In an attempt to better understand the Middle East as a whole I will be taking a look in to various leaders and groups throughout the region. Hopefully by understanding their past actions we can understand how various people came to be the way they are and predict future behavior. While a deep dive in to a leader of a country can and has filled books this is meant to be a short and concise overview of a single figure.
“Most people seek after what they do not possess and are enslaved by the very things they want to acquire.”
-Anwar Sadat, former president of Egypt, assassinated on the 6th of October, 1981
For the current president of Egypt, that thing is power. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a myriad of contradictions, raised in Cairo, he was taught to memorize the Koran in school but as president of Egypt he spoke out vehemently against Islamic extremism and pushed for a more modern, enlightened form of Islam. He joined the military at a young age, became an officer of a mechanized unit, and eventually became Chief of Staff but never once saw combat. While studying at the Army War College in the United States he published an article simply entitled Democracy in the Middle East, urging the West to exercise patience and understanding for Middle Eastern democracies which would undoubtedly look very different from Western ones[i]. Yet when given the opportunity he overthrew the first ever democratically elected Egyptian government and restored the totalitarian regime that young protestors had pushed so hard to overthrow during the Arab Spring. He crushed the Obama administration’s hopeful idealism for the region, cozied up to the oppressive regimes of North Korea and Syria, built an economic reliance on Saudi Arabia, and for the first time in 50 years rebuilt close relations with Russia. His supporters praise him for his emphasis on security and his focus on the economy while his detractors, the ones that aren’t languishing in jail, view his regime as a return to the Mubarak era. The fact that the West feels more comfortable with a regime like this speaks to how it seems that the rest of the world can only exercise its interests within totalitarian oppressive regimes that speak more for the interests of the leader than they do for their own people.
Climbing the social ladder in Egypt is difficult with few opportunities, especially for the son of a bazaar owner, and the military offered a path to success that civilian life didn’t. In a military culture of clientelism and fealty to a superior officer al-Sisi found both a mentor and friend in General Farid el-Tohamy. 6 years al-Sisi’s superior. While al-Sisi had started his career after the 1973 war as commander of a mechanized unit, el-Tohamy had already been climbing the ranks as an infantry officer, serving in the Yom Kippur War before becoming Director of Military Intelligence and later, mentor and friend to al-Sisi. He would later become director of the General intelligence Service, essentially a secret police and one of the most powerful positions in Egypt, before having corruption charges levied at him by the Morsi government. After the takeover by al-Sisi, at the moment the general’s career seemed to be ending in disgrace, El-Tohamy would find himself back in his former position under al-Sisi where he would start by convincing his former protégée not to allow any of the “terrorists” of the Muslim Brotherhood in to the new government.[ii]
Al-Sisi meanwhile, was reaping the benefits of his new position. While the Director of Military Intelligence is considered a less powerful command position, it came with the prestige of elevating al-Sisi to a membership in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or Scaf. The Egyptian equivalent of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, Scaf was tasked with oversight of the military while being a powerful political and economic force in the country. He was also head of coordinating with the relatively young Obama administration and other US allies in the war on terror and, in addition, his prior experience as head of the military attaché in Saudi Arabia meant that he enjoyed wide and important international support and connections. But the most significant and life altering element of his new position was it allowed him an introduction to one Mohammad Morsi, a former PHD engineering student who had studied at the University of Southern California and who had recently become head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The two men reportedly met several times in al-Sisi’s office, eventually circulating in rumors fueled by anti revolutionary late night television hosts that al-Sisi was the Brotherhood’s “man in Scaf.”[iii]
Although generally media shy, al-Sisi earned the ire of the international community during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings when, during the infamous and often violent clashes in Tahrir Square, he defended the army conducting “virginity tests” on female demonstrators saying they were necessary to defend the honor of the soldiers against rape allegations. Later that same year, al-Sisi appeared to shrug off the police firing live ammunition at anti Mubarak protestors saying he had recorded a “greater loss of life in a simple military maneuver.”[iv] In spite of his willingness to defend the military no matter the circumstances, Scaf distanced themselves from their youngest member and al-Sisi eventually relented international pressure and abolished the virginity tests. The years of the Egyptian Arab Spring were chaotic and uncertain both for Egypt and al-Sisi. Like his mentor, El-Tohamy, al-Sisi found himself at the end of his career. Shamed and abandoned by the military he had fought to defend in international media, al-Sisi had been relegated to attempts at controlling protestors and hadn’t received any significant position in the interim military government. At the same time, Egypt was reeling from the Arab Spring which had resulted in hundreds dead during clashes with police along with a horrifying slew of public rapes causing Western conservatives to doubt whether such a chauvinistic society could ever achieve true democracy. Israel had nearly been dragged in to war with Egypt, first after a firefight against unknown terrorists on the Israeli side of the Sinai boarder resulted in the accidental deaths of 5 Egyptian soldiers, and again when protestors stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo nearly killing 6 employees who were saved at the last minute by Egyptian commandos at the behest of the United States.
Having seen firsthand the results of democracy in Gaza, it was Israel who correctly predicted that out of the various factions vying for power it would be the Brotherhood who was the only one capable of securing enough support to take control. While the Western world cheered as Egyptians went to the polls both Israel and the Arab oil monarchies looked on with horror as out of the chaos, and with a narrow 51% of the popular vote, emerged President Mohammad Morsi, the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history.
In spite of his historic success, Morsi was fighting an uphill battle against the Egyptian military who, after 31 years of serving under Mubarak, distrusted the new president and began undermining him by first attempting to gridlock parliament and later by limiting the amount of fuel reaching the public via their military owned refineries and gas stations causing one of the worst energy crisis that Egypt had ever seen[v]. In response, Morsi passed legislature granting sweeping executive powers and forcing any military officer suspected of dissent to resign. Democracy it seemed would have to wait while the battle between the president and the military continued. A terrorist ambush killing 16 Egyptian soldiers, and another firefight on the Israeli side of the Sinai Peninsula, caused shock and embarrassment to the Morsi government. Morsi used this momentum to remove a potentially dangerous enemy, Defense Minister Field Marshal Tantawi. Then, reaching in to Scaf, he pulled out his old friend and a faithful Muslim, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In al-Sisi Morsi believed he had found the perfect ally – a bridge between himself and the military. Both a devout Muslim and a believer in Islamic Middle Eastern democracy he was also a member of the old Mubarak guard who had been unjustly shunned by them, and was useful in that he also had considerable anti terror experience and close international relations. Al-Sisi began by negotiating with Israel to allow more tanks in to the Sinai than had been previously agreed upon. Israel agreed, and nervously watched as once again after 40 years, Egyptian mechanized units rumbled through Sinai to the Israeli border.
Unfortunately for Morsi, he was unable to shore up the military’s critical support. By June 2013, after a year of power outages lasting up to 12 hours a day, outrageous lines at gas stations, and police abuses, protestors once again poured on to street demanding change. Al-Sisi, may have been torn in this critical juncture between his faith and his loyalty, but consistant with his history he stood with the military. Emerging at the forefront of Scaf al-Sisi demanded that Morsi cede most of his executive power or completely step down from office and gave him 48 hours to comply. In spite of a power-sharing proposal by the president, the military was ordered to the presidential palace where Morsi was locked inside and a national emergency was declared, suspending the constitution and elevating Judge Adly Mansour as temporary president until new elections could be help. This coincided with fuel and power suddenly and conspicuously flowing to Egyptian homes and gas pumps. While the Saudi King Abdallah publicly praised Adly Mansour and personally called al-Sisi to congratulate him[vi], Washington, furious, demanded that the army return power to Morsi and suspended both the $1.55 billion in aid and a massive weapons sales including 4 F-16 fighter jets, 10 Apache helicopters, tank kits, and anti-ship missiles[vii]. As a result a massive anti-American sentiment overtook protestors and, for the first time in almost 40 years, the Egyptians sent a delegation to Russia, led by al-Sisi himself, where Vladimir Putin gave them a warm and receptive presidential welcome which ended with el-Sisi’s delegation leaving with a $2 billion arms deal and closer relations that ever with Russia. [viii]
“Long Live Egypt!” This was the slogan that al-Sisi used when he announced his candidacy for President of Egypt. Long expected after declaring the overthrow of Morsi, al-Sisi had instead chosen to play a bashful game of publicly denying any aspirations for office while secretly courting Scaf to green light it. When al-Sisi declared that the “discourse of the Islamists must be rectified!” the army began a series of crackdowns on suspected Muslim Brotherhood supports resulting in over 1000 deaths as pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square and Nahda protest camp were tear gassed and shot[ix]. Just before declaring the bid, al-Sisi had one last demand from Scaf. In a purely symbolic move, Adly Mansour promoted al-Sisi to Field Marshal, the highest rank in the Egyptian military and something that had been denied to him under Morsi. The day after his promotion, he retired from military life to run for office,[x] and on June 3rd 2014 al Sisi won 96.9% of the vote and became Egypt’s sixth and current president.
