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Egyptian President Sisi, A Year Of Strong Words And Symbolism

In his first year as president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has shown surprising rhetorical flair, even as he consistently sends contrasting messages.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pressing the flesh in Alexandria.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pressing the flesh in Alexandria.
Dalia Rabie

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil al-Sisi has treated the country to more than a few memorable moments since coming into office one year ago.

Friendly and accommodating at times, tough and unyielding at others, Sisi seems to crave adulation —pleading for and even demanding public support — but isn't afraid to write off the people he considers to be a threat to the country.

From the bold to the bizarre, here's how the Egyptian president demonstrated both his firmer and softer sides over the past 12 months.

A bouquet of roses

Kicking off his presidency, Sisi paid a visit to a woman who suffered a mob sexual assault in Cairo's Tahrir Square during his presidential inauguration. Several rights workers dismissed the hospital visit as a publicity stunt.

"Don't be upset," he reassured her. "We will get you your rights."

Handing her a bunch of roses, Sisi told her, "The most important thing … Egypt cannot be without you."

Digging the Suez Canal

In August 2014, Sisi gave an emotional speech as he inaugurated the new Suez Canal project. "This is all so this little boy has a future, and this little girl," he said, pointing at young audience members. "So they don't say we neglected them."

He went on to explain that expressing love for one's nation shouldn't be by words alone, vowing to achieve all the goals promised for the canal through investment from the people.

"You're going to pay means, you're going to pay," he said, prompting nervous laughter from the audience.

Sisi then took on a more assertive tone as he addressed the Muslim Brotherhood, saying he would only allow "a group that isn't compatible with us to live among us if they do not harm us or our country."

"Do you want me to say that again? he said. "By God, we will not allow anyone to destroy Egypt while we're here."

Stand by me

Following a series of terrorist attacks against military checkpoints that claimed the lives of at least 29 in Arish last January, Sisi emphasized the need for people's support in confronting terrorism.

He said the the Muslim Brotherhood's philosophy is that it must either rule Egyptians or kill them. "But you refused the Brotherhood … So, the military said we'd be killed instead of you," he said, referring to the army's role in fighting terrorism on behalf of the people.

His voice got louder as he explained that he doesn't care about anyone except Egyptians. "I am willing to stand against the whole world, but you have to be with me. Otherwise I can't," he said.

Long live Egypt

At the closing ceremony of the Egypt Economic Development Conference last March, Sisi wouldn't begin his address until the group of young people who helped organize the event joined him on stage.

Amid applause, giggles and selfies, he said, "Now you know why I didn't want to start without them next to me."

"I want to talk about my country," Sisi began. "People thought my country died, but no, God created Egypt so it can live." His speech triggered chants of, "Long live Egypt," followed by "Long live Sisi," to which he interjected: "No, long live Egypt and nobody else."

Speaking about political change over the past four years, Sisi said Egyptians brought about this change, in January 2011 and June 2013. "If they want to bring about change again, they will," he said, prompting objection from audience members who yelled "No!" He continued, "But I will never wait until this happens."

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With Secretary of State John Kerry. Photo: U.S. Department of State

"This look of love"

Despite a new ruling that public sector workers who strike will be forced to retire early, Sisi gave a speech charming workers on Labor Day. "This look of love in your eyes means the whole world," he said. "If I lose this look, I will leave right away."

He also asked them and all Egyptians to give him a mandate to confront terrorism, asking them to advise friends and colleagues against disruptive behavior.

When chants erupted with, "We love you, Sisi," he reiterated, "Love is not with words."

Listen Merkel!

Addressing Egyptians living in Germany, Sisi boasted about his ability to recognize the truth. "God made me a physician," he proclaimed. "I diagnose, I see the truth, this is a gift from God."

He even suggested global recognition for this "gift." "All the experts, politicians and even philosophers are starting to see that what we're saying is clean and honest; there's no agenda behind it."

During a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel on the same trip, Sisi wouldn't allow himself to be put in the hot seat over Egypt's human rights record, namely the mass death sentences handed to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members.

"If you value human life, do not think that we don't do the same," he said. "Listen carefully … On July 3, there was a statement issued that did not harm one Egyptian citizen."

He explained that there was a chance for "everyone" to join a new political phase, asserting, "we didn't need to get into violent confrontation with one another for two years."

Mea culpa

Culminating his first year in office, Sisi reflected on his time as president and offered apologies for any mistakes he may have made.

Speaking at the inauguration of 39 new development projects, Sisi apologized to lawyers for the recent incident at Farskor police station in Damietta, when a police officer used his shoe to assault a lawyer from the Court of Cassation, causing severe injury to his left eye.

Sisi stressed the isolation of this incident, refusing to recognize any systematic campaign against lawyers, as some have claimed.

He apologized to "every Egyptian citizen that has been subjected to any wrongdoing, in my capacity of being directly responsible for anything that happens to Egyptian citizens. And I say to our sons in the police force, or any governmental institution, that they should take care, because they are dealing with human beings. Their jobs require them to bear the burden of pressures."

Despite the widespread support Sisi still enjoys, there have been voices of dissent in recent months. Media and judges have been critical of Interior Ministry abuses. Political parties have lamented the delays in parliamentary elections. And civil society in Egypt and overseas have criticized the recent crackdown on NGOs and the Muslim Brotherhood. Given this current political climate, Sisi will need all the charm he can muster.

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