Five Years of Abd el Fattah el Sisi – and Egypt Is at a Crossroads


Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 18, No. 20

  • Five years have elapsed since Abd el Fattah el Sisi assumed the presidency, and Egypt has undergone a radical transformation and has become, in the view of many in the West, a repressive regime with zero tolerance for its critics and even less for its opponents.
  • Battling against a formidable domestic enemy, an undeclared coalition of radical Islamic organizations represented by the iconic Muslim Brotherhood and other small Islamic Salafist extremist groups, Sisi has found no time to concentrate on Egypt’s chronic economic sickness.
  • Now that Sisi has been re-established in his position for the next four years, his missions remain the same: quelling ISIS in Sinai, consolidating the regime mainly by muzzling the media and keeping the pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies, and trying to improve the economy, which is the Achilles’ heel of the regime.
  • Five years after his takeover, Sisi has radically transformed the Egyptian political landscape. In his course of action, Sisi has given the Egyptian armed forces an unprecedented status, illustrating what was already a blatant truth: Egypt is and will remain a military society.
  • The war against radical Islam will continue to be the paramount focus of the regime, since this factor could become the primary catalyst for change. Shifting relations with Sudan and Ethiopia could also affect domestic instability, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (except Qatar) will remain de-facto allies facing the same enemies: Iran and radical Islam.
Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi

Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi
(Russian Information Office)

Five years ago, on July 3, 2013, at the end of a face-to-face meeting relating to the stance of the opposition forces in Egypt toward the regime, General Abd el Fattah el Sisi, then Minister of Defense, ended his briefing by telling the president, Mohammad Morsi: “You should consider yourself from this moment and until further notice in a state of house arrest. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken over as of now!”

Thus ended the brief tenure of the first-ever democratically-elected president of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Five years have elapsed since Abd el Fattah el Sisi assumed the presidency, and Egypt has undergone a radical transformation and has become, in the view of many in the West, a repressive regime with zero tolerance for its critics and even less for its opponents. Battling against a formidable domestic enemy, an undeclared coalition of radical Islamic organizations represented by the iconic Muslim Brotherhood and other small Islamic Salafist extremist groups, Sisi has found no time to concentrate on Egypt’s chronic economic sickness.

Like his predecessors, Sisi has found that he is running in place with all engines just to keep Egypt’s head above water and prevent it from drowning. His two major accomplishments are the opening of an additional waterway parallel to the existing Suez Canal and the building of a dam on the Nile River mainly intended to retain a quantity of water essential to Egypt’s survival in case Ethiopia decides to redirect a greater amount of water to its Renaissance Dam. Such an action would provoke an Egyptian water crisis by lowering the level of the Nile River by almost one-and-a-half meters!

In every other field of foreign policy, Sisi has faced hard dilemmas, thus becoming the target of bitter criticism:

  1. The unilateral transfer of the two islands Sanafir and Tiran dominating the Gulf of Aqaba waterway to Saudi Arabia was met with vehement opposition. There were different renditions of the history on how these islands ended up with Egypt; some spoke about a Saudi transfer of the islands on a temporary basis in 1950. Sisi was accused of giving the islands now in return for loans and cash deposits by the Saudis into Egypt’s central bank. A long process of litigation finally ended after lengthy procedures with the ruling of the higher court of justice authorizing the regime to transfer the sovereignty to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s new islands

Cartoon showing Saudi stretching to control the islands of Sanafir and Tiran
(Daily News – Egypt)

  1. Relations with Sudan soured and remain strained because of the historical dispute over the sovereignty of the Halaieb Triangle, a swath of land between Egypt and Sudan rich in minerals and oil reserves, which both countries claim. Things even got worse following Sudan’s decision to hand over Suakin, a strategic island in the Red Sea (once the headquarters of the Ottoman fleet), to Turkey on an open-ended basis.
Suakin Island

Suakin Island, the location of a new Turkish naval base, not far from Egypt.