Al-Sisi’s ascent to power was marked by a shift in relations. After alienating Egypt from the United States al-Sisi made sure to cozy himself up to the French and Russians, from whom he purchased weapons, and to the Saudi royals who funded the purchases. Relations with Turkey and Qatar, Muslim Brotherhood supporting nations, took a dramatic nosedive with Egypt eventually evicting the Turkish ambassador from Cairo. The eruption of war between Israel and Hamas in 2014 and the emergence of an ISIS chapter in the Sinai meant that Egypt began working closer than ever with the Jewish State.
Al-Sisi’s distrust for Israel was made apparent early on in his career when he blamed tensions between the Islamic State and the West on Israel’s inability to make peace with the Palestinians saying that Israel’s existence created a “fertile environment for the growth and spread of extremism, violence, and terrorism.”[xi] Yet the war between Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, Hamas, meant that al-Sisi felt comfortable siding with Israel, closing the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and siding almost entirely with Israel during negotiations. While much of the Arab world watch in horror and seethed with rage at seeing Israeli attacks within Gaza, Egyptian diplomats justified these actions with claims such as, “Hamas is not Gaza and Gaza is not Palestine.”[xii] Anti Hamas sentiment became so intense within Egypt that pro government talk show hosts joked that the Egyptian army should join the IDF in ousting Hamas from Gaza.
Al-Sisi’s battle against militant Islamism didn’t stop in Gaza. By the end of the year al-Sisi had called on Islamic leaders worldwide to modernize and reform the religion, “You must emerge from it and look outside in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology.”[xiii] Saying that while “the problem has never been with our faith,” that radical ideologies had penetrated far too deaply and that Muslims world wide, “must oppose it with resolve…we need to revolutionize our religion!” Al-Sisi earned enormous praise, particularly from Western conservatives whose headlines had recently been dominated by Islamic State atrocities. Al-Sisi gained additional Western support by becoming the first Egyptian President to attend Christian mass, and was generally seen as supportive to the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt, a long oppressed and brutalized segment of the Egyptian population. In February of 2015, after an Islamic State video was posted showing 21 Christians being decapitated in Libya, Egypt, in coordination with the Libyan government, began coordinated air strikes against Islamic State positions within the boarders of Egypt’s western neighbor.[xiv] Even the Obama administration relented, albeit begrudgingly, unfreezing the funds and weapons that had been destined for Egypt under Morsi. These efforts to fight Islamic terror abroad did little to underscore the almost daily attacks occurring in the Sinai and northern Egypt and eventually culminated in the bombing aboard Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 resulting in the deaths of 224 passengers, most of them Russian tourists. In response governments warned their citizens to avoid Egypt and tourism, a critical source of economic income for many Egyptians, evaporated.
