A week ago the International Monetary Fund approved a $12 billion loan to Egypt as the country slips into a perilous economic situation created by a declining currency, food shortages, and a strained relationship with a chief benefactor – Saudi Arabia.
“What we’re seeing from one end of the Middle East to the other is no money,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “You look at the spreadsheet for Egypt, and everything is moving in the wrong direction.”
Continued low oil prices have led Saudi Arabia to slash aid to Egypt, most recently by postponing a monthly shipment of 700,000 tons of oil products, The New York Times’ Noor Youssef and Diaa Hadid report:
The fraying of the alliance between the two most influential Sunni nations is unfolding amid increasing sectarianism across the region. And the potential loss of Saudi support could hardly come at a worse moment for Egypt, whose economy is crashing amid a devaluing of its local currency, reduction in imports, and tourism tailspin.
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Under Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia is going through a period of muscular nationalism and is trying to assert its weight as a Sunni regional power, particularly in trying to counterbalance Shiite Iran.
That has created a sense of wounded pride among Egyptians, who have long thought of their nation as the leader of the Arab world. They tend to be uncomfortable with their economic dependence on Saudi Arabia and sometimes dismiss the Saudis as oil-rich upstarts.
Landis says Saudi Arabia could be using these political differences with its neighbors (it also cut $3 billion in aid to Lebanon due to disagreements with a Christian, pro-Syrian president) as an excuse to cut back on its own overspending. Egypt’s appeal to the IMF means more belt-tightening, in the form of cuts to subsidies on commodities like sugar, wheat, and petroleum.
“People today in Egypt are paying 100 percent more for sugar. And they’re screaming,” Landis said.
Sugar, in particular, has become a particularly sore point, given its importance in culture and the national identity, according to Diaa and Youssef:
The sugar crisis, as it is known, has quickly become shorthand for the brewing anger against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s management of the economy and his overall rule.
“The people are going to snap,” Ahmad el-Gebaly said as he turned away customers seeking sugar he did not have at his subsidized-goods store in Bulaq, a working-class neighborhood of Cairo.
“Nobody can stand him anymore,” he added of Mr. Sisi. “Sugar is like rice and oil and wheat. You can never run out of it. You can never mess with it. Who can live without sugar?”
All of this unrest has the U.S. concerned, and Landis said we could be seeing the start of another wave of Arab Spring-like hostility.
“Washington is very worried that other countries like Jordan, Egypt, so forth, could collapse and fall into some kind of political violence,” Landis said. “That's just what we don't want to see. So everybody has been counting on the Saudis to help subsidize this situation.”
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