the world’s second largest wheat importer and most experts agree that it imports second-rate wheat to reduce costs.

Due to this imbalance between consumption and production, a ferocious war between importers and producers is going on within the government. There is a constant conflict among officials in the ministries of agriculture, provisions and finance. The intersections and overlaps between competencies are rife and each ministry has connections in the private sector. The Ministry of Provisions imports wheat and at the same time buys crops and stores them in its warehouses, thus intersecting, competing and maybe controlling the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). The success of the Minister of Provisions, Khaled Hanafi, in managing the subsidies system which targets two thirds of the 90 million Egyptians, according to the MoA official site, enhanced his position within the government. Meanwhile, MoA is still unable to address its problems and long record of failure.

In the private sector, a few importers have the lion’s share of the wheat market. Planning to ease all forms of social contradictions even if for a while, the authorities started to support farmers through purchasing their wheat at prices slightly higher than the global prices to encourage wheat farming. Importers exploited this move to make more profits. They smuggled in wheat and sell it to the government as locally produced to benefit from the price difference. There are estimates that this step costed the state budget more than 2 billion US dollars annually over the last four years. This year, the Ministry of Provisions tried to impose restrictions to rectify the situation prior to the harvest season. However, being mostly additional red tape documentation (to prove that the wheat is grown inside Egypt and not imported), these restrictions affected the farmers who are not the owners of the lands and hence do not have the needed documents. Therefore, a campaign was launched by some MPs and the authorities again facilitated the procedures and thus the traders won another battle on the expense of the state budget while small producers got almost nothing.

Thus, the state budget is paying the costs of farmers’ subsidies, of which a significant part goes to traders. Comparison with the subsidies through the provisions cards will highlight the policies of “alleviating” the social conflict and the degree of their success. Every individual gets L.E. 60 a month in subsidies. Given the average annual inflation of about 15 percent, this support will be ineffective in a few years’ time and thus the state would appear as if it were sustaining a “big lie”.

Lack of policies

Fluctuations in agricultural policies have become so stark and the frequent changes in the MoA leaderships suggests – as per the MoA website – that the stagnation caused by the former Minister Youssef who, for 22 years (1982-2004), controlled policy development and implementation reduced the Ministry’s GDP contribution, increased reliance on imports and decreased the lands growing the main crops, and agriculture entered a period of no policies. MoA has had ten ministers in about 12 years. The same level of turnover took place qmong the MoA senior executives. Four ministers faced trials and three of them were sentenced, the latest of whom was the former Minister, Salah Hilal who was sentenced to 10-year imprisonment for taking bribes from a businessman to facilitate taking over a state-owned land.

The MoA is not only responsible for the general agricultural activity and livestock production but also for all the state-owned desert lands. Only the Ministry of Defense can interfere based on its plans to protect the country, except the lands allocated for building new houses. According to Law 143 of 1981, the MoA is also responsible for reclaiming and cultivating the desert lands and possessing, managing and investing in them.

Capitalist complaint

Complaints started to come from MPs representing the capitalists warning against corruption and bureaucracy in the state sector. Investors in the fields of real estate, tourism and land reclamation, some of them loyal to the government, concentrated their criticism on the legal and economic framework which makes the state the only controller of lands. In an interview with the Misr Al-Arabiya website on April 16, the Head of the Egyptian Businessmen Association, Hussein Sabour reiterated his criticism of the state monopoly of lands. He demanded that the government should allow the private sector to establish companies which sell lands to real estate developers. He also repeated his demand that the government should publicly announce the feasibility of implementing the new administrative capital project and its phases as “there is a lack of information on this project despite the fact that it will cost the state huge sums of money. The government should prioritize getting revenues from the project as soon as possible to recover its costs.”

In an article in Al-Masri Al-Youm on May 9, Mohamed Abu al-Ghar, Founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party was bolder and more specific. He declared that “there is a grave fault in the government economic policies which pump money into failed projects and abuse the available funds due to responding only to the ideas of the president and senior military leaders. Major projects should not be implemented without independent feasibility studies by experienced civil experts. All non-feasible projects must be stopped. In addition, everything should be communicated transparently to the public.”

National bans

As for the way the army dominates national projects especially in terms of business relations particularly in the Farafrah Project where the ministries of agriculture, irrigation and electricity have no legal responsibility and the army is responsible for the smallest details. The statements of Major General Kamel al-Wazeer, Head of the Armed Forces’ Engineering Authority, days before al-Sisi’s speech, were full of connotations. Al-Wazeer asked the civil and military staff to be very alert, never to sleep or eat during work. In an article in Al-Watan Newspaper on May 19, he says: “eat on the go.” He told the military personnel that “smoking officers will be deprived of the incentives. We give you L.E. 100 to help build your homes and start a family, not to buy cigarettes. We will detect the smokers.” 

In a speech published in various newspapers on May 4, Al-Sisi argued that Egypt is not a state but rather a “semi” state and that corruption and bureaucracy prevail in different government agencies. However, despite this “catastrophic” reality, he is not afraid. He then lays out the steps to address this issue: there is one person who makes decisions and follow their implementation. In a year, he achieves what others need 10 years or more to do. He knows where every penny is spent. He told the Egyptians that he saved L.E. 260 billion in two years. They would have been wasted, had things been left to the government ministers to decide on. Therefore, he not only demands that they never disagree with him but also never to allow difference at all.

These are some features of al-Sisi’s in the making regime. There are corruption and bureaucracy in the “semi” state. The solution is not transparency and opening up to the public. The solution lies in sacking those who disclose them (like what happened to the head of the Central Apparatus of Accountability, Hisham Janinah) and in banning any talk about major corruption files. The solution is that al-Sisi himself follows every spent penny. Al-Sisi says I am also a miracle maker. Abdulnaser made one national project in his reign (18 years) and I made five in two years. I am no less than Mohamed Ali Bashs. I am supervising everything. I will apply his approach. No one is allowed to argue with me. Work conditions are like forced labor which will build the state. Al-Sisi is sad that the Egyptians are not grateful to him. If he is indeed confident he will build a regime based on his timeless imagination, he should be afraid of those whom he deprived by virtue of his supernatural powers of L.E. 260 billion in two years. He repeated that the costs of the projects implemented in two years were L.E. 1300 billion but this amount became L.E. 1040 because he intervened.