The economic hardships for average Egyptians only became worse when al-Sisi made the bold and risky move of lowering government subsidies on gas and oil in order to pay off the enormous amount of foreign debt; a measure similar to the one done by Anwar Sadat in 1977 which resulted in violent street riots. The move was sold as a necessity, a hard pill to swallow that all Egyptians had to endure with al-Sisi, and he urged Egyptians to simply trust him saying, “You called upon me for a mission, a mission to save a nation.” and, “The contract between you and me was that you work hard and bear with me.”[xv] As IMF money began pouring in followed by foreign investors, the poverty rate exploded resulting in 60% of the Egyptian population being classified by the World Bank as living in poverty. Yet few Egyptians took to the streets to protest due to the danger that now came with protesting against the government.
Egypt wasn’t only investing in measures to attract foreign businesses and reduce foreign debt; al-Sisi’s government had been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on another important government project- prisons. What had started as a crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters had metastasized to arrests of anyone viewed as harboring opinions critical of the government. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reported that out of the 106,000 prisoners in Egypt approximately 60,000 were political prisoners. Anything from disagreeing with the government in song, on Youtube, or via street protests was met with charges ranging from harming state security to intent to overthrow the government and each of them were given lengthy sentences. By 2016 the government had already built 13 new prisons.[xvi]
It didn’t matter that the Obama administration looked with disdain at al-Sisi and his government’s abuse of human rights while still giving them billions to fight terrorism, in 2017 al-Sisi was about to have a new friend sitting in the Oval Office – Donald Trump. Trump welcomed al-Sisi to the White House in April, just a few short months after his election. Both leaders praised the other one, with Trump saying that al-Sisi had, “done a tremendous job under trying circumstances.” and al-Sisi responding that Trump was, “a unique personality capable of doing the impossible.”[xvii] As a show of good faith, al-Sisi began releasing dual American-Egyptian citizens who had been arrested in government crackdowns including charity worker Aya Hijazi, whom al-Sisi had kept locked up in spite of the Obama administration pleas for her release. Trump and al-Sisi were natural allies though. Both men use fear of radical Islam as a way to push through controversial laws and whip up their base. They both prioritize business over social issues, have deep respect in and belief of a powerful military, and are quick to lash out against criticism, albeit in different ways. Even paranoia and nepotism seem to be a theme between the two men, with Trump’s making Jared Kushner Senior Advisor to the president and al-Sisi appointing his two sons, Mahmoud and Hassan, to senior positions within the General Intelligence Directorate.
Al-Sisi seemed to take Trump’s praise of him as a green light to continue doing as he pleased. In just a few short months after the meeting al-Sisi had signed off on laws making it nearly impossible for international aid groups to work in Egypt. Coupled between roundups of numerous multinationals, including Americans, and American intelligence agencies uncovering a scheme in which Egypt had been allowing North Korea to use their embassy in Cairo as a base for selling North Korean weapons in the Middle East and Africa (Egypt and North Korea have had a strong relationship since North Korean and Egyptian pilots fought together against Israel in 1973) the State Department felt forced to act by withholding $195 million in foreign aid. Yet just less than a year later, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced with the much more malleable Mike Pompeo, the State Department restored that aid.
In 2018 Egyptians trudged to the polls, with promises of payment of $3 to $9 for voting or threats and fines for not.[xviii] Any serious threat to al-Sisi losing the election had already been eliminated; former Egyptian Air Force commander Ahmed Shafiq was arrested by the UAE government after announcing his candidacy from abroad, deported to Egypt, where his reputation was threatened in the form of a sex tape of him being released along with corruption charges against his daughter. Former Army Commander Sami Anan and Colonel Ahmed Konsowa were both arrested and General Mahmoud Hegazy was removed from office upon returning from a trip to the United States[xix]. This left nobody but al-Sisi who once again received 97% of the vote. By the next year parliament had passed a law extending al-Sisi’s terms from 4 to 6 years meaning that al-Sisi would likely remain president until 2034[xx]
Al-Sisi is a reflection of how power can corrupt an individual. What was once a man who acknowledged the advantages of Western Democracy over Middle Eastern tyranny has himself turned in to a tyrant. What began as a crackdown against radical Islamism turned in to an excuse for the government to arrest anyone accused of dissent. It has even gone so far as to al-Sisi convincing Donald Trump to propose making the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a proposal that, if enacted, would have far reaching implications and repercussions globally. One thing seems certain, al-Sisi is fighting to stay and so far he is winning. While he is a reminder of what can befall a man consumed by his own virtue, he is also a reflection of the West’s attitudes towards Middle Eastern countries. How in spite of the many criticisms that may be leveled at him it is Western countries who have found an ally whose interests match their own. Who can be relied on as a partner in security even if that partner engages in abhorrent activity that must be tolerated by the West. If the United States and other Western countries are committed to seeing democracies flourish throughout the world, the next Egyptian democracy will likely come at a price, negative attitudes and resentment towards the part of the world that propped up dictators who engaged in cruelty to remain in power. The question becomes if Western ideals are powerful enough to stand up to that resentment, and to accept the price to be paid for having such a history. Or if men like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are the price we pay for a safer, more stable world.
