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Despite criticism for his human rights record and economic and security policies during his first presidential term from 2014 onwards, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's supporters argue that all was necessary to maintain stability in Egypt.
Author: Khaled Mahmoud
Edited by: Erik Prins
In the face of accusations of widespread human rights violations and harsh treatment of political opponents, Sisi still enjoys popularity, albeit dwindling, among millions of Egyptians who view him as a strong leader, even amid the ongoing worsening economic crisis.
Sisi came to power in 2014 after using a politically critical moment to overthrow the late President Mohamed Morsi, whose rule was marred by popular dissatisfaction. However, the circumstances surrounding Morsi’s ousting remain a subject of debate.
Sisi, who held key positions in the army, such as Commander-in-Chief and Minister of Defence, won the presidency with an overwhelming majority of 97% of the votes.
This article will analyse how the first term of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency developed. It will discuss the factors which have led to a decline in the President’s popularity, as well as reasons why Sisi is still a popular leader to some Egyptians.
The Path to Egypt’s Throne
In 2010, Sisi’s name first began to echo as the head of Military Intelligence in the Egyptian army, anticipating the possibility of a popular revolution against the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
After Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi was dismissed as Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Sisi was appointed in his place by then-president Mohamed Morsi.
Within less than 18 months, Sisi received two promotions. On 12 August 2012, Morsi issued him a “special” promotion from “Brigadier General” to “Major General” and appointed him Defence Minister. Later, Adly Mansour, interim president at the time, promoted him to Field Marshal.
Sisi was regarded as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood within the army, leading some, such as former US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires in Cairo Marc J. Sievers, to say that Morsi’s decision to “view Sisi as a potential sympathiser due to his reputation for piety” was “no doubt his most serious error of judgement.”
During his time as Commander-in-Chief, Sisi claimed that he did “not have any aspirations for power” and would “not run for the presidency.” He added: “You wouldn’t believe that some people do not aspire to power. But I am one of them.”
The absence of an election campaign by Sisi was interpreted as an indication of strong backing from specific sectors of Egyptian society. However, the fact that the majority of Egyptians abstained from voting, coupled with Sisi’s reliance on security measures amidst a political impasse, raised concerns among opponents about his legitimacy and conflicting choices.
Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, appeared alongside Sisi inside the Constitutional Court, marking Egypt’s first-ever presidential transition. Mansour assumed the presidency after the military ousted Morsi, serving as interim president for a transitional period.
Sisi gave his first speech after signing the power transfer document on 8 June 2014, in what he described as a “unique and historic moment.” Sisi laid out his priorities in three main areas: restoring domestic order, improving Egypt’s regional and international standing, and revitalising the economy.
During Sisi’s era, the security situation in Egypt deteriorated as never before, with a surge in terrorist attacks targeting the military and police. This was seen as a response to the military’s removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s isolation from power after the 30 June 2013 revolution.
Almost a month after the announcement of Morsi’s removal on 3 July 2013, security forces conducted a brutal raid to disperse Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood in Raba’a al-Adawiya and Nahda Squares. The violent dispersal led to the resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, from his position as vice president under Mansour.
Capitalising on his military and security background, Sisi launched an all-out war on terrorism. From mid-2013 to mid-2014, an analysis by al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies shows that 222 operations were carried out, averaging four per week. However, the number of operations doubled in just six months, reaching 445 by December 2014, with an average of six per week.
Between June 2014 and March 2015, 576 operations were conducted, averaging 14 per week, with 354 in the first quarter of 2015.
According to the Global Terrorism Index report, Egypt witnessed a large increase in terrorism following government crackdowns, leading to a nine-fold increase in terrorism-related deaths.
Since 2014, Sisi has implemented a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism and address attacks targeting state institutions and leaders. He sought to strengthen the security apparatus, which had been exhausted since 2011 and redefine confrontation tactics and strategies.
Efforts to combat terrorism consisted of three main approaches: monitoring and tracking terrorist networks within Egypt, dismantling their logistical support bases, and executing raids and pre-emptive strikes. These efforts were carried out concurrently with comprehensive and sustainable development projects to improve living and social conditions and eliminate the environment that fosters terrorism.
