A Close-Up View Of Egypt's Media Fawning Over Al-Sisi

Token tough questions are drowned out by heaps of praise for the general-turned-presidential candidate, and even some Hosni Mubarak nostalgia.

Al-Sisi supporters demonstrate near Tahrir Square on March 28, 2014
Al-Sisi supporters demonstrate near Tahrir Square on March 28, 2014
Dalia Rabie

CAIRO — At a conference organized by a popular group supporting presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a woman is heckled as she argues that the media should be a platform for Egyptian youth to express themselves.

"I don't want the media to only show someone saying "Long live Sisi,"" she says, trying to explain herself amid the commotion. "I want them to show the youth who oppose him and ask why."

The conference, organized by the pro al-Sisi group Egyptian People, is here to discuss the future of the media and its challenges under an al-Sisi presidency. The woman explains that her children have turned on her because she supports the former army chief but that they deserve to have a voice. "Al-Sisi's campaign should listen to the youth," she pleads. "I am trying to relay to you how the youth think and why they protest at universities."

"Because they are funded," someone yells.

Another attendee approaches the podium where the woman is standing, bearing a defiant look and chanting "Long live Egypt" in protest at the suggestion that anti-Sisi youth should be heard.

Another offers friendly advice, telling the woman that she needs to raise awareness with her children, as "they are only scared of tomorrow."

Many of these staunch al-Sisi supporters also appear to have a soft spot for former President Hosni Mubarak. This becomes evident when journalist Mohamed Faris characterizes Mubarek as "ousted president" when he addresses attendees. Many of them respond, yelling, "He stepped down. He was not ousted!"

This back and forth continues intermittently throughout the speaker's address, but is finally interrupted by someone who attempts to ease the tension by chanting “Long live Sisi.” This seems to remind them of their common sentiment for the presidential candidate, after which they all join in agreement, “Long live Sisi.”

While speakers affirm that they all took part in the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising and spent 18 days in Tahrir Square, Thawra Party head Tarek Zeidan concludes the conference with a disclaimer: "Hosni Mubarak gained my respect after I learned that he tried to prevent bloodshed during the uprising."

The conference starts an hour and 45 minutes later than scheduled, and the dozen or so waiting listen to “Boshret Kheir,” a catchy song in which Emirati sensation Hussein al-Jasmi urges Egyptians to vote, on loop. A few use this time to pose next to al-Sisi banners.

An ideological media

Despite the conference's title — "The media: prospects and challenges facing the presidential candidate" — panel discussions focus less on the stated subject and more on the ways the media can support him.

"We need to stand behind Sisi," says journalist Mahasin Senousi, who is also the spokesperson for the Egyptian People group. "It is not that we are against Hamdeen Sabbahi, but at the end of the day there will only be one president."

Senousi claims the role of the media in both the Jan. 25 and June 30 revolutions cannot be denied, but that there have been "blunders" over the past three years. She adds that some media figures have admitted their mistakes — in chanting "down with military rule," for example — and rectified them.

Panelists agree that there needs to be a "charter of honor," and regulations under which the media can operate, emphasizing its role in building and strengthening Egypt.

All speakers conclude their addresses by urging listeners to head to the polls next week and pledge their votes to the former army chief. Their addresses are constantly interrupted by chants of, "We love you Sisi," and "Sisi, you are real, like the Nile and like the dam." They are instigated by a group of women from the campaign wearing al-Sisi pins, one of them waving an Egyptian flag upside down.

Journalist Jailan Balbaa praises al-Sisi, saying he saved Egypt from a Zionist and American conspiracy. "The young people who chant against the military surely don't understand," she says. "They need to read up on history."

The evening closes with a rendition of a song in praise of the presidential hopeful, after which “Boshret Kheir” is blasted again, as attendees dance their way out of the conference hall.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!