But here’s why he should be worried.
There are rumblings of dissent in the Arab world’s most populous country.
Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has presided over a security crackdown that’s left thousands dead, imprisoned tens of thousands more, and made the use of torture routine. He’s also repressed free speech and civil society, ramped up a failing war in the Sinai, and is now gearing up to win the presidency again in a sham election marked by arrests, intimidation, and fear.
None of that has stopped him, however, from becoming President Trump’s favorite Middle Eastern dictator — or from being virtually certain to cruise to reelection when Egyptians head to the polls on Monday.
Last month, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked about how there was “no gap” between the two countries when it came to Egypt’s own war on terror, and assured reporters that the US and Egypt stood “shoulder to shoulder.” Vice President Mike Pence used a visit to Cairo in January to tell Sisi that he was “grateful for his leadership” and that ties between the two countries had “never been stronger.”
Trump, for his part, has repeatedly expressed admiration for Sisi, whom he has called a “fantastic guy.” After a meeting at the White House last April, Trump told reporters, “We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” For good measure, Trump also complimented Sisi’s shoes.
Trump’s talk of a “difficult situation” was a reference to Sisi’s ongoing, and largely failed, attempt to beat back a violent ISIS-affiliated insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In October 2015, militants downed a Russian plane, killing all 224 people on board. Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 700 civilians and at least 1,000 police officers and soldiers in the past four years. Sisi’s forces have killed at least 2,560 alleged terrorists and arrested 16,000 others, although these numbers are disputed, since a person can be designated a terrorist for something as simple as publishing information that contradicts the state.
Trump’s embrace of Sisi reflects his belief that Egypt is vital to the security of Israel and other US allies throughout the Middle East. Sisi has fostered a strong, if quiet, working relationship with the Israeli government — since 2015, he’s even secretly allowed Israeli drones to operate in Egyptian territory — and warned Iran to “stop meddling” in the region. Above all, the US and Israel are gambling on Sisi to control the Arab world’s most populous nation after years of political uncertainty.
“From the Israeli government’s perspective, Sisi is a major source of stability in the region,” said Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
There are, however, rumblings of dissent in the country.
Sisi’s iron rule may be intact, but his popularity has declined due to a mix of severe austerity measures, repressive tactics, and an unpopular decision to cede two islands under Egyptian control to Saudi Arabia. His expensive and prolonged anti-terror campaign in the Sinai is also failing.
Michele Dunne, the director of Carnegie’s Middle East program and an Egypt expert, said that Sisi now faces growing opposition within his own base — something he didn’t have to deal with the last time he ran. Once Egypt’s charade of an election is out of the way, the real question, she told me, is “what’s going to happen to this opposition going forward?”
These factors combined raise the chances that one day, Sisi will lose control — or use ever more violent tactics to maintain his grasp on power.
Egypt’s newest strongman rules through violence and fear
During his four years in power, Sisi has cracked down on civil liberties and brought the country’s political system squarely under his grip.
He’s not the first military leader to run Egypt. Most of the country’s former presidents, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, came from the military. The heads of Egypt’s armed forces, which has around 1.2 million active personnel, also control a large percentage of the country’s economy, though the military budget is secret and their industries are not taxed or audited. Sisi has downplayed the military’s economic control, but experts estimate that it could be anywhere from 5 to 40 percent.
Sisi first appeared on the Egyptian political stage as the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a military junta that temporarily ruled Egypt after public protests forced former President Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011. When Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012, he chose Sisi to be his minister of defense. Morsi granted himself sweeping powers while trying to push through a new constitution and implemented Islamist policies, infuriating much of the Egyptian public.
I moved to Cairo in June 2013, right before Egyptians took to the streets en masse again, this time to demand that Morsi leave office. Not long after the mass protests on June 30, Sisi and other military leaders staged a coup and removed Morsi from power. A few weeks later, the Egyptian army — at Sisi’s direction — killed almost 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters in one day, in what became known as the Rabaa Massacre. Interim President Adly Mansour declared a state of emergency, and I spoke to Egyptians who were reeling from the violence and trying to make sense of the new climate of fear.
Sisi presented himself as a steady hand in the midst of chaos, and his popularity soared. As security forces cracked down on all areas of public life in Egypt, he imposed military law and readied himself for the presidential election in May 2014.
In Mansoura, a port city outside of Cairo, I met many enthusiastic Sisi fans who turned out to vote, but I also spoke to other Egyptians who were boycotting or supporting the lone opposition candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Many of the young Egyptians I met were disillusioned by the wave of state-sponsored violence, and expected more to come.
