Shrugging Off Egypt’s Crises, El-Sisi Gets Set for 6 More Years

Over a decade at the helm of the Arab world’s most populous country, there have been times when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt looked like a man dangling from a ledge by the tips of his fingers.

There was the time 10 years ago, for instance, when the former general seized power by deploying the army to depose Egypt’s first freely elected president, a takeover capped by the killing of at least 800 anti-coup protesters in a single day. The Rabaa massacre, as it became known, brought a storm of international condemnation down on Mr. el-Sisi’s head.

Or take the economic meltdown of the last 21 months, when the currency crashed, prices shot skyward and many Egyptians stopped being able to afford meat or their children’s school fees. Though the International Monetary Fund offered a bailout to help cover colossal debts run up by the president, lenders and Egyptians alike seemed to be fast losing patience with what experts called Mr. el-Sisi’s ruinous management.

Yet, a decade later, he is still president — and back for six more years, as the results of this month’s presidential election confirm. The authorities said on Monday that Mr. el-Sisi had won a third term with 89.6 percent of the vote.

No one doubted the outcome, given all the advantages of his authoritarian grip on the country. An extra edge came from the war in next-door Gaza, which has allowed Mr. el-Sisi to cast himself as a strong leader at home and abroad, just as he did after conflicts in Libya, Sudan, Syria and beyond.

This is the turbulent map that is Middle East geopolitics, a multifront five-alarm fire that has made Mr. el-Sisi, in his obstinate way, look like a rock of stability.

If Mr. el-Sisi ever felt his grip slipping, he simply brazened it out, regional crises eroding any pressure on him to reform. Small concessions over economic policy and human rights never compromised his power or that of the military-security establishment that runs the country and dominates its economy.

The Old City of Cairo in September. During the economic meltdown of the last 21 months, many Egyptians stopped being able to afford meat for dinner.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

His self-assurance came through in every public appearance. In one 2016 speech, he vowed to pursue his vision for Egypt until the end of either his life or his time as president.

If “you truly love Egypt,” he declared to his clapping audience, “I’m telling all Egyptians who are listening to me: Listen to my words only. Only mine.”

It was the kind of pronouncement that many Egyptians once embraced. After the turmoil of Egypt’s Arab Spring, when mass protests brought down the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the elections that followed, which brought to power an Islamist who was later widely reviled, the country greeted Mr. el-Sisi as a savior.

The brutality of his rise was obscured by a rash of Sisi-themed products — like chocolates bearing his image and a fast-food sandwich named after him — and media paeans from euphoric Egyptians. One actress praised his “bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays,” which “hides a keen, analytical fire within.”

The president made the most of his carte blanche, mainly by getting shovels in the ground. He set about remaking Egypt into a modern “new republic,” erecting a huge new capital city in the desert, building miles of roads and bridges and leveling slums for Dubai-style redevelopment. The grand projects, he promised, would help revitalize Egypt’s economy.

All of it was overseen by the military, where Mr. el-Sisi had spent his entire career before entering office in 2014. And much of it was paid for by new debt.

The new capital drew on ancient Egyptian symbolism, exemplifying what Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s political economy, called Mr. el-Sisi’s brand of “Pharaonic nationalism.”

His vision of transformation was “to build ourselves and our country by dint of our hard labors and our sacrifice,’” Mr. Springborg said. The president spent countless speeches exhorting Egyptians to have fewer children, work harder and eat healthier.

A construction site at Egypt’s new administrative capital east of Cairo in 2022. Mr. el-Sisi’s grand project included erecting a huge new capital city in the desert.Credit…Khaled Elfiqi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Lately, however, as the immense cost of his megaprojects helped send the economy into crisis, Mr. el-Sisi has taken to admonishing Egyptians simply to eat less.

“If the price of prosperity and progress for a nation is that it does not eat and drink,” he said this fall, announcing his bid for a third term, “then we don’t eat or drink.”

Sisi-mania had been cooling off for years as the middle class shrank and repression hardened.

Yet many supported Mr. el-Sisi as a bulwark against terrorism and instability, including Egyptians concerned about militancy at home and worried their country would meet the same fate as Syria or Yemen. Western countries also proved willing to overlook their distaste for his human-rights abuses and silencing of dissent to partner with him against violent extremism and migration.

Time and again, geography made the argument for him.

