Egypt’s foreign minister lauds ‘economic progress’ as President Sisi readies for extended tenure

Egypt’s foreign minister praised economic reforms underway in the country, stressing that the country’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, remained the right man for the job amid continued threats to security and stability.

“Of course the president has been effective in creating security and stability and economic progress, implementation of economic reform,” Sameh Shoukry told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Monday during the EU-Arab League Summit in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. “And we are seeing the first returns of that reform.”

Shoukry listed a number of major investment projects underway, including the construction of new cities and transport infrastructure for the country’s booming population. The president is overseeing “doubling of road networks, 12 cities that are being erected, incredible amounts of almost two million units,” he said.

Sisi, who took power in 2014 following a military coup that overthrew and arrested the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, is likely to win constitutional changes allowing him to dramatically extend his tenure in power.

Egyptian lawmakers are pushing ahead for a change to the country’s constitution that would enable Sisi to stay in power until 2034. Currently, the former armed forces chief is due to stand down after completing two four-year terms in 2022.

Asked if Sisi was the right man for the job, Shoukry replied, “He is and continues to be.”

Supporters of the constitutional changes say Sisi needs to remain in power in order to maintain stability in the country of 98 million and continue implementing the economic reforms currently underway.

Constitutional changes require approval of two-thirds of parliamentarians and a subsequent referendum. Egypt’s 596-member parliament overwhelmingly backs the president.

“There are discussions related to amend the constitution that might allow, there are issues that are still under construction and there is public debate, decision is finally that of two-thirds of parliament,” Shoukry said.

Combatting terrorism

Major threats remain for the country, which continues to see sporadic terror attacks, though stability has significantly increased in recent years.

Egypt needs to continue working to “eliminate terrorism attacking both our military and our civilians, most recently our pilgrims in the Western desert — security forces have achieved a lot,” Shoukry said. “Overall, Egypt still is a phenomena that needs to be addressed by more cooperation by the international community.”

Egypt is the world’s second-highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, at $1.4 billion annually, second only to Israel.

Controversy over presidential term extensions

Sisi was re-elected in April of last year with 97 percent of the vote, in a contest widely labeled a sham. The former general faced little competition as his opponents either dropped out or were arrested.

The 64-year leader is described by many as a dictator for his heavy crackdown on civil liberties and opposition groups. Critics in and outside of Egypt have signaled alarm at what they say is blatant authoritarianism and yet another affront to democracy. In the five years of Sisi’s rule, more than 60,000 people have been arrested or charged by Egyptian security forces, according to Human Rights Watch.

More than a year ago, in an exclusive interview with CNBC in November 2017, Sisi said he was committed to the limits set out by the current constitution.

“I am with preserving two four-year terms and not to change it … I am not for any amendments to be made to the constitution in this period,” he said at the time, adding that any changes would have to be determined “by the Egyptian people.”

Macroeconomic progress

Egypt has seen significant macroeconomic improvement since the Arab Spring revolution and the successive coups and terrorist attacks that rocked the country from 2011 onward.

Government-implemented structural reforms and subsidy cuts recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have brought the Middle East’s most populous country its highest economic growth in a decade, and it’s now targeting 5.8 percent growth for 2019, up from 5.3 percent last year. Egypt remains the top destination for foreign direct investment in Africa.

Sisi’s supporters have praised his commitment to the reforms, and say that more time under his leadership is needed to see them through in their entirety.

But austerity has come at a high price for much of the Egyptian public, heralding spikes in the prices of basic goods and still-high unemployment, with nationwide poverty at 28 percent, according to Egypt’s minister of local development.