In 2013, el-Sisi overthrew the first democratically elected President (Morsi) in a coup as a response to mass protests and under the direction/planning of the military he largely controlled. Although his military career came to an end as he was elected president in 2014, the impact of his background as a soldier continues to be witnessed in his policy making today. Similarly, Sisi’s moderate religious background as a Sunni Muslim plays an important role in the president’s decision-making. Albeit, Sisi’s military and religious background influence his policies, but Sisi seems to be primarily motivated by what is best for his personal, long-term success, branded rather brilliantly as what is best for the stability and success of Egypt.
The Mysterious Military General
“I consider myself-as I have always been-a soldier dedicated to serve the nation, in any position ordered by the people.” Emphasizing his loyalty and commitment to Egypt, Sisi’s statement also emphasizes the impact his military career has had on his personal and public (policymaking) life. Regardless of the position held, Sisi will always consider himself a soldier, and thus, act as one. Accordingly, the majority of Sisi’s decisions since coming to power have been made with reference to protecting and promoting Egyptian national security. To expand, Sisi has enacted many harsh policies as president in the name of fighting terrorism in the country and region. Yet, when faced with the possibility of entering into MESA; the equivalent of a Middle East NATO, Sisi backed out. Such actions make it difficult to analyze which is more influential in Sisi’s decision making: his military background or his political interests. Another example of this complexity is exemplified in the increased power and scope the Egyptian military has gained in the political sphere since Sisi became President and yet, his insistence on keeping the two (military and politics) separate. To demonstrate, Sisi once stated that
“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 [and] if the army takes to the street, Egypt will have very dangerous problems that delay its progress for the next 40 years…”El Sisi
Opposingly, under Sisi’s supervision, extensive constitutional changes were made to allow the military increased oversight over the judiciary; and indirectly, Parliament. Given these examples alone, one can conclude that Sisi feels torn as President between his military past and his political future. Time will have to tell whether his actions as a former soldier will truly speak louder than his words as President.
All in the name of Fighting Terrorism
When Sisi became president in 2013, security issues gained excessive traction and importance in Egyptian politics. The first, not without reason, of these challenges Sisi has tried to tackle is militancy in the Sinai. Since coming to (political) power, al-Sisi has waged the war on terrorism mostly in the Sinai Peninsula. This is largely due to his determination to minimize terrorism in the region and rid the pensinula of the extremists, especially those which disagree with him most. But, despite the ever-growing military budget as well as the loss of thousands of civilian and military lives, Sinai (and the whole of Egypt) are still not stable nor relatively secure. This begs the question of whether Sisi’s efforts of fighting terrorism in Sinai are really about ousting extremists or rather about creating a common enemy for the people. If Egyptian citizens truly believe there is war on terror happening in Sinai that must be fought to guarantee the security of the Egyptian state, they will be more willing to allow, if not endorse, al-Sisi taking actions ‘all in the name of fighting terrorism.’
In addition to fighting in Sinai, Sisi has also used the war on terror to deliver upon other promises he made since coming to power, most notably: eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood and extending Egyptian soft power in the Suez Canal. To begin with the former, Sisi’s sworn enemies– the Muslim Brotherhood– were unsurprisingly, the first to go as he presumed the Presidency. As early as May 2014, Sisi pronounced the Brotherhood to be ‘finished,’ supposedly due to the people’s desire to see them gone. Nevertheless, Sisi has continued to reference the Brotherhood and other groups like it in his anti-terrorism security measures still today. This is largely due to the fact that Sisi’s counterterrorism strategy is largely centered around an anti-Muslim Brotherhood narrative. In doing so, Sisi has portrayed all Islamists as Muslim Brothers and all Brothers as terrorists. As a result, many mainstream Egyptians have begun rejecting the Brotherhood and putting their faith in Sisi instead, ‘all in the name of fighting terrorism.’
