Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is leading Egypt’s upcoming presidential election to be held from December 10-12. Despite being marked by a widespread crackdown on dissent and a weak economic and security record, the former army chief’s ten-year rule could be extended until 2030. It is an outcome widely believed to be written in stone.
More than ten years have passed since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, and he still rules the country with an iron fist.
Sisi’s opponents and supporters are convinced that he will win this year’s presidential election, which is scheduled to take place from December 10-12. His victories in 2014 and 2018 saw him win 96% of the vote, a track record that leaves little room for doubt as to what is likely to happen this time around.
Another victory would see the former army chief stay in power until 2030. A run for a third term became possible when Sisi himself amended Egypt’s constitution in 2019, extending presidential terms from four years to six.
Rise through the ranks – all the way to the presidency
Born in Cairo in November 1954, Sisi was one of fourteen children raised in a conservative household. The son of a salesman, he decided to pursue a military career at an early age, climbing the social ladder in a country ruled by the army. Spending most of his life out of the public eye, Sisi rose to prominence by becoming Egypt’s army chief of staff and defense minister in 2012.
The surprise promotion was given by President Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state, just over a year after former Hosni Mubarak was ousted in the Arab Spring. At the time, Sisi was portrayed in the media as a pious Muslim who aligned with the movement that Morsi praised, the Muslim Brotherhood. The reputation is largely built on Sisi’s family ties with Abbas Sisi, a disciple of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Islamist group.
But Sisi’s rapid rise to power within the army would not have been possible if his close ties to the Brotherhood, under the scrutiny of the Mubarak regime, had cast any doubt.
Partly trained by the UK and the US, Sisi became commander of Egypt’s military’s northern zone before rising through the ranks to take over as director of military intelligence and quickly establishing himself as the country’s strongman. Following mass uprisings that saw millions of Egyptians demand Morsi’s immediate resignation in early July 2013, Sisi issued an ultimatum to the former president and his cabinet. Without openly calling for Morsi to step down, he called on Egyptian politicians to “fulfill the demands of the people” within 48 hours.
If Morsi refuses, the armed forces (which have been in charge of the post-Mubarak transition) will be forced to “announce a road map for the future” and end the revolution that has been simmering since 2011.
The Islamist president was ousted, arrested and imprisoned soon after. But the bloody repression of the protesters, many of whom supported the Muslim Brotherhood, will not be forgotten. Human Rights Watch described the widespread killing of demonstrators at the time as a possible “crime against humanity”.
Morsi died in 2019 after collapsing in a Cairo court where he was attending a session of his trial.
Regarded by his admirers as humble and skilled – by his detractors as distrustful and suspicious – Sisi has ditched his military uniform for the suit and tie of the de facto presidency.
For Egyptians opposed to political Islam embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi saved the country from its clutches.
Repression left, right and center
Since Sisi’s landslide victory in the May 2014 presidential election, opponents as well as local and international NGOs have accused the leader of wanting to return to an autocratic regime. They said that since he came to power, “repression has reached an unprecedented level”.
In a report published on October 2, six international and local human rights organizations called the “widespread and systematic use of torture” by the Egyptian authorities amounting to what they considered “a crime against humanity under customary international law”.
In line with his repressive political grip, Sisi has also launched a series of major projects aimed at praising Egypt’s nobility and flattering the nationalist sentiments of his countrymen.
Among these ambitious tasks is the modernization of the country’s roads and electricity infrastructure, as well as the construction of a new administrative capital located in the desert about 50km from Cairo. Oddly nicknamed “Sisