More than a decade after succeeding Islamist Mohamed Morsi – Egypt's first head of state elected by universal suffrage – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi still rules Egypt with an iron fist.
Whether among his opponents or his supporters, his victory in the presidential election, which will be held from 10 to 12 December, is hardly in doubt, as in the two previous elections, in 2014 and 2018, won with more than 96% of the vote...
A new victory would take the ex-marshal back to 2030. The Egyptian leader had the constitution amended in 2019 so that he could stand for a third time before the electorate, extending the presidential term from four to six years.
Born in Cairo in November 1954, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was raised in a conservative environment as one of fourteen siblings. The son of a shopkeeper, he chose a military career at an early age, a guarantee of social advancement in a country controlled by the army. Long unknown to the general public, he gained notoriety in 2012, when he became Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army and Minister of Defence.
This surprise promotion was decided by Mohammed Morsi, the first Egyptian head of state elected by universal suffrage, in June 2012, following the fall of Hosni Mubarak more than a year earlier. At the time, the press portrayed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a devout Muslim, compatible with the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement from which President Morsi emerged, in particular because of his family ties to Abbas al-Sisi, a disciple of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Islamist Brotherhood.
But his meteoric rise in the army would not have been possible if this possible proximity to the movement most closely watched by the Mubarak regime had nourished the slightest doubt.
Photo released by the Egyptian presidency shows Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (right) meeting with Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (left) at the presidential palace in Cairo on August 13, 2012. © Egyptian Presidency, AFP
Trained in part in the United Kingdom and the United States, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was once commander of the northern military zone before taking over as head of military intelligence, quickly established himself as the country's strongman. In early July 2013, in the aftermath of massive demonstrations that brought together millions of Egyptians across the country to demand the departure of Mohamed Morsi, he issued an ultimatum to the president and political leaders. He called on them to "satisfy the demands of the people", without explicitly calling for the resignation of Mohamed Morsi.
The armed forces, already in charge of the post-Mubarak transition, are coming out of the shadows to impose their roadmap and close the revolutionary parenthesis of 2011, as well as the Morsi episode.
The Islamist president was immediately deposed, then arrested and thrown in prison – he died after falling ill in court in 2019 – while the Muslim Brotherhood protests were repressed in a bloodshed that Human Rights Watch described at the time as a "probable crime against humanity".
Humble and shrewd to his admirers, suspicious and suspicious to his detractors, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can now abandon the military uniform and medals for the suit and tie of the presidency that he de facto puts on.
For Egyptians hostile to the political Islam embodied by the Brotherhood, he saved the country from the clutches of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Façade of pluralism, muzzled public debate, harassed opponents, justice at the behest, independent press gagged... The liberal and secular opposition, as well as local and international NGOs, accuse him of wanting to restore the old order after an election in 2014. According to them, since his arrival at the prosecutor's office, "repression has reached unprecedented levels".
Most recently, in a report published on 2 October, six international and Egyptian human rights organisations denounced the "massive and systematic use of torture by the authorities" in Egypt – which they said "constitutes a crime against humanity under international law".
In parallel with the repressive stranglehold on the political level, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi launched a series of pharaonic works, extolling the greatness of Egypt in order to flatter the nationalist fibre of his compatriots.
In a sign of a certain "Sissimania", when he was defence minister, T-shirts bearing the image of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi were displayed in Cairo's Tahrir Square in January 2014. © Amr Nabil, AP (archive)
This is how he ordered the modernization of the country's road and electricity infrastructure, and the construction of a new administrative capital, less than 50 kilometers from Cairo, ironically nicknamed "Sissi City" in Egypt. A project that was supposed to be completed in 2020, but is still in its first phase.
In August 2015, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated with pomp the work of widening the Suez Canal, another flagship project erected as a symbol of the "new Egypt". French President François Hollande is the guest of honour at the ceremony. The project, which cost Egypt some €7.3 billion, is now completed as planned in less than a year.
This new Suez Canal brought the state record revenues of about 8.6 billion euros in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which made it promise Egyptians prosperity and security.
These promises are difficult to keep in a country undermined by an unprecedented economic crisis and exposed to the risk of defaulting on its foreign debt.
Weighed down by the war in Ukraine, the tourism sector, a pillar of the country's economy, is at half-mast. After suffering from post-Mubarak political instability and the pandemic, it has seen a sharp drop in the number of Russian and Ukrainian tourists, who make up 35 to 40 percent of the clientele each year, according to local data. Another consequence of the conflict that weighs on its economy is the increase in the price of wheat, of which Egypt is the world's leading importer, which came mainly from... from Russia and Ukraine.
Ten years after he came to power, Egypt and its 105 million inhabitants, on a Saudi financial drip, remain plagued by poverty.
A still indispensable ally for Westerners
Nevertheless, on the international scene, the former head of military intelligence is seen as a guarantor of stability and regional security. Turning a blind eye to its human rights abuses, the West sees it as an indispensable ally in a chaotic Middle East.
Even more so today, when the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has been reshuffled since the terrorist attacks of October 7. Thus, it was to Egypt that the Hamas hostages freed during the week of truce in Gaza were directed. It is also through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing that humanitarian aid passes through to the Palestinian coastal strip.
Already in 2014, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a pragmatist, turned his back on the wall when the West protested against his coup to seize power. The United States and Europeans did not congratulate him until two days after his triumphant election was announced, but not without insisting at the time on the need to respect human rights as soon as possible.
President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, pictured in Sochi in 2015. Alexei Druzhinin, AFP
In response, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has been supported since he came to power by the Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, has shown great closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In November 2014, a month after the freezing of US economic and military aid to Cairo – which the Obama administration justified by "the lack of progress on human rights in Egypt" – the Kremlin announced that it would deliver air defence systems to Egypt and that it was discussing the delivery of planes and helicopters to the army.
A shrewd strategist, the ex-marshal knows that the West will not be able to turn away from the most populous of the Arab countries, which is both a strategic intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a key ally in the fight against terrorism.
Indeed, the jihadist threat and the geostrategic interests of the major powers finally changed the positions of all parties, particularly that of the United States, with the coming to power of Donald Trump in 2016. "I want everyone to know that we are clearly behind President Sisi, he has done a fantastic job in a very difficult context," the US billionaire said during Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's first visit to Washington.
In October 2017, Emmanuel Macron declared that he did not want to "give lessons" on respect for human rights to the Egyptian president, on an official visit to France.
French President Emmanuel Macron greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Elysee Palace in Paris, July 22, 2022. © Reuters, Pascal Rossignol
"President Sisi has a challenge, the stability of his country, the fight against terrorist movements, against violent religious fundamentalism," the French president said in his first meeting with his Egyptian counterpart since his election. "This is the context in which he has to govern, we cannot ignore it."
Between 2010 and 2019, Egypt imported €7.7 billion worth of French armaments, according to the Parliament. In 2015, it was the first foreign country to buy Rafale from France, with an order for 24 combat aircraft.
Sinai, a security pebble in Sisi's boots
Like each of his predecessors in the army, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is obsessed with acquiring modern weapons and securing his borders. Especially since in its immediate vicinity – Libya, Sudan, Israel and the Gaza Strip – all are affected by an ongoing conflict or a chaotic internal situation.
In terms of internal security, Egypt continues to face a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai, a peninsula in the north-east of the country. A continuous threat which, according to the opposition, is instrumentalized by the government to limit public freedoms.
In 2018, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi launched a vast "anti-terrorist" operation in this area where radical cells were rampant, some of which had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. In vain, Sinai remains a security headache for Cairo. And another broken promise for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
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