These efforts reduced the number of terrorist attacks, from 617 in 2015 to 199 attacks in 2016, according to the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
In response to the deadly attack on the al-Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed in late 2017, which rendered 305 dead civilians and injured 128 others, Sisi launched a comprehensive operation in Sinai in 2018. The operation successfully eliminated terrorist strongholds, arrested group leaders, and curbed their funding sources.
The Egyptian army also launched its most effective operation against the tunnel network along the 14-kilometre border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip, believing these tunnels threaten Egypt’s stability.
Despite Palestinian officials confirming that “there is no link between Gaza and what’s happening inside Egypt” and that “tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt no longer exist”, a former Egyptian military official close to Sisi revealed that the Egyptian army had demolished over 4,000 tunnels. These tunnels were used for transporting weapons, logistics support, and fighters trained outside Egypt. The security forces also destroyed thousands of weapons and ammunition storage facilities and blocked external funding lines.
Sisi’s security and military efforts have been successful in reducing the threat of terrorism in Egypt and crushing the insurgency in Sinai, where Ansar Bait al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to ISIS. The group had conducted numerous attacks, resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 police and army forces, and leading to the displacement of the Christian minority from the area.
Since taking office in 2014, President Sisi has launched a comprehensive roadmap for Egypt’s development, marked by initiating megaprojects during his first term, hoping to result in tangible achievements for citizens.
He transferred Egypt into a massive construction site with numerous projects spanning across the country. The establishment of the New Administrative Capital and the development of the Suez Canal were particularly controversial.
According to statistics Sisi presented in February 2022, over $400 billion was spent on infrastructure projects over seven years, including $60 billion for the new capital east of Cairo.
The Egyptian economy, according to the ُEgyptian State Information Service, has witnessed a leap in various sectors with the construction of eight new airports, 26 tourist centres, 22 industrial parks, the reclamation of four million feddans of land, and the development of a 4,800-kilometre-long road network.
The network’s total length has now reached 30,000 kilometres, costing EGP 295 billion, with EGP 120 billion allocated to projects in Upper Egypt.
Sisi disregarded objections regarding the government’s investment in controversial projects despite the country’s heavy debts and the need to allocate funds for public services like healthcare and education.
He kept defending the projects, claiming they were not the cause of the ongoing economic crisis and necessary for developing and attracting investments. He viewed them as a tool to demonstrate strength and enhance support among regime supporters.
His supporters received the ambitious plan to expand the Suez Canal enthusiastically due to its national symbolism, more than for its economic feasibility.
The new Suez Canal project was officially inaugurated on 6 August 2015, in the presence of Arab and international dignitaries and amidst wide media coverage. The project involved the construction of a 35-kilometre-long canal parallel to the original 190-kilometre-long canal, which was constructed 154 years ago. The project was designed to increase the demand for canal services.
According to Muhammad Mansour, an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Sisi sought to “prove to Egyptians and the world that Egypt’s stability is ultimately dependent on national projects, despite increasing terrorism and a deteriorating economy.”.
However, it later transpired that the project served political goals to demonstrate the state’s greatness. Sisi claimed that he involved public opinion in the project to “create an Egyptian state of mind after a period of frustration they experienced.”
President Sisi’s development project has been criticised for imposing high costs and heavy burdens on various social classes. These costs are largely inevitable due to contemporary development models facing financing dilemmas in a turbulent global economy.
The Egyptian model, which emphasises the importance of “no democracy without development“, is one such contemporary development model, despite the heavy burdens.
However, it has been noted that Sisi’s economic policy, which he touted as a radical reform of the country’s economy, has not produced the expected results.
Despite this, President Sisi has passionately justified his economic policy, citing Egypt’s deteriorating infrastructure. He also outright criticised former President Hosni Mubarak’s economic policies during his 28-year rule.
He blamed the former regime’s fears of public unrest and anger, which led it to delay the reform process. He said: “He was scared, even if the country was being ruined so that he could stay on his throne and lead the country to its fall.
According to Amr Adly, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, “Sisi’s military-backed regime has shown little tolerance for a resumption of the direct political role played by the owners of large private businesses during the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.”
Egypt has turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the fourth time in six years, making it the fund’s second-largest debtor, after Argentina. These debts placed the country in a dire economic situation resembling the last days of Khedive Ismail, who, by sheer coincidence, also relied heavily on European debt to finance megaprojects, leading to high debts, instability, and ultimately his abdication in favour of his son Tawfiq in 1879.
There are similarities between Ismail’s rule and Sisi’s administration. Both leaders prioritised modernisation and infrastructure development. Ismail’s projects aimed to consolidate a strong state by constructing the Suez Canal and modernising transportation and communication systems. Sisi seeks to achieve similar goals through comparable projects.
Some critics argue that Egypt’s economic situation has worsened under Sisi’s rule compared to Mubarak and Morsi.
Researcher Heidi Wajih has noted the distorted image of presidents, a trend she first observed during the 2011 Revolution and the subsequent discussions of Mubarak’s corruption and Morsi’s tumultuous presidency.
In her 2016 study on the media image of Sisi, Wajih found that 69.4 per cent of respondents had a positive impression of him, 14.7 per cent had a negative impression, 16.3 per cent were neutral, and 2.5 per cent did not form an impression.
From the outset, Sisi recognised the importance of media influence. He sought a considerable share of the state in the media, to control and influence it. After his election, he held three meetings with media and journalism representatives to emphasise their role in “unifying the nation.”
However, concerns about media and journalism policies and their impact on stability led to increased government control over the media, including security agencies buying large portions of private media outlets.
The emergence of state media arms, such as United Media Services, which owns a significant share of the media market through television channels, newspapers, and websites, further transformed the media landscape.Coupled with a series of laws restricting press freedom and free speech, Sisi assumed direct control of the press. While during Mubarak’s reign private media used to have some more room than state media, under Sisi all media have been forced to toe the regime’s line.
Additionally, around 500 websites were blocked in Egypt.
However, after 28 months in office, a poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research showed that the percentage of Egyptians who were satisfied with Sisi’s performance declined from 82 per cent 100 days after taking power to 68 per cent in October 2016. One year after his election, 92% of the Egyptians were not content with how the government handled price inflation and unemployment, according to a poll by Egypols.
Experts cited the government’s failure to address citizens’ concerns and the worsening economic situation as reasons for the decline. While others said: “The economy has collapsed, and the president’s promises did not materialise.”
Furthermore, the stability that Sisi promised to bring to Egypt following years of unrest came at a cost. His regime has been widely criticised for human rights violations from the onset. Political opponents were equated with “terrorists” and severely repressed, leaving no room for opposition in the political landscape. The regime has also targeted journalists, activists, and critics, arresting and prosecuting them arbitrarily.
While the weak opposition does not currently threaten the stability of Sisi’s regime, it fuels anxiety and uncertainty about the future among Egyptians, hindering Sisi’s ability to balance complex and sensitive economic and social challenges.
According to Bessma Momani, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, the political climate worsened after the 25 January 2011 revolution. That was coupled with “high public debt, poorly targeted subsidies, a growing public sector wage bill, over-reliance on food imports, and an overvalued currency, ” pushing Sisi’s government towards the IMF.
Despite efforts to encourage foreign direct investment and diversify industries, including those monopolised by the military, “national security measures” have been used to justify future policies.
The Economist points to the stranglehold on the economy exercised by the Egyptian army as the country’s main underlying problem. The military’s empire now includes everything from fuel stations to mineral water, olives, fish farming, and carmaking.
A leaked video from his tenure as defence minister showed Sisi expressing concerns about the potential consequences of disclosing the military’s budget to the Egyptian public. He emphasised the need to prepare for future challenges and expressed worries about how parliamentary questions might impact the military.
According to the late journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal’s statement, former Egyptian Defence Minister Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala believed that the army changed significantly following the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979 and started to play a disproportionate role in the country’s economic life.
This role manifested in many vanity projects that “serve as a tool of power projection and consolidation of support among regime supporters”, providing the army with more opportunities to further increase its involvement in the Egyptian economy.
Despite widespread criticism of his regime’s human rights record, Sisi successfully “boosted his image and status as a central player on the world stage”.
To the President himself and his supporters, Sisi, buttressed by the US and GCC states, remained a strong leader throughout his first term. However, given the worsening of the economic situation, increased political repression and deterioration of human rights under his rule, other Egyptians were left disappointed.