James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

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Hello (Ahlan), Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: President of Egypt

by James M. Lindsay
June 9, 2014

Sisi President Egypt Abdul Fattah al-Sisi arrives for a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin near Moscow in February. (Maxim Shemetov/Courtesy Reuters)

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took the oath of office as Egypt’s new president yesterday.  He succeeded the interim president, Adly Mansour. And who appointed Mansour? Why, Sisi himself after he and the Egyptian military overthrew the previous president, Mohamed Morsi, last July. How Sisi went from field marshal to president is not lost on any Egyptians. To some, he is a hero who saved the country from the looming tyranny of the Muslim Brotherhood and gave Egyptians the chance for a more prosperous future. To others, he is a villain who derailed Egypt’s emerging democracy and thwarted the public will. Managing that deep divide may be Sisi’s most immediate challenge. But it is far from his only one. Egypt’s economy has faltered in the wake of the political and social turmoil of the past three years. If Sisi can’t get the economy back on track, Egypt’s political and social turmoil will only intensify, with perhaps profound consequences for the region.

The Basics
Name: Abdul Fattah al-Sisi
Date of Birth: November 19, 1954
Place of Birth: Cairo, Egypt
Religion: Muslim
Political Party: Independent
Marital Status: Married to Entissar Amer
Children: Three sons (Mustafa, Mahmoud, and Hassan) and one daughter (Aya)
Alma Mater: Egyptian Military Academy (1977), UK Joint Services Command and Staff College (1992), U.S. Army War College (2006)
Political Offices Held: Deputy Prime Minister (2013-2014), Defense Minister (2012-2013). Sisi has held several military offices, including Army Chief, Head of Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance, Commander of Egypt’s Northern Military Zone, Chief of Staff of Egypt’s Northern Military Zone, and Military Attaché in Saudi Arabia.

What Supporters Say

Sisi won the Egyptian election overwhelmingly with over 96 percent of the vote. The result wasn’t surprising, given that Sisi ran against a little known opponent and that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties boycotted the vote. Sisi was also helped by the fact that he is popular, at least for now, with Egyptians who oppose the Brotherhood. My colleague Steven Cook writes that a “cult of personality” emerged around Sisi last year:

The military-friendly media framed Sisi as “Egypt’s savior,” and stories quickly emerged of Egyptian brides with the field marshal’s visage painted on their fingernails, Sisi chocolates, sandwiches, and pajamas, as well as the standard Middle Eastern strongman-poster-on-every-public-building phenomenon.

Sisi’s supporters have high expectations. Rasha Raouf, an English teacher in Alexandria, says:

“I believe that he is the one who can stand for this country at this stage. He is the one who has supported the will of the people on the thirtieth of June. He is the one who helped the Egyptian people to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood…What I expect from [Sisi] in the future is to improve the educational system, support the scientific research, and fight terrorism… What I need from him now is to restore peace and security to this country once more.”

Mohammad Radwan, director of international sales at Pharos Securities in Cairo, also hopes that Sisi can bring stability to Egypt:

People are more comfortable having Sisi as president rather than anyone else because it creates a sense of stability.

Many Egyptians believe that Sisi saved the country from the Muslim Brotherhood. Nadia Ibrahim, a fifty-year-old computer shop worker, says:

Sisi saved us from the nightmare we were living in. Egypt was falling and he has raised us up.

Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian population overwhelmingly supports Sisi. Attacks on Copts and Coptic churches soared during the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, and many Copts feared they would not be secure in an Egypt under Muslim-Brotherhood rule. Coptic Catholic leader Boutros Fahim Awad Hanna, Bishop of Minya, said in February:

[Sisi’s run] is an important fact for the whole country, not just for Christians… In the last year El-Sisi has had a key role in Egypt. His choices have been appreciated by most of the people. The growing consensus that surrounds him is also seen in the streets.

Sisi has fans outside of Egypt as well. Russian president Vladimir Putin made clear that he supported Sisi’s candidacy:

I know that you have made a decision to run for president… That’s a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success.

Sisi spent 2005 and 2006 studying at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His adviser there, Col. Stephen Gerras, says:

The officers who come to the war college are usually going to be in the predominant service of their home country and that relationship is really important over time… His loyalty, in conversations to me, was to the Egyptian people and for those of us who knew El Sisi nobody would ever call him a ‘strongman’… But at the same time, you could say if he thought the Egyptian people wanted him to do something about the Muslim Brotherhood he would move in that direction.

