This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Barak Barfi, a research fellow at New America, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs.
Project Syndicate: Since you sounded the alarm about Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s efforts to extend his rule, the public overwhelmingly approved the relevant constitutional changes in a referendum. The timing of the push, you wrote, was carefully chosen: the socioeconomic turmoil unleashed by the 2011 Arab Spring uprising was finally subsiding, and GDP growth had recovered. How might Sisi’s political fortunes be affected by the plunge into global recession caused by the COVID-19 crisis? Will the expansion of his powers – and those of the army – during the state of emergency be an effective deterrent to protest?
Barak Barfi: It is far too early to be able to predict with any accuracy the effects the COVID-19 crisis will have on Egypt’s economy and politics. That said, there is no question that the economy is being hit hard. The major hard-currency earners (hydrocarbons, Suez Canal traffic, tourism, and remittances) have suffered a devastating blow. And once the world economy emerges from the COVID-19 doldrums, only one of those – canal traffic – will rebound. To help cushion the blow, Egypt is once again seeking international assistance, this time in the form of a $2.8 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund.
On the political front, the global nature of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to drive Egyptians to give Sisi considerable leeway. They know he did not create the virus. But they also know that he will not solve the problems it has spawned.
PS: Beyond Egypt, could the pandemic fuel upheaval in other Arab countries? What measures are governments taking that might, by design or effect, mitigate this risk
BB: There is a considerable time lag between events and the crises they trigger. A 2008 drought in Syria devastated the rural poor, who proceeded to form the heart of the opposition during the civil war.
We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Barfi's picks:
by Aaron M. Faust
Through an analysis of Ba’th Party internal documents and a comparison with other totalitarian systems, Faust explains how the Iraqi leader was able to control his people so completely: he mixed classic totalitarian tactics with distinctly Iraqi methods to transform state, social, and cultural institutions into pillars of fealty. The book is structured according to the four overarching types of control Hussein used: ideology, organization, terror, and enticement.
by Khalid Ikram
Why is Egypt’s economy so brittle? Using a combination of economic theory and an exhaustive examination of government economic reports, Ikram concludes that the answer is a combination of low savings, paltry investment, and virtually non-existent productivity growth. Egypt produces nothing of importance for export beyond hydrocarbons, and survives largely on international handouts. As a result, growth is illusory and not a viable benchmark for assessing the country’s success.
by Erminia Chiara Calabrese
I try to read one foreign-language book at any given time, in order to avoid becoming trapped in an Anglo-centric conceptual box. This book is an excellent example of how French researchers combine a close reading of original texts with field research – something that is largely absent among American scholars. In this case, Calabrese blends analyses of writings by Hezbollah luminaries, such as Deputy Secretary General Na’im Qassim, with an account of a six-year sojourn in the organization’s Beirut stronghold. Particularly striking is her fine-grained account of the various forms of engagement with the party and the selection process for individual members, alongside her construction of a sociological matrix of her neighbors and interviewees.
From the PS Archive
Barfi describes the right way to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Read more.
Barfi traces how Egypt reached the point of relinquishing territory in exchange for Saudi aid. Read more.
Around the web
In a 2018 interview with the Turkish Heritage Organization, Barfi considers the effect of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing on the trilateral relationship between the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Watch the clip.
In a 2017 commentary for the Washington Institute, Barfi emphasized the need for US forces to balance their proxies and objectives in fighting the Islamic State in Syria. Read the article.