We can’t afford another failed state in North Africa

In his interview on CBS, the General-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi looked visibly uncomfortable as he lied, evaded questions and downplayed the many crimes he has committed since taking power in 2013 through a military coup against the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. It is no surprise that he demanded CBS pull the interview for the first time in the history of 60 Minutes program: in Egypt, he is used to controlling the media.

But it is also no surprise that he agreed to it in the first place. After all, the U.S. is a “great friend and ally” of Sisi, in the words of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Ann Coulter blasts Trump shutdown compromise: ‘We voted for Trump and got Jeb!’ MORE. And it was only this week that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump travels to Dover Air Force Base to meet with families of Americans killed in Syria Overnight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation MORE set off to Cairo to reassure America’s allies that they have the full support of the administration.

But however you shake it, or hold it up to the light, there is no way to see Sisi’s reign in Egypt as anything other than a disaster for democracy. Civil society slides towards total disintegration. The country is an ‘open-air prison’; torture and murder are tools of the state. More than 60,000 prisoners of conscience rot in jail, and even prominent figures, such as the writer Mostafa al-Naggar, and hundreds of other young Egyptians, have likely been ‘disappeared’. Women speaking out against sexual harassment are arrested. Egypt now jails more journalists on “false news” charges than anywhere else. And General Sisi’s farcical ‘landslide’ electoral victory was but another insult to the values that once held firm in this great country.

The Early Warning Project puts Egypt third in the list of countries most likely to experience a major mass killing in this year or the next. There is a ‘one-in-four’ chance, they say—higher than in Iraq or Syria, where civil war is ongoing—that fresh violence will break out on a significant scale. The conditions are such that violence of this kind could come either from the authorities or non-state actors. There is an unpredictability that now exists in Egypt that is terrifying. It is on the very precipice of becoming the world’s latest failed state.

One need only look westward from Egypt to get a sense of how such an event would play out. In the aftermath of the intervention, millions of Libyans and other Africans attempted to make the perilous journey to Europe. In the lawlessness that remained in Libya, violent parties, including ISIS, vied for control. And out of the rubble, a new generation of demagogues and dictators-in-waiting like the hated General Haftar emerged. Authorities and international agencies, unable to offer effective support, could only stand back and watch.

But Egypt is not Libya. When a country of almost 100 million falls—Libya has a population of 6 million—the consequences are so far-reaching and so severe as to be almost indescribable. The migrant crisis alone would shake its neighbors and the European countries to their very foundations. Even a small-scale export of terrorism among the wave of desperate people in flight would animate and inspire nationalism on the continent, in the U.S., and elsewhere.

But aware of the possibility of another tidal wave of unwanted migrants in the short term, France, Germany and Italy—despite tension over the murder of Giulio Regeni and the EU Parliament’s condemnation of Egyptian human rights violations—have indulged Sisi at every turn. They believe that he can hold the country together by fear and force alone, and Sisi has been emboldened by this, tightening his grip and diverting resources to his army that would better go to schools or hospitals. President Trump continues to call him ‘a fantastic guy’ and military aid continues to flow into Egypt.

All the while, Sisi has shown not only his propensity for violence, but his profound incompetence as a leader. Projects that have not undergone even the most basic feasibility studies have been forced through. His vast Suez Canal Area Development Project was launched with a minimum of financial consultation. The projected revenues of $12.5 billion annually have been plucked out of thin air. He has spent extravagantly on the creation of an entirely new capital city, and dismissed suggestions that he has no handle on public finances. The effects of this incompetence are clear to see in the rapid depletion of the Egyptian middle class. The majority of Egyptians now live at or below the poverty line.

At any moment, and because of all of the above facts, Egypt could explode into violence. The continued support for General Sisi only makes complete state failure more likely. In such an eventuality, it will not be like Libya. It will be worse. The shockwaves will be felt far away. And a region that is already in the throes of violence and repression will find itself on the frontier of a catastrophe of historic scale.

Amr Darrag is a former minister from the last democratically elected government in Egypt, and is now chair of the Egypt Institute for Studies.