Later that year, as the protest movement and the ensuing violent response spread to Egypt’s university campuses, I talked to students who had seen their classmates arrested or shot in the crackdown on dissent. They described the metal detectors, guard dogs, private security companies, and special forces that now occupied their campuses. “Those who protest or who merely express their views could be killed in a second by the press of a trigger,” Hind, a student at Al-Azhar University, told me in December 2014.
Fast-forward a few years: According to most experts and analysts, Sisi’s popularity is on the decline. An October 2016 poll conducted by Baseera, the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, showed that the president’s approval rating tumbled 24 points during his first two years in office.
Sisi’s problems at home stem, in part, from Egypt’s faltering economy. After the 2011 revolution and increase in terror attacks, Egypt’s tourism industry, which was a major source of revenue for the country, took a nosedive. In November 2016, the Egyptian government took emergency measures to avoid bankruptcy and enacted harsh economic reforms to receive a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. They cut subsidies, and inflation skyrocketed — food prices rose by 30 percent. Ordinary Egyptians have struggled to adjust.
“Sisi’s popularity has tremendously decreased because of incompetent economic policies,” Zeinab Abul-Magd, a history professor at Oberlin College who focuses on Egypt’s economy, told me.
Another issue is that youth unemployment in the country — one of the key factors that led to the “Arab Spring” protests that began in 2010 — remains very high. While overall employment has decreased to about 11 percent, almost 80 percent of people without jobs are young people. A 2016 Brookings Institution report argues that if the Egyptian government does not deal with youth unemployment soon, “it will likely face instability — and perhaps another uprising — in the years to come.”
Sisi’s popularity also took a hit when he made the highly controversial decision to cede two islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The islands, located between the two countries, are uninhabited and had been controlled by Egypt for the past 60 years. Sisi was accused of “selling” them to the Saudis in exchange for investment money and aid. The decision shocked many Egyptians, who considered the islands to be part of Egypt; they’re also strategically located at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, near the Gulf of Aqaba.
“Egyptians feel the danger, shame and loss of the ceding of their islands, on top of everything else they have had to endure,” Egyptian novelist and commentator Ahdaf Soueif wrote in the New York Times in June 2017, noting that people who protested the island transfer were arrested for speaking their minds. “Egypt’s society is divided and turned against itself more than ever before,” she wrote.
Amid all of this, Sisi has used the past few years of his presidency to continue to crack down on free speech and political opposition. In its annual 2017 report, Human Rights Watch wrote that Sisi’s government has “maintained its zero tolerance policy toward dissent.”
The group pointed to a highly controversial law Sisi pushed through that puts severe restrictions on more than 40,000 NGOs and aid groups, requiring them to submit their work for approval and effectively banning some human rights groups from functioning.
The report also revealed that Egypt’s National Security Agency engaged in systematic, widespread torture and extrajudicial killings. Thousands of civilians, including children, were tried in military courts. The Sisi government, HRW wrote, was operating with “near-absolute impunity for abuses by security forces under the pretext of fighting ‘terrorism.’”
The reality of this means that many Egyptians are too afraid to speak up, even though they have a lot to speak up about.
Egypt is waging its own war on terror — and it’s bringing Cairo closer to the US and Israel
In October 2014, I took a bus from Cairo to Dahab, a town on the southeast tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The government had recently increased the military presence in the desert, which was littered with tanks. I saw one exhausted soldier trying to hide from the sun under a small red umbrella — he’s since become emblematic in my mind of the thousands of Egyptians conscripted to fight the war on terror in the Sinai — a war that, by all estimates, is not going well.
The Sinai Peninsula, home to several Bedouin tribes, is a historically neglected and poor part of Egypt. Since Mubarak’s era, the region has been a comparatively lawless place where it was easy for militant groups to operate.
The bad situation there has become exponentially worse when Sisi rose to power in 2013, according to Mohannad Sabry, a researcher and the author of a book about the insurgency in the Sinai. There were waves of attacks carried out from North Sinai in 2014 and 2015 on security directorates in Cairo, and an assassination attempt on the interior minister. In 2015, an ISIS-affiliated group claimed responsibility for downing a Russian charter flight, which left more than 200 people dead.
The ISIS-affiliated group, Wilayat (state) of Sinai, also took aim at the country’s minority Christian population. In December 2016, they carried out a suicide bombing at a Coptic church which left 25 people dead. Gunmen have killed dozens more Christians in smaller attacks in 2017.