  1. Sisi has not succeeded in convincing Ethiopia to fill the Renaissance Dam reservoir at a slower pace (a minimum of 6 to 10 years), thus endangering the flow of water to Egypt set according to agreements reached almost a century ago. In one report published during Morsi’s tenure, the regime contemplated launching military action against the dam. Since Sisi took power, such action is no longer mentioned, and Egypt preferred to turn to international arbitration after a structural study was to be presented by a French firm agreed upon by both the Ethiopian and Egyptian sides.
  2. Sisi has sided with his strategic ally, Saudi Arabia, in its war against the Houthis in Yemen. Little information has been released since Egypt seems to have dispatched a paratroop unit as well as warships to patrol the Red Sea and warplanes to taking part in the Saudi Air force’s air campaign. Because of Egypt’s reliance on Saudi financial assistance, Sisi is still committed to the Saudi war effort even though he would have preferred to bring his troops back home.
  3. Sisi has benefited from the change of the American administration. Whereas the Obama administration was reluctant to recognize the Sisi takeover and imposed an embargo on weapons and spare parts, the Trump administration seems to be more forthcoming in its acceptance of the Egyptian regime even though not going overboard in its bilateral relations. The strained relations with the Obama Administration pushed the Egyptians to turn toward France and Russia to find alternative support. This is not viable because these two countries cannot replace the financial largesse given by the United States to Egypt on an annual basis.
  4. Turkey and Erdogan are certainly the “bête noire” of the regime. Erdogan’s open criticism of Egypt following the regime’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, the incarceration of Morsi, and his endless trial have created a wide divide between the two countries. Egypt has even accused Turkey of taking part in the radical Islamic battle against the regime in Sinai and assisting the Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt and abroad.
Turkish agents among ISIS fighters captured in Sinai in 2015.

Egypt claimed in 2015 that Turkish intelligence officers were “working with” ISIS terrorists in Sinai. (Egypt Daily News)

However, Sisi’s biggest failure lies in the domestic field. In 2013, Sisi won the presidency with huge waves of popular support. In the election campaign that preceded the presidential vote, Sisi was perceived and pictured as the adopted heir of Gamal Abd el Nasser, the iconic Egyptian president. The Egyptian public, the media, and even the opposition saw in the young general a generator of change who could bring Egypt back to its past glory and economic prosperity. As high as the stakes and hopes were, so was the bitter  disappointment. Very quickly, it transpired that the soft-spoken Egyptian president would not hesitate to use force against his enemies to ensure the survival of Egypt’s military supremacy acquired during the 1952 revolution, which brought an end to the monarchy that ruled Egypt for two centuries. As a result, the public mood, as well as his political partners, changed, and Sisi became the focus of criticism and derision.

The Unforgiving Hand of Sisi’s Regime

Sisi did not spare his opponents or his former allies. The Egyptian jails are packed with thousands of Muslim Brothers and members of other radical Muslim organizations. Former President Morsi’s endless trials have become a mockery, while the former president Hosni Mubarak, at 90 years old, has been cleared of wrongdoings and freed to a secluded life in his home. Never in the history of modern Egypt have so many death sentences been pronounced by Egyptian courts against “enemies of the regime,” and never have so many death sentences been carried by the judicial arms after having been “approved” by the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

In 2017, Egyptian courts pronounced 186 death sentences, compared to 60 a year before. The number of executions by hanging doubled to 44 in 2016, compared to 22 the year before. In June 2018, Egyptian courts issued 41 death sentences while the files of 60 on “death row” have been presented to the Mufti for final recommendation. According to a report published by the Arab organization of Human Rights in the UK, 7,120 people were killed in Egypt outside the judicial framework, out of whom 2,194 were killed in demonstrations and peaceful sit-ins, 717 died inside their incarceration venue, and 169 were targeted individuals (killed in special operations). The number of people in Egyptian jails reached more than 60,000, while only half of them appeared in front of civilian or military courts for sentencing. One thousand and twelve were condemned to death, and 6,740 received life sentences.

In Sinai, where the Egyptian army is battling ISIS, 4,010 civilians were killed by the military, more than 10,000 are in jail, and 262 houses were either destroyed or burned by the Egyptian forces.

