Egypt — January 2010

Sociopolitical Situation

Egypt’s autocratic regime is being weakened by the economic crisis, growing political opposition and the pressures of globalization. Internally, secularists and Islamists are converging around a reform agenda that will produce in Egypt a hybrid regime with liberal but circumscribed democratic characteristics. Recently, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood elected a new leadership amid deep divisions over future strategies and ways to confront a persistent government crackdown. The Brotherhood, although officially banned, is the largest and best organized opposition force in Egypt, with 20% of parliament seats.

In the last year, the country’s foreign policy, particularly its relationship with the United States, has benefitted substantially from both a change in U.S. policy and from events on the ground. The Obama administration, as evident in the president’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, has elevated Egypt’s importance to U.S. foreign policy in the region, as U.S. policy makers’ work to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process. With the choice of Cairo as a venue for the president’s signature address to the Muslim world, Egyptians feel that the United States has shown their country respect commensurate with its perceived stature in the Arab world.

The World Bank named Egypt as having the most improved economy in terms of ease of conducting business, indicating the success of the government’s recent policies. The Egyptian government is gradually lifting energy subsidies in order to match international fuel prices. In order to address the water shortage, the government will invest almost $4.6 billion over the next five years for desert reclamation and agricultural promotion in areas across the country. Total foreign direct investment grew about 40%, while investments abroad by Egyptian companies grew by 130%. The government raised salaries for its 5.5 million employees by 30%.

The global financial meltdown has had calamitous consequences for Egypt’s economy and its 25 million workers. Egypt has committed $5.4 billion to an economic stimulus plan to confront the repercussions of the global financial crisis. The allocation has been earmarked for infrastructure projects and export subsidies. Egypt’s unemployment rate climbed to 9.4% in the first quarter of 2009, from 8.8% the previous quarter. The rising rate is a setback to poverty alleviation efforts, putting additional burden on the 15 million Egyptians living below the $2 per day poverty line. Deteriorating economic conditions have compelled workers in many sectors to defy the state’s long-standing ban on labor strikes. Egypt’s 2009-2010 state budget forecasts a deficit of 18 billion dollars, or 8.5% of GDP, a 25% increase over last year due to a sharp decline in revenues.

The government’s culling of the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 swine in the country has had a severe economic impact on Coptic Christian families, many of whom rely on pigs and garbage scavenging for their income.

Religious Situation

Egyptian Christians continue to endure violent attacks from Muslim radicals; government officials have repeatedly failed to protect the persecuted Christians. While the government does not have a policy to persecute Christians, it discriminates against them and hampers their freedom of worship; government agencies sporadically persecute Muslim converts to Christianity. It enforces restrictions on building or repairing churches, restrictions that do not apply to mosques. Further, Christians have been restricted from senior government, political, military and educational positions and there is increasing discrimination in the private sector. In November, massive mobs of Muslims attacked Coptic Christians in the town of Assiut, about 300 miles south of Cairo. The Coptic priest, Father Benjamin Noshi, suffered a fractured skull in the attacks. Nearly 3,000 Muslims damaged and robbed at least 50 Christian-owned shops, and many Christian families were thrown out of their homes. Kyrillos, the Coptic bishop of Assiut, reported that the attacks were planned ahead of time and criticized the role of the security forces that disappeared without making any arrests.

The approval process for church construction continued to be hindered by lengthy delays, often measured in years. According to statistics published in the Official Gazette, as of April 2009, the president issued decrees authorizing construction of 5 Protestant churches, 5 Coptic Orthodox churches and 3 Catholic churches. To date, no permits have been issued.

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