Finally, Sisi has made use of the war on terror taking place in Egypt and the region to cement his legacy as the man who brought stability and prosperity to the country following the 2013 Arab Spring. More specifically, Sisi has delivered on a promise to the world in the latest Suez Canal expansion, finishing the project in only a year rather than the expected three. Yet, rather than emphasize this engineering achievement in his inaugural address, Sisi chose to emphasize Egyptian efforts against terrorism stating that “We are fighting them and we will defeat them.” In front of many key leaders, Sisi chose not to recognize the development and engineering feats that were made in the construction of the project, but to bolster his own international standing by commenting on his great success in ridding the region of extremists; once again, ‘all in the name of fighting terrorism.
Religion & Reforms: More methods for Sisi to manage control
Perhaps some of the most important policies to have been enacted thus far in Sisi’s presidency are those in relation to religion and other social reforms. In terms of religion, we witness a very interesting tension between Sisi as a Sunni Muslim who has grown up in a largely tolerant region of Egypt, and his vendetta against political Islamists; namely, the Muslim Brotherhood. When Sisi came to power after toppling Islamist rule, he anticipated that the Western world, deathly afraid of Islamic extremists, would support him both politically and financially. While some Arab Gulf states did back up the President with financial grants (hoping their money would help limit the spillover of political Islam into their nations), the West was actually more critical than supportive of his moves. As a result, Sisi turned from his supposed supporters in the West to focus on becoming a regional power. He attempted to carry this out by implementing massive projects in Egypt as well as harsh economic reforms with the hope of reviving the Egyptian economy and consequently, his support. However, with this shift in focus, Sisi became broadly blindsided to the true assessment of terrorists’ capabilities and the growing religious tensions that fuel them. Sisi’s lack of addressing the religious cleavages in Egypt at a national level has indirectly weakened his ability to address the political Islamists he’s fought so hard to eliminate.
While Sisi has made great strides in limiting the power and influence of political Islamists through various measures, reasonably his most expansive and influential reforms are those with social implications. To demonstrate, following the Rabaa Massacre, Sisi banned citizens from protesting and demonstrating freely; a right considered to be fundamental to modern democracies. And yet, the banning of protesting is one of the least oppressive reforms to come about under the Sisi administration. Nevertheless, reforms such as this one have resulted in the arrest and jailing of thousands of peaceful protesters; often, ‘in the name of fighting terrorism.’ Not only are citizens regularly arrested for seemingly no reason, but they are also subject to other human rights abuses at the hands of the security officers arresting, transporting and ‘watching over’ them at detention centers. Although many reports have been written and released discussing the atrocities committed under Sisi’s reforms, his government has generally failed to respond to such allegations. In one instance, however, Sisi responded to criticism by turning the tables on Europe, stating that: “You are not going to teach us about humanity. We have our own sense of humanity, values and ethics, and you have your own idea of humanity and ethics, and we respect it. Respect our values and ethics, as we do yours.” Other than this instance, Sisi has remained mostly silent on the matter.
Sisi: future leader of the Arab world?
Sisi has seemingly simultaneously pursued both the success of a greater Arab world and the growth of Egypt as an independent global power. His desire for countries in the MENA region to unite and grow together can be seen in such initiatives as his counter-terrorism measures as well as his service as chairman to the African Union for 2019. Opposingly, one can witness Sisi’s desire for Egypt to become an independent yet powerful country on the global scene through many of his isolationist actions such as pulling out of MESA and the ongoing dispute with Ethiopia over a Nile River dam. No matter which direction Egypt ends up pursuing, the democratically elected yet autocratically oriented president will need to decide what matters most to him: a legacy as a powerful President of Egypt or as a strong and uniting regional leader? Does Sisi wish to remain president of Egypt as long as possible? Or serve his terms and move on to better things? Regardless of the route Sisi chooses, this profile will aim to identify what drives him as a president, as a leader, as a husband, and ultimately, as a decision maker for roughly 102 million people.