Strongmen are nothing new in Egyptian politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser dominated Egypt, and the Arab world more broadly, during his rule in the 1950s and 1960s. Some Egyptians hope that Sisi can be another Nasser. A professor of philosophy at Al-Azhar University, one of Egypt’s leading universities, drew the parallel in explaining why many Egyptians are behind Sisi even if he’s not a democrat:

And what’s wrong with another Nasser?… If I can find a leader who can take Egypt into ‘tomorrow,’ I will sacrifice all of my rights. I am ready to forget everything about my own freedom for an Egypt that does not have to ask for handouts from the international community!

Refat Ahmad, a thirty-year-old shopkeeper, agrees:

For now, I think it is OK to compromise on freedoms for the sake of stability and security. What good will freedom without security bring us?

Yet even Sisi’s supporters worry that the expectations for what he will accomplish are too high. Khaled Salah edits a pro-Sisi newspaper. He says:

“Let Sisi solve it”—this idea is most dangerous in the public now…The very big dreams and expectations won’t work.

As any experienced politician will tell you, low expectations are easier to beat than high expectations.

What Critics Say

Sisi’s resounding victory at the polls and the laudatory coverage in the Egyptian media do not entirely square with the results of a Pew poll conducted in April. Pew found that only 54 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of Sisi, while 45 percent viewed him unfavorably. Sisi’s critics point to the poll as evidence that his overwhelming electoral victory was inflated.

One reason Sisi did so much better in the election than in the Pew poll is that voter turnout was low. The Egyptian government put turnout at 47.4 percent, a number that is probably optimistic. So few voters cast their votes in the initial two days of voting that the government extended voting an extra day. The reluctance of many Egyptians to vote partly reflected the fact that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. But it also reflected the fact that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties boycotted the election, as did many pro-democracy groups. Although these two ends of the Egyptian political spectrum don’t agree on much, they agreed that the vote was illegitimate.

Sisi’s critics fear that he will bring back Hosni Mubarak–style rule. Ahmed Fawzi, the secretary general of the Social Democratic party, contends:

It will more or less be a one man show… There is a personal vendetta between al-Sisi and Islamists. No doubt violence will only increase under al-Sisi.

The 6 April Youth Movement in Egypt (which is now banned and its founder imprisoned) sees Sisi as a polarizing force. It called upon him to put “national interest above narrow self-interest”:

Anyone who loves his homeland and loves the Egyptian people cannot ignore or turn his back on the state of division and acute polarization plaguing society…Egypt’s strength is not linked to a personality or the name of a potential president, but it is the will of all Egyptians to build their country and its future.

Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, worries that Sisi might not meet expectations:

If (Sisi) doesn’t have a real plan for reconciliation, he certainly will fail. But I don’t know if he will be able to do it.

Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at Kent State University, has expressed similar concerns about Sisi:

He’s insecure, paranoid … his governing coalition is incredibly narrow and weak… Everyone remembers Nasser now as all-powerful, but he was hyper-insecure for the first 10 years of his reign … Sisi is weak like Nasser was, but unlike Nasser, he can’t offer much to the people. If I were him, I would be pretty nervous.

One of Sisi’s most well-known critics is Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian comedian and a satirist who hosts a television show styled after Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. At its height, Youssef’s show had as many as thirty million viewers. Youssef satirized Egypt’s leading politicians, including Morsi and Sisi. His mockery of Sisi, however, put his show­­—and life—in jeopardy. His network took the show off the air in April to “avoid influencing the Egyptian voters’ opinions and public opinion.” On June 2, Youssef decided to cancel his show:

The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program. I’m tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family.

Youssef’s fears suggest that criticism of Sisi will not be tolerated. For his part, Sisi says that when it comes to criticism:

I will put up with it.

He added an extremely important caveat, however. He said he will not accept what he calls “offenses.” So Egyptians who miss the distinction presumably do so at their peril.

Stories You Will Hear More About

Sisi grew up in Gamaleya, a neighborhood of Cairo. He is the second oldest of eight siblings. When he wasn’t attending school, he worked with his family in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar selling arabesque furnishings, for which his family is known. Sisi’s family is relatively wealthy, and he is rumored to have a great personal fortune.

Sisi developed his image as Egypt’s savior without speaking in public much, or spelling out precisely what he would do once he was elected president. With the exception of a few television interviews and statements, he mostly stayed behind the scenes during the campaign (though his image was plastered all over Egypt). Now that he is president, the focus will be on what he has done rather than what he might do.

The Guardian describes Sisi as “all calmness and piety with a mixture of austerity and warmth.” The political scientist Robert Springborg describes Sisi as:

an exceedingly private person, someone who has always kept his thoughts to himself. Within the Egyptian military establishment, he was long known as a loner, someone who preferred to keep company with a small group of friends.

