Speak Sisi: Tracking Egypt's President Evolution Through His Words
Set for a second term, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has evolved in tone and substance over the past four years: from soft-spoken insider to all-powerful leader.
CAIRO — This June, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will deliver a speech accepting his second term as president of the republic, following this week's (virtually uncontested) election victory.
According to a government source, ministries and official bodies have already begun preparing paragraphs about their respective spheres of expertise, on orders from the president's office. The office will then revise the submissions and shape them into a definitive draft of the speech with which Sisi will inaugurate his second four-year term in office. According to the Constitution, which the president declared was "written with good intentions," Sisi's next presidential term will also be his last — that is, if you do not share widespread expectations that the Constitution will be amended to abolish presidential term limits.
It is difficult to predict the content of the president's speech, given the variety of positions he has put forward in previous speeches over the course of his four years in power, as well as during the months he spent as minister of defense and as a presidential candidate. But a look back through his words offers some clues as to where he, and Egypt, are heading.
Sisi mentions the January 2011 revolution in his scripted speeches — as is well known, he often improvises — while in his more off-the-cuff statements, he only alludes to it obliquely. The last time Sisi spoke of the revolution was earlier this year at the January inauguration ceremony for the Zohr natural gas field, when he angrily exclaimed, "Beware … What happened seven years ago will never happen again in Egypt … No. You won't do now what you failed to do then … No. You clearly don't know me."
The severe tone adopted by the president as he prepares to embark on his second term, combined with his raised voice and accusatory hand gestures, contrasts strikingly with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered persona that he projected during his first four years. It is also a far cry from his private meetings with representatives of the young protesters gathered in Tahrir Square seven years ago. At that time, Sisi was the head of military intelligence, a position he had occupied since early 2010, mere months before the outbreak of the revolution.
One young man who met Sisi at the time and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that the man he encountered then was quiet and listened attentively.
"He didn't seem to agree or disagree strongly with what he was hearing, but the look in his eyes was calculating and alert," says the man. "He never raised his voice or interrupted the person speaking. He would wait before asking for permission to speak and, when he did, he spoke in a very soft tone." The young man has since left Egypt for work and family reasons and avoids any discussion of Sisi's four-year rule or the rights situation in Egypt.
When he was still a presidential candidate in early 2014, Sisi gave a televised interview to hosts Ibrahim Eissa and Lamis al-Hadidi, where he summarized his reasons for running in the elections. He hoped to avert, he said, "the possibility that the nation would fall" — despite having previously claimed, in August 2013, that "to protect the will of the people is an honor far greater than that of ruling Egypt."
That was a few weeks after the removal of then-president Mohamed Morsi and shortly before Sisi's own resignation as minister of defense and announcement of his intent to run for the presidency, which he delivered — wearing his military uniform — in March 2014.
These are notions Sisi has clung to.
More than four years down the line, in Sisi's recent interview on March 14, marking the beginning of voting processes abroad, he invoked "the citizenry," whose turnout would send a message to the world that voting meant "not support for the president, but support for Egypt," in the face of critical foreign media coverage of the elections. He said that the high voter turnout he anticipated would be the Egyptian people's way of standing up for their country.
According to Ashraf al-Sherif, assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, "threats that the nation will fall are notions Sisi has clung to throughout his first term in power, despite his constant talk of decisive measures to fight what he likes to call ‘black terrorism," ‘evil people" and, most recently, ‘the forces of evil.""
Sisi's 2014 TV interview — Source: CBC Egypt
Sherif says Sisi "is without a doubt unique in Egypt's republican era, given his direct manner of speaking and his constant evocation of the fall of the state, and it looks like this is going to stay with him during his second term in power."
Two former ministers, who were part of the first post-Morsi government under Hazem al-Beblawi and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, also reiterate that Sisi is convinced there are attempts afoot to topple the Egyptian state. Both agree that Sisi believes all possible means must be used to repel internal and external attacks and prevent these attempts.
One of the former ministers attributed this conviction to Sisi's military background. The president studied at military school, before entering military college, from which he graduated in 1977. In his angry outburst earlier this year, Sisi said, "Egypt, the price of your security and stability is my life and the military's life. Don't go thinking you can get into this with us, because I'm not a politician, I'm not a politician who just talks."
One member of the National Salvation Front, a politically variegated group which was formed in the fall of 2012 and included political figures demanding an early end to Morsi's presidency, tells Mada Masr: "Sisi sees himself first and foremost as a military man and he often talked about himself in that way during the meetings he held with us in the run-up to June 30 2013, and afterward. He's continued to emphasize this, not just with his words but with his habit of wearing military uniform — something Mubarak never did in his 30 years of rule. Yes, Sisi sees himself as leader of the Armed Forces and the fact he's achieved power in Egypt is linked to his role as leader of the military that saved Egypt from the rule of the Brotherhood, whom he describes as ‘evil.""