To Egypt’s west is Libya’s never-ending conflict, and to its south, Sudan’s internecine bloodshed. Israel’s attacks on Gaza are unfolding just across Egypt’s eastern border. North is the Mediterranean Sea, and just beyond that is Europe, whose leaders are panicked at the prospect of a new wave of migrants.

Egypt also controls the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes.

“Sisi gets a big break because of the country he rules, just by virtue of location,” said Rabab el-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.

Though the Obama administration suspended military aid to Egypt over Mr. el-Sisi’s 2013 takeover, by 2015, rising instability in the region had persuaded the United States to reinstate Egypt to its longtime status as the world’s second-biggest recipient of U.S. military aid.

Mr. el-Sisi had already learned not to rely on American friendship alone, buying more weapons from France, Russia and others. His coziness with Moscow, especially, made the United States sit up, convincing much of Washington that the United States must keep Cairo close to counter Russian influence.

President Donald J. Trump, who reportedly called Mr. el-Sisi “my favorite dictator,” had few qualms about the relationship. But President Biden said he did, calling during his first presidential campaign for “no blank checks” that would enable Mr. el-Sisi’s rights abuses.

President Biden and Mr. el-Sisi in 2022. Mr. el-Sisi’s growing coziness with Moscow convinced much of Washington that the United States must keep Cairo close.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Then, during Israel’s May 2021 war in Gaza, Egypt leveraged its contacts in Hamas, the armed group that controls the territory, to help negotiate a cease-fire, again proving its usefulness. Any U.S. resolve over keeping Egypt at arm’s length appeared to crumble.

Egypt was also buffing its image, releasing some high-profile dissidents (while arresting far more) and pointing to talks with the opposition as evidence that it was opening up its political system.

This time, Egypt is in the headlines as the keeper of Gaza’s only gateway to the outside world, the sole border crossing where humanitarian aid can enter Gaza and where pressure is building for desperate Gazans to be allowed to leave.

Cairo was also deeply involved in mediating the recent temporary cease-fire. Yet Qatar, a tiny Gulf monarchy, has had equal or greater prominence in negotiations, underscoring how the rise of wealthy Gulf States and Egypt’s internal troubles have shrunk its traditional role as a political and cultural beacon for the Middle East.

Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat, former Egyptian presidents, became world figures for their influence in the region. Mr. el-Sisi, by contrast, has offered no vision for the post-crisis Middle East beyond banalities, Professor el-Mahdi said.

Yet there is little question that Egypt was, is, and will continue to be important.

“We’re 7,000 years old,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister. “We don’t work in sound bites.”

Egypt’s centrality — and the consequences of a financial implosion in a country of 106 million — has not been lost on international partners. The International Monetary Fund recently said it was in talks with Egypt to increase the $3 billion loan it offered last year. The European Union is accelerating some $10 billion in funding for Egypt.

Analysts and activists have long warned, however, that subsidizing Mr. el-Sisi’s blend of stifling political repression and economic mismanagement is a bad investment.

A 2016 I.M.F. bailout staved off a looming financial meltdown but failed to force Egypt to confront structural problems. Last year’s deal was sterner, requiring Egypt to take steps including loosening the military’s stranglehold on the economy to jump-start private-sector growth.

But Egypt has stalled on meeting any of those conditions, most likely because, analysts say, the president is unwilling or unable to curb lucrative perks for the military.

“Stabilizing Sisi’s regime is not stability,” said Timothy E. Kaldas, the deputy director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “With every passing year, despite all the lifelines he’s received, the standard of living for Egyptians has deteriorated.”

Before Oct. 7, economic frustrations were running so high that some analysts and activists predicted the president was in for a reckoning. Some wondered whether Egyptians would revolt as they did in 2011. Others speculated that the military-security establishment that underpins his rule would deem him too great a liability and move to replace him.

Palestinians and dual citizens at the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip, in October. Israel’s attacks on Gaza are unfolding just across Egypt’s eastern border.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Given the Gaza crisis, “I would have voted for him,” said Mohamed Taha, 51, an out-of-work cook in the lower-middle-class Cairo neighborhood of Shubra. “But at this moment, we’re all hungry, people in Gaza and people here.”

Deep in debt, he had gone to the polls only because he had heard people were receiving the equivalent of about $6.67 for voting, allegations at which Egypt has pushed back. But after trying two polling stations, he said he was unable to get any cash.

He left without casting a ballot, and said he would not bother trying again.

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