Egypt will be waiting to see whether—and if so, how—these characteristics affect Sisi’s leadership.

One of Sisi’s his top priorities and biggest challenges will be fixing Egypt’s economy. Samer S. Shehata of the University of Oklahoma explains:

I think the economy eventually will be the undoing of anyone in that position, because all the same issues that led to the 2011 uprising are still there—the youth unemployment, their marginalization from politics, the overly bloated Civil Service, the unsustainable food and energy subsidies.

Unemployment in Egypt was at 13.4 percent overall in 2013, and 69 percent of those who are unemployed are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. About 26 percent of Egyptians are living below the poverty line. GDP growth is estimated at 2.5 percent this year and is predicted to be only 3.2 percent next year, compared to over 5 percent before Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. The country also has a budget deficit that is 12 percent of GDP. That’s a mighty steep deficit.

Tourism is a major part of Egypt’s economy. It is a critical source of the foreign currency needed to finance Egypt’s imports. But fewer tourists are coming to Egypt these days because of fears about their safety. Egypt’s tourism revenues dropped 43 percent in the first quarter of 2014.

Egypt’s instability has also caused foreign direct investment in the country to fall. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait continue to pump money into Egypt. Overall, however, foreign investment dropped from $10 billion in 2010 to only $3 billion at the end of 2013. There are some signs that could be changing as some investors are betting that Sisi will turn things around. But Egypt still has a long way to go before it becomes a go-to place for foreign investors.

Fixing the economy will be difficult as long as Egypt remains politically divided and stability remains elusive. Sisi’s strategy so far has been to create stability by crushing dissent. Egypt has restricted the right to protest, and while estimates vary, since Morsi’s overthrow hundreds of Egyptians have been killed and at least sixteen thousand have been arrested. The harshest response has been directed toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government has designated a terrorist organization. Sisi has pledged to eliminate the Brotherhood, but secular dissenters face many of the same restrictions.

In His Own Words

Sisi has stated his loyalty and commitment to Egypt in no uncertain terms:

I consider myself—as I have always been—a soldier dedicated to serve the nation, in any position ordered by the people.

Despite the fact that two months ago he was a field marshal in the Egyptian military, Sisi said before the election that “the army would not have a role in ruling Egypt.” Perhaps. The proof will be in the pudding, as the saying goes.

Sisi has in the past expressed his support for democracy. In May 2013, he said:

Nobody solves their problems with an army, and armies should be kept out of political problems. Try to find a method of understanding among yourselves, as if the army takes to the street, Egypt will have very dangerous problems that may delay its progress for the next forty years… there are fifty-two million voters; if twenty-five million voted, and if they stood for ten or fifteen hours at the ballot boxes, only then can you make change; and we will be the ones securing the elections.

Asked about his popularity in an interview with the Washington Post last August, Sisi said he didn’t see himself as a hero the way many Egyptians do:

I am not a hero. I’m just a person who loves his people and country and felt hurt that the Egyptians were treated in such a way. The simple Egyptian people were crying in their homes. Heroism comes only from mutual sentiments.

Sisi also explained why he felt that Morsi, who he helped to overthrow, was “not a president for all Egyptians”:

The dilemma between the former president and the people originated from the ideology that the Muslim Brotherhood adopted for building a country, which is based on restoring the Islamic religious empire. It was always in their minds that they have the exclusive truth and the exclusive rights. This made them lead the country only to satisfy the grass-roots that they represent… It was obvious [from] the day of his inauguration.

Sisi has vowed that the Muslim Brotherhood will not exist under his rule. He claims the Egyptian people oppose the Brotherhood:

I want to tell you that it is not me that finished [the Brotherhood]. You, the Egyptians, are the ones who finished it.

Though he opposes the Brotherhood and went to great lengths during the campaign to insist he will be a secular leader, Sisi is religious. Some experts argue that this will affect his presidency, pointing to the fact that he was appointed as defense minister under Muslim Brotherhood rule and to a 2006 essay he wrote while he was at the Army War College. In that essay, Sisi argued that Middle Eastern democracy “may bear little resemblance to a Western democracy”:

Ideally, the legislative, executive, and judicial bodies should all take Islamic beliefs into consideration when carrying out their duties.

Some experts argue that the views Sisi expressed in that essay are closer to those that prevailed in Mubarak-era Egypt than to current-day, Muslim Brotherhood–style political Islam. Sisi was not particularly outspoken about his views on religion during the campaign. He did, however, make his disdain for the Brotherhood clear.

Sisi likely won’t be accepting much input from his opponents. When asked in an interview in May how he would deal with “transgressions” from the opposition, he responded:

Why would there be transgression? I treat people well, why should there be transgression?