[i] Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. “Democracy in the Middle East.” USAWC Strategy Resource Project, 15 Mar. 2006. US Army War College, assets.documentcloud.org/documents/1173610/sisi.pdf.
[ii] Kirkpatrick, David D. “Ousted General in Egypt is Back, as Islamists’ Foe.” New York Times, 30 Oct. 2013.
[iii] Pike, John. “Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi/Adbel-Fattah al-Sisi” globalsecurity.org
[iv] Filiu, Jean-Pierre. “Portrait of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi – President of the Arab Republic of Egypt.” Institut Montaigne, Institut Montaigne, 15 Nov. 2018, www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/portrait-abdel-fattah-al-sisi-president-arab-republic-egypt.
[v] Adly, Amr. “Egypt’s Oil Dependency and Political Discontent.” Carnegie Middle East Center, 2 Aug. 2016, carnegie-mec.org.
[vi] Riedeil, Bruce. “Saudi Arabia Cheers the Coup in Egypt.” Brookings, 7 July 2013, www.brookings.edu/opinions/saudi-arabia-cheers-the-coup-in-egypt/
[vii] “US cuts hundreds of millions in aid to Egypt” The Times of Israel, 10 October 2013
[viii] “Putin backs Sisi’s ‘run’ for Egyptian presidency” Yahoo.com, 13 February 2014,
[ix] “Egypt: Background and US Relations.” Congressional Research Service, vol. RL33003, no. 105, pp. 1–28.
[x] “Egypt: Abdul Fattah al-Sisi profile” BBC, 16 May 2014
[xi] Yasher, Ari “Sisi blames Israel Conflict for Islamic State” Israel National News, 3 September 2014
[xii]Kirkpatrick, David, “Arab Leaders, Viewing Hamas as Worse Than Israel, Stay Silent” The New York Times, 30 July 2014
[xiii]Roach, Erin, “Egypt’s President Calls for Moderated Islam” Zemer Center for Muslim Studies
[xiv]Aboulenein, Ahmed, Elgood Giles, “Is Egypt bombing the right militants in Libya?” Reuters
[xv]Fahim, Kareen, “Egypt Cuts Tax Breaks for Fuel; Few Protest,” The New York Times, 17 July 2014
[xvi] Bar’el, Ziv, “60,000 Political Prisoners and 1,250 Missing: Welcome to the New Egypt,” Haaretz, 11 September 2016
[xvii] Eanst, Jonathan, “Trump praises Sisi, says he hopes to visit Egypt,” Reuters
[xviii] Walsh, Declan, Youssef, Nour, “For as Little as $3 a Vote, Egyptians Trudge to Election Stations,” The New York Times, 27 March 2018
[xix] Hearst, David, “Shafiq quit Egypt election bid after threats of ‘sex tape’ and corruption slurs: Sources,” Middle East Eye, 9 January 2018
[xx] Raghavan, Sudarsan, Mahfouz, Heba Farouk, “Egypt’s parliament votes to lift term limits from president, allowing Sissi to rule till 2034,” The Washington Post, 14 February 2019