Last November, militants also struck a Sufi mosque in the region, killing 305 people. The attackers used automatic machine guns and explosives, and 27 children were among the dead. Even al-Qaeda decried the bloody attack, which was the deadliest of its kind in recent Egyptian history.
Sisi has responded by increasing the numbers of troops, arrests, and executions, but as attacks have increased, his methods don’t seem to be working. One reason may be that the Egyptian army suffers from a “massive intelligence failure,” Sabry said, and they’re using traditional military methods to fight highly mobile and adaptable guerrilla fighters.
There are no indications that Sisi’s tactics are going to change anytime soon. But as US officials like to emphasize, the Egyptian president isn’t in this fight alone.
Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US military aid, largely due to its peace deal with Israel. The country receives $1.3 billion in annual military assistance from the US, though Trump’s decision to delay or cut almost $300 million in aid to Egypt in August of last year came as a surprise to Egyptian officials.
In addition to US support, the New York Times reported last month that Sisi’s government had secretly partnered with Israel, starting in 2015, to carry out a sustained air campaign against militants in the Sinai. According to several anonymous British and American officials, Israel sent drones, jets, and helicopters to conduct around 100 airstrikes in Egyptian territory in an effort to turn the tide against the ISIS-affiliated group.
The secrecy is an important aspect of Sisi’s relationship with Israel. After Trump’s announcement that he was moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Egyptians staged scattered protests. Not long after, leaked tapes revealed that an Egyptian intelligence officer had pressured prominent media figures to come out in favor of the decision and sway public opinion. A few weeks after the revelations, Sisi fired his top spy chief, Khaled Fawzy.
There’s also the issue of Gaza. When Sisi took office in 2014, he repeatedly closed the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza and pressured Hamas to shut down the tunnels in Sinai that many smugglers used to bring in goods from the outside world. Israel is in the process of building an underground wall to stop smugglers from transporting goods and weapons into the strip.
This willingness to both attack militants in Sinai and put pressure on Hamas has pleased the Israeli government, analysts say.
In a speech in July 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the improving ties between Israel and Egypt, and thanked Sisi for his leadership and “his efforts to advance peace.” Not long after, Egypt’s foreign minister visited Israel — the first time an Egyptian foreign minister had done so in almost a decade — and offered to help restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Due to shared security concerns about the Sinai and Gaza, “The relationship between Egypt and Israel is now at one of its highest points,” Allison McManus, the research director for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a nonpartisan NGO in Washington, DC, told me in an email.
In early February, Sisi announced a campaign to end all anti-terror campaigns in the Sinai and told his chief of staff that he had free rein to “use all brute force necessary.” The announcement came only a few weeks before the presidential elections, and the timing ofthis massive new military campaign, which includes ground, naval, and air forces as well as the border patrol and police, hardly seems coincidental.
The Egyptian elections are a charade
When Egyptians head to the polls Monday, Sisi will face little to no actual opposition.
Most of his would-be opponents have withdrawn. They include an army colonel, Ahmed Konsowa, who was handed a six-month prison term in December after announcing his intention to run; a retired army general, Sami Anan, who was arrested along with 30 members of his campaign staff and some of their families in January; and former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who declared his intention to run and was then deported from the UAE. Soon after, he withdrew his candidacy via Twitter, reportedly under pressure from the government.
Former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat’s nephew also dropped out, blaming the climate of fear. “Better to lose a round and stand by and be ready for a second round than bashing your head against a wall,” Mohamed Anwar el-Sadat told the Guardian in January.
Khaled Ali, a leftist lawyer and politician who had garnered strong support on social media, recently announced he was withdrawing his candidacy as well, a day after Sami Anan was detained. The one challenger Sisi will have to face is Mousa Mostafa Mousa, an open supporter of Sisi who was organizing events to support his reelection until a week before the registration deadline.
The fact that Sisi has gone so far above and beyond to clear the field of his competitors indicates that he’s not as secure as he looks — and that he fears that a free and fair election might unseat him from power.
The US, for its part, seems to tacitly accept this. During the press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister earlier this month, Tillerson declared that the US supported and advocated for free and fair elections, not just in Egypt but throughout the world. But the climate in Egypt is clearly far from that.
“Despite what Tillerson alluded to in his remarks, the upcoming Egyptian elections cannot be considered free, fair, or indicative of popular will by any stretch of the imagination,” the Tahrir Institute’s McManus said.
It remains to be seen if this growing discontent with Trump’s favorite Middle Eastern authoritarian leader will build, or fizzle out in the next few years. But if history is any indication, Sisi should be careful.