Sisi doesn’t sound like he is used to being criticized.

Foreign Policy Views

The world will be watching to see how the Sisi government gets along with its neighbors, especially Israel. He hasn’t indicated much of a change from previous Egyptian policy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process:

The Egyptian stance on the Palestinian issue has been clear for sixty or seventy years. Egypt seeks a solution to the issue, a solution that satisfies the Palestinians and secures their children’s future in a stable country with the capital in Jerusalem. We want a decisive solution to the Palestinian issue, without leaving any kind of gaps, so the people in the whole region live in peace and security.

When asked what his government would offer to the peace process, he said:

Everything that Egypt used to offer for the peace process. It will offer its efforts and its communications by coordinating different stances and bringing together different views.

Saudi Arabia has already shown support for Sisi’s new government. King Abdullah called for increased aid to Egypt after Sisi won the election. Sisi will be looking to improve ties with other Arab countries as well:

Egypt is very keen on keeping relations with all Arab countries. We have been part of that entity for thousands of years. Arab national security is as important for us as Egypt’s national security. I do not want to say that Arab national security is compromised. I also do not want to say that we are at our weakest point. To be more specific, we are not at our best condition. Egypt has to stand side-by-side with its Arab brothers…our not being united is the main reason behind our weakness. We have to be united. Our being united does not mean that we will eliminate others. Everybody can keep living. I’m not saying that our power will be used to attack others; I’m saying that our power is to protect us, allow us to protect our interests and our people’s interests.

Ties between Egypt and Iran could also improve under Sisi. The two countries have been on the outs since they cut formal ties in 1980 when Egypt recognized Israel. Tensions thawed somewhat during Morsi’s rule, when then–Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian leader to visit Egypt in over thirty years. Egypt invited Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to Sisi’s inauguration, indicating that Sisi might be willing to continue to work on improving the relationship.

Sisi’s Egypt may not get along so well with Turkey. Turkish prime minister Recap Tayyip Erdogan said in February that he would not recognize Sisi if he were elected. Erdogan considers Sisi’s ouster of Morsi to be an unjust military coup.

Outlook for Relations with Washington

Washington and Cairo have a history of cooperation, but relations have been strained since Morsi was ousted from power. In October 2013, President Obama suspended some of the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid to Egypt in response to the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. (The United States resumed some of that aid in April.) Human rights and the “restrictive political environment” under Sisi’s regime may be a sticking point in U.S.-Egyptian relations if Sisi continues his policy of suppressing his political opponents.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been the point person for U.S. communication with Sisi, reportedly speaking with him more than twenty-five times in the six months after Morsi’s removal. President Obama, for his part, has said that he looks forward to working with Sisi.

Jason Brownlee of the University of Texas thinks that U.S. leaders will be content with Sisi as president:

I would suspect that the civilians at the state department and Pentagon are comfortable with another military president in Egypt… They want someone who can stabilise the country and their opinion about what will be useful for stability has changed as events on the ground have changed.

Sisi, for his part, wants U.S. support and cooperation. When asked in August about Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo, he indicated that he felt abandoned by the United States:

We really wonder: Where is the role of the United States and the European Union and all of the other international forces that are interested in the security, safety, and well-being of Egypt? Are the values of freedom and democracy exclusively exercised in your countries but other countries do not have the right to exercise the same values and enjoy the same environment? Have you seen the scores of millions of Egyptians calling for change in Tahrir? What is your response to that? You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that. Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians? The U.S. interest and the popular will of the Egyptians don’t have to conflict. We always asked the U.S. officials to provide advice to the former president to overcome his problems.

Sisi knows he needs American support, and believes Egypt’s security problems are America’s security problems. In an interview with Reuters, Sisi said that:

We need American support to fight terrorism, we need American equipment to use to combat terrorism….The West has to pay attention to what’s going on in the world – the map of extremism and its expansion. This map will reach you inevitably.

Sisi also wants the West to open its doors to Egyptian and other Arab students seeking to study there:

We will send … our best youths to go and see and learn and return to us with science and culture. We want the students who cannot pay to get an excellent education so they become the society’s elite and can then lead it.

As laudable as achieving that goal might be, it will take a long time for it to produce improvements in Egypt’s standard of living. And even then, it will work only if Sisi makes progress in addressing Egypt’s many economic and political woes.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Rodney Nichols

    Brilliantly helpful summary of reactions to Sisi. Many thanks, Jim.

    We now need deeper ideas about what Egypt’s economy will look like, under various scenarios, for next 1-3 years.

    And clear data on whether talent is continuing to leave Egypt.

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