Autocratic or Democratic: Uncertainty in Egypt’s Leader

A profile on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi By Gabrielle Corrigan

Since the self-immolating demonstration of the fruit stand owner, Mohammed Bouazizi, in a humble area of central Tunisia, protests and revolutions have made violent waves across the North African and Middle Eastern regions, from Morocco to Turkey. Currently, the violence is climaxing in violent clashes between radical Islamist groups—such as the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood—and their more secular counterparts.

Emerging from the conflict is Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, framing himself as an innovative Egyptian leader trying to rebuild a broken state and divided society with a centralized, secular government in a strongly Islamic region. Yet his diplomatic resolution to the Middle Eastern and Egyptian conflict and his vociferousness on creating economic and social wealth for Egypt is tainted with his blatant expunging of groups that he considers a threat to his national vision, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.[1] The inconsistency between his actions and his declared goals has made critics question whether he really wants to foster Egyptian freedom and equality or whether his motives stem from an authoritarian basis.

Following ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s failed dictatorship, el-Sisi entered the military and political arena as a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).[2] Because of his support for Morsi’s regime and his work with the Muslim Brotherhood, he was appointed field marshal of the Egyptian military. However, on June 30th, 2013, mass rioting and protests occupied the streets of Egyptian metropolises sparked by a petition for the resignation of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed at the hands of approximately 22 million Egyptian signatures.[3] With wide-spread support, Field Marshal el-Sisi lead a military coup overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood government.

Almost a year after the civil unrest took to the streets of Egypt’s arid cities, el-Sisi resigned from his defense minister position in the post-coup government and announced his 2014 presidential campaign on the platform that his government would be “guardians of the people's will.”[4] The el-Sisi campaign ran under the slogan “‘Long Live Egypt,’ outlining an ambitious plan to develop agriculture, housing, education and impoverished areas and boost employment through hard work by him and Egyptians alike.”[5]

Claiming to implement growth internally, which would address issues that former presidents Mubarak and Morsi ignored, he seems to be listening to the citizens’ cries for a better quality of life. In an interview with Associated Press, he suggests that “by fighting poverty, improving education and moderating religious discourse,” the Middle East and North Africa can successfully fight terrorist and radical Islamist groups on a social level rather than by force.[6]However, despite his promising rhetoric, his words have not matched his actions as he has been using extreme force to combat Islamist militant groups in Egypt, imprisoning and killing many Egyptians for their Islamic views.[7]

He argues that there should be a far reaching-fight against all militant groups who use Islam as a façade for their destructive motives.[8] He has “called on all who follow the true Islam,” in a speech at the Armed Forces’ Department of Moral Affairs during his work as defense minister, “to improve the image of this religion in front of the world, after Islam has been for decades convicted of violence and destruction around the world, due to the crimes falsely committed in the name of Islam.”[9]

But President el-Sisi’s claims to help improve socio-economic prosperity and national security against radical threats has exposed an underlying feeling of general anti-Islamism from his government. His vigor in hunting down religious extremist groups has also affected innocent Muslims and other Egyptians, “leading [the nation] into autocracy” as his crackdown on extremists takes a totalitarian turn.[10] This recent crackdown—on groups and individuals whom President el-Sisi claims to be “imposters” based on their supposed hindrance to the rebuilding of Egypt—has resulted in approximately 3,000 Egyptians killed and 17,000 arrested since July 2013.[11] The private lives of citizens, as well as their religious, economic, and social freedoms have been restricted. For example, new policy makes acceptance of foreign funds, not approved by the government, worthy of life imprisonment.[12] These extreme types of regulations on the nongovernmental sector further substantiate the views that he is trying to eliminate the private sector in what some scholars are calling “his repressive centralization of power.”[13]  He has justified these numerous deaths and regulations as an effort to reform the Islamic discourse and rebuild religious and political structure within Egypt, yet it has only brought less freedom and more violence.

But public opinion is still favorable towards President el-Sisi. Egyptian votes rocketed him to the top of TIME Magazine’s Reader Poll for the 2013 Person of the Year with 449,596 votes, surpassing candidates like Miley Cyrus and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.[14] Under his leadership as defense minister as well, the Egyptian military had “a 70 percent favorability rating.”[15] But his prominence in counter-terrorism and his efforts to rebuild nationalism has not created optimism for the country’s future. In a 2014 Pew Research Poll, “72 percent of Egyptians are dissatisfied with their country’s direction” which might be telling of the presidents true effect on the country and the lack of success of his policies.[16]

While President el-Sisi, contrary to his predecessors, at least attempts to listen to Egyptian citizens and improve the nation’s situation, only time will tell how far he will push the more authoritarian and violent policies of his government. The contradiction between the number of citizens who have been killed under his rule—particularly because of their Islamic beliefs—and his claims that his government will promote development and denounce violence is creating enormous uncertainty for the future of Egyptian citizens and their president.

[1] "Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi: Muslim Brotherhood Will Not Exist in Egypt If I'm Elected” Video contributed by Reuters. The Guardian. May 6, 2014. Accessed October 31, 2014.

[2] Egypt: Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi Profile." BBC News. May 16, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[3] Tarek, Heggy. "Islamism in Egypt and beyond." Al-Ahram Weekly. October 23, 2014.

[4] "Profile: Abdel Fattah El-Sisi." Al Jazeera American. June 8, 2014.

[5] Ibid

[6] Hendawi, Hamaz, Ian Phillips, and Lee Keath. "AP Interview: El-Sissi, Egypt and the Terror Fight." AP: The Big Story. September 21, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[7] Ibid

[8] "Profile: Abdel Fattah El-Sisi." Al Jazeera American. June 8, 2014.

[9] Szep, Jason, and Shadi Bushra. "Sisi Says Coalition Must Battle Islamic State and Others." Reuters: UK Edition. September 14, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2014.

[10] Mauro, Ryan. "Egypt's El-Sisi Boldly Calls for Islamic Reformation." The Clarion Project. January 22, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2014.

[11] Hendawi, Hamaz, Ian Phillips, and Lee Keath. "AP Interview: El-Sissi, Egypt and the Terror Fight." AP: The Big Story. September 21, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[12] Savage, Sean. "Other than Muslim Brotherhood Crackdown, El-Sisi’s Plan for Egypt Remains a Mystery." Service. May 23, 2014. Accessed October 31, 2014.

[13] Carothers, Thomas. "Egypt's Repression of Civic Activists Is a Serious Mistake." The Washington Post. October 24, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2014.

[14] Rayman, Noah. "Egypt’s Sisi Wins Reader Poll for TIME Person of the Year." TIME. December 5, 2013. Accessed October 31, 2013.

[15] Savage, Sean. "Other than Muslim Brotherhood Crackdown, El-Sisi’s Plan for Egypt Remains a Mystery." Service. May 23, 2014. Accessed October 31, 2014.

[16] Ibid

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