CAIRO (Reuters) - After a year in power, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s aura of invincibility may be fading as he comes under closer scrutiny from a public growing impatient with the same social inequalities that triggered a mass uprising in 2011.
To be sure, Sisi is still firmly in control, with security forces cracking down on dissent, and Western and Gulf Arab powers on his side, pumping billions of dollars into the economy each year to support a strategic ally.
But with frustration growing on the streets, the man who could once do no wrong in the eyes of many Egyptians is becoming more cautious in his approach to ruling the Arab world’s most populous nation, evidenced by a recalibration of some policies.
“I can’t work. I can’t feed my kids. I‘m fed up with this entire country,” complained a 35-year-old food cart owner at a crowded market in Alexandria.
Egypt’s leaders, he said, were out of touch. They didn’t understand how expensive everyday needs were and they didn’t come down to markets like this one to find out.
As army chief, Sisi toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule, quickly earning praise from many Egyptians who longed for stability after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 sparked years of turmoil.
The big question yet to be answered is will Sisi deliver on his promises to create jobs and improve the standard of living for all Egyptians.
On paper, Sisi has already succeeded in economic terms where past Egyptian leaders failed. He has won praise from foreign investors for example for implementing reforms such as cutting fuel and food subsidies and tackling bureaucracy.
By cutting these benefits, Sisi has tackled head on issues Mubarak avoided for fear of angering a population reliant on subsidized food and fuel. Sisi has also raised some taxes.
These moves have not triggered the kind of mass protests that toppled two Egyptian leaders in three years. But there are growing signs of discontent.
Moreover, some analysts say the government’s economic program may not deliver more social equality for the country of about 90 million, many of whom live in poverty.
For much of the population, food prices and unemployment are high. Public healthcare, in a country with a high rate of Hepatitis C, is dire. Tourism, one of the main foreign currency earners, is hurting.
Egyptians, who nearly a year ago rushed to the banks to help finance the creation of a second Suez Canal - one of Sisi’s mega-projects - are starting to wonder if they will ever see benefits.
Some headline figures seem promising. The economy is projected to grow to 5 percent in 2015/2016, roughly the same as 2009/2010 when Mubarak was still in power. There’s a marginal fall in unemployment, though it still stands at 12.8 percent, and ratings agencies have been generally positive about Egypt.
Foreign firms are signing deals. BP finalised a $12 billion energy deal with Egypt in March and Germany’s Siemens sealed a $9 billion energy deal during Sisi’s recent visit to Germany.
But inflation is still high - annual urban consumer inflation rose to 13.1 percent in May, versus 8.2 percent a year ago.
And Egyptians are wondering if they will see any of the money flowing into the economy.
One significant problem is that the majority of laborers in Egypt are stuck in low-paid, low-skilled, low-productivity jobs which means “they don’t contribute in the generation of growth and they don’t enjoy its return”, said Amr Adly, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“You usually have mounting dissatisfaction when the economy’s growing. This is when people notice there’s inequality, it’s a matter of perception,” said Adly.
Fuel subsidy cuts led to price increases of up to 78 percent last July. Taxes on cigarettes and alcohol have also risen.
“As typical as other neo-liberal reforms, this may actually deepen the trend of impoverishment more than under Mubarak,” Adly said.
Tourism, which is a big foreign currency earner for Egypt, has yet to reach a peak level of 2010 revenue levels of $12.5 billion. Tourism minister Khaled Ramy said he had a target of $26 billion in tourism revenues by 2020, but a recent attack on the ancient Karnak temple in Luxor hurt morale in an industry that was once a major employer for Egyptians.
“Where is the tourism? I’ve had to close my bazaar because there are no tourists,” said Yousef al-Qamouli, a 68-year-old shop owner, who spends his days idle, nostalgic for the days when foreigners flocked to Egypt’s ancient splendors.
“Every year (since 2011) tourism has been getting worse and worse,” added Qamouli, who was eventually forced to sell a piece of land he had inherited from his father to pay off his debts.
Sisi supporters argue it is unrealistic to expect him to wave a magic wand in a country where state domination and corruption stifled the economy for decades.
“The government’s performance isn’t 100 percent, but about 70-80 percent. Their performance is good and I‘m optimistic,” said Amr Abdullah, a 31-year-old accountant in a Cairo bank.
Sisi appears to be in a conciliatory mood on some fronts.
Egypt indefinitely postponed the roll-out of a smart card system for subsidized fuel that was due to start days before the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Last month Sisi also pardoned 165 people, many of whom had been jailed for violating a protest law that has been roundly criticized by rights groups.
It was a small step but one that would have been unthinkable early on in the crackdown launched after he appeared on national television and announced the army takeover.
“It is very clear that there are attempts to ease the tension. But the more important question is to what extent will these attempts be enough?” said Ayman Al Sayyad, a prominent columnist who was once a senior advisor to Mursi.
“The steps that were taken on the issues concerning standard of living. Will it have a long-term effect? The answer is clearly and conclusively no,” said Sayyad, who resigned a few months into Mursi’s rule in protest over his policies.
Government spokesman Hossam Qawish denied the government was taking any exceptional measures and said money for all social programs had been allocated in the current or next budget.
The government’s 2015/2016 draft budget envisions a 12 percent increase in spending on social programs at 431 billion Egyptian pounds, or nearly half of total public expenditure.
It envisions a deficit of 9.9 percent.
Ziad Bahaa El-Din, Egypt’s former deputy prime minister, said that target was ambitious. Writing in al-Shorouk newspaper after the cabinet released its draft budget, he said the government must better target spending to benefit the poor.
“The idea isn’t just about raising social spending, but expanding subsidies that target the poor, otherwise the result will be more bleeding of resources and entrenching the social gap,” he wrote.
Like many Egyptians, Abdulaziz Shurbas, a 47-year-old Arabic language school teacher, pays little attention to government finances or praise from foreign investors.
“It’s impossible for anything to change because the regime is the same. Those who rule Egypt are men with interests,” he said.
“Enough monopoly of power. Enough of the closed-room deals.”
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad, Ali Abdelaty and Reuters Television; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Michael Georgy and Janet McBride