Sherif, meanwhile, tells Mada Masr that Sisi has never hid his conviction that running the state is essentially a partnership between the military and the supporting security apparatus.
The president likewise makes regular reference to the Armed Forces Engineering Authority's important role in national infrastructure projects, such as the widening of the Suez Canal, the construction of the new administrative capital and others. He considers these projects the jewel in the crown of his presidency, says Sherif, who adds, "By this logic, any person who the president sees as corrupt is barred from taking up the position of president, according to his own words."
You're all going to have to work hard and feel the pain with me.
As minister of defense, Sisi asked the Egyptian people to give a mandate to the Armed Forces and police to combat terrorism on July 24, 2013. Two days later, huge demonstrations erupted, with protesters chanting, "Mince them, Sisi!" and "Sisi is their master and makes their blood boil." Shortly thereafter, the military and police dispersed the sit-ins in Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda squares, where demonstrators protesting the removal of Morsi had gathered.
The mandate discourse, meanwhile, was revisited in January this year, during the Story of a Nation conference, when Sisi hailed the support he had enjoyed since demonstrators first gave him their initial endorsement in 2013. Their support, he said, wasn't "just a two- or three-month thing," adding that he would not object to remaining in power by popular demand — or in his words, "if you want to continue the mandate." He concluded the conference by announcing his intent to stand for re-election, to rapturous approval from the audience. He spoke from a stage facing those seated in the hall, a mise-en-scène he has rarely employed throughout his four years in power, typically preferring to sit in the front row of the audience and address those behind him with only cursory glances in their direction.
Another mandate was not the only thing on Sisi's wish list at the Story of a Nation conference. "We have to put up with things bravely, Egyptians," he said. The sentiment was a logical extension of other comments the president has made in the past, such as, "You're not that poor, actually," or his assertion on the day he announced he would seek re-election that a second term would mean "you're all going to have to work hard and feel the pain with me."
Such statements give the lie to assurances Sisi gave in an interview with Sky News Arabia in 2014 during his first presidential campaign. Then, he promised that "after two years of hard work, Egyptians will feel an improvement in their economic situation."
Samer Atalla, assistant professor of economics at AUC, tells Mada Masr that, "Economic performance, as experienced by citizens in their daily lives, is not improving to the extent that they expected, or indeed that the president himself forecast during his candidacy and even in the early days of his presidency."
Atalla says that hopes of a rapid economic upturn early in Sisi's second term are unrealistic. He cites decreases in the once-generous economic assistance coming from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, the failure to secure alternative sources of state revenue, and the difficulties faced in attracting investments due to negative evaluations of political stability — a factor also responsible for the decline of the tourism industry — combined with tax increases and the rising cost of services and petroleum products.
Although one of the most important goals of the 2011 revolution was to do away with the notion of the president as a father figure who uniquely understands and protects the people's welfare, Sisi's discourse has rarely been free of paternal overtones. Addressing Egyptians as a single mass, he guides their path with advice from his own life story for reference. He has spoken of lean years when his "fridge contained nothing but water," and attempts to support women by describing them as "great ladies of Egypt."
The president's discourse frequently reveals his relationship with religion as well, which could be described as characteristic of the socially conservative sector of the Egyptian public. In fact, Sisi rarely misses an opportunity to invoke religion in his public statements.
Sisi displays his religiosity using three recurring habits, first of which is his excessive use of religious oaths, which was most recently observed in the vow he made this month during a visit to the Interior Ministry: the elections would be free and fair and his request for popular participation was because of his concern for Egypt's reputation on the world stage.
The president's second habit is his repeated reference to the Koran. A particular favorite is verse 3:26, which reads: "Say, ‘O Allah, owner of sovereignty, You give sovereignty to whom You will and You take sovereignty away from whom You will."" Sisi quoted the formulation, "You give sovereignty to whom You will and You take sovereignty away from whom You will" in his speech on the occasion of the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. Of his own ascent to power, he prefers to quote only the first part: "You give sovereignty to whom You will."
The third way the president deploys religion in his discourse consists of letting his audiences in on his own conversations with God. He shared one such conversation earlier this month, a few days before the third anniversary of the 2015 Egypt Economic Development Conference, during which the state announced to citizens that it had secured investments of over $200 billion. As a child, he revealed, he had asked God to give him "a hundred billion dollars' so that he could solve Egypt's problems — neglecting to factor in the dollar's depreciation over the years of his childhood in the 1950s and 60s: until 1978, the dollar was worth less than 40 piasters.
Sisi's most prominent display of religiosity as a ruler, however, lies in his insistent refrain that he "fears no one but God." His supporters take this as incontrovertible proof of the humility of a man endowed with so much power that he is unquestionable. Opponents, on the other hand, see it as evidence that Sisi has never contemplated the possibility that he might be questioned in the first place.
*Translated by Katharine Halls.