President Sisi speaking to the Egyptian Armed Forces to commemorate the “1973 Sinai Liberation” 

President Sisi speaking to the Egyptian Armed Forces to commemorate the “1973 Sinai Liberation”  (Office of the President)

The Egyptian parliament, aware of the possible legal repercussions of repressive measures by the military officers/security agents involved in the escalating internal war since 2013, voted to enact in July 2018 a law providing immunity against judicial procedures by locals or international bodies that would hold the Egyptian military accountable. This law comes as part of a package of financial advantages for the military,  including salary raises in 2017 (for the eighth time in the last three years; salaries will be raised again by 15 percent beginning July 2018) given to the armed forces and especially to the High Command as a reward for their “sacrifice” while, in fact, they serve as an incentive to maintain loyalty to the military and Sisi, the head of the pyramid.

Punishing the Domestic Enemies

However, Sisi’s frustration and inability to subdue terrorism waged against the regime by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, radical Salafi organizations, and ISIS groups (mainly in the Sinai peninsula) and Sisi’s almost Herculean mission to ensure a stable and secure regime have been translated into martial and draconian laws against all those who dare criticize the regime. The media and opposition groups have been targeted with harsh measures limiting the freedom of expression.

Under the pretext of safeguarding the regime from terrorism and following a car bomb attack that killed the top public prosecutor, Sisi approved in mid-2015 a controversial anti-terrorism law protecting police and law enforcement forces while punishing the media for spreading “false” reports. The law sets a minimum fine of about $25,000 and a maximum of almost $60,000 for anyone who diverges from government statements in publishing or spreading “false” reports on attacks or security operations against armed fighters. It also punishes with prison terms “those guilty of inciting, or prepared to incite, directly or indirectly, a terrorist act.” The law aims at those charged with forming or leading a group defined as a “terrorist entity” by the government and can be punishable by death or life in prison. Membership in such a group can carry up to 10 years in jail, whereas financing “terrorist groups” can lead to a life sentence (which is 25 years in Egypt). Inciting violence, which includes “promoting ideas that call for violence,” leads to between five and seven years in jail, as will the creation or use of websites that spread such ideas.

In another twist, el-Sisi ratified in late December 2016 a new media law that created a Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a body that can revoke licenses to foreign media and fine or suspend publications and broadcasters. As a result, journalists from the written and the digital world were arrested, put in jail, and fined for perpetrating offenses against the regime, such as spreading false news and criticizing the regime. The number of arrests reached such an extent that according to a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in the United States, in 2015, Egypt had the highest number of journalists behind bars since CPJ began keeping records, most of them accused of membership of a banned group.

Also in December 2016, Egypt’s top Constitutional Court upheld the law passed in 2013 that bans protests. According to this law, would-be protesters have to notify the interior ministry of any public gathering of more than 10 people at least three days in advance. The law imposes jail sentences of up to five years on those who violate a broad list of protest restrictions and allows the security forces to disperse illegal demonstrations with water cannons, tear gas, and birdshot.

In July 2018, the Egyptian parliament ratified the new press law establishing the Higher Council for the “Organization” of the Media, the National Council of the Press, and the National Council of the Media, which regulate all fields of journalism. For example, no newspaper or media would be allowed to cover events if at least 70 percent of its workers, journalists, and reporters do not belong to the press association. Journalists are forbidden to receive any sort of outside financial contribution.  No pictures can be taken at any event without prior authorization.

Journalists who dare to transgress those laws find themselves entangled in a merciless judicial system. Such is the case of the journalist Youssef Hosni: The Attorney General ordered the journalist to be kept in jail for another 15 days (beginning July 17, 2018) to complete the investigation relating to his “membership in a terrorist organization and disseminating false news.” In fact, Youssef Hosni had been arrested by the security agency in the middle of the night on June 2 and had been kept in a secret place for more than 30 days until he re-appeared in public on July 2 as part of a group of accused suspects in a case called “441” and was officially arrested for 15 days. Case 441 refers to several journalists and activists and is considered by the security agencies as one of the biggest tests between the press and the regime. Among the suspects arrested is also a former candidate for the presidency, Abd el Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was incarcerated for more than six months without trial.

Having alienated the press and media, Sisi still succeeded in getting elected for a second term as president of Egypt. It appears that there was nothing close to what should have been a free and democratic presidential electoral campaign. Potential candidates – a former general and prime minister Ahmad Shafik and Gen. Sami Anan, former Chief of Staff of the Egyptian army and bitter rival of el-Sisi – were “convinced” not to run against Sisi.  Former Muslim Brotherhood member Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who quit the organization, was arrested on returning to Egypt from London after voicing his intention to run against Sisi. An unknown colonel who announced his candidacy in the presidential elections was thrown into jail and is now serving a six-year term under the pretext of meddling in politics. Civil rights lawyer Khalid Ali served a three-month jail sentence for “public indecency” after allegedly making a hand gesture outside a courthouse a year ago. Ali was disqualified from running in the election, having lost his appeal in early March. Finally, the late President Anwar Sadat’s nephew, also named Muhammad Anwar Sadat, could not get a hotel to rent a hall to launch his campaign, nor could he find printing houses that would agree to print his political manifesto.

As a result of all these electoral roadblocks, opposition voices have harshly criticized the whole process and subsequently called to cancel the presidential elections. These calls angered Sisi and led to an unexpected development barely a month before the deadline of the elections. Moussa Mustafa Moussa, an almost unknown politician who had earlier proclaimed his support for the re-election of Sisi as president, announced his presidential bid.  He lost to the only presidential candidate left in the campaign: Abd el Fattah el Sisi.

Removing Former Allies

After having been sworn in as president for a second term, Sisi concentrated on the elimination of all those who had been part of the 14-person group who had accompanied him politically and pledged their support just after he took over the reins of power in July 2013. The group included Mohammad al Baradei, head of the Salvation Front, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and vice-president of Egypt; former chief of staff  Gen. Sedki Sobhy; writer Sakina Fouaad; Hamed Abd Allah, head of the Supreme Judicial Council; Sheikh of Al Azhar Ahmad el Tayyeb; the Coptic Pope, Theodoros the second; the secretary general of Al Nour party, the Salafist Jalal Al Murra; and the head of the youth organization “Al-Tamarrud,” Mahmoud Badr.

Badr got a seat in parliament. Al-Baradei joined the opposition and went back to Austria, while others remained but with no real political power. Sobhy, who was appointed Minister of Defense in the 2014 Egyptian government, relinquished his post in the 2018 government reshuffle to a “loyalist,” General Mohamad Ahmad Zaki, chief of the Republican Guard from the time of Morsi’s toppling until Sisi’s present nomination. General Mahmoud Tawfiq, another “loyalist,” was also appointed to the powerful job of minister of Interior replacing General Magdi Abd el Ghaffar.

Sisi’s Mission Ahead

Now that Sisi has been re-established in his position for the next four years, his missions remain the same:

  1. Quelling ISIS in Sinai. “Operation Sinai,” announced at the beginning of 2018, was supposed to pacify the Peninsula, but it is ongoing and undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the Egyptian army.
Egyptian ground troops

Egyptian ground troops in the “Sinai 2018”campaign (Egypt Today, February 11, 2018)

  1. Consolidating the regime mainly by muzzling the media and keeping the pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.
  2. Trying to improve the economy which is the Achilles’ heel of the regime. The U.S. dollar, which was exchanged at the rate of 6.69 Egyptian pounds per dollar at the eve of Sisi’s takeover five years ago, is exchanged at 17.99 Egyptian pounds. A liter of gasoline was 1.85 and now 6.75; a metro ticket was one pound and now is seven; a house gas cylinder was sold at 8 Egyptian pounds and now 50. Five years ago, Egypt’s external debt was $34.5 billion; today it is $82.9 billion. Egypt’s inflation doubled from almost 15 percent to a record 30 percent in October 2017.

Conclusion

Five years after his takeover, Sisi has radically transformed the Egyptian political landscape. In his course of action, Sisi has given the Egyptian armed forces an unprecedented status, illustrating what was already a blatant truth: Egypt is and will remain a military society. The forecast for the years to come seems to be “more of the same” while keeping a close eye on the domestic scene, where a potential of implosion is already in place. The war against radical Islam will continue to be the paramount focus of the regime, since this factor could become the primary catalyst for change. Shifting relations with Sudan and Ethiopia could also impact on domestic instability, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (except Qatar) will remain de-facto allies facing the same enemies: Iran and radical Islam.

For further information see Jacques Neriah’s Whither Egypt’s Democracy?  http://jcpa.org/whither-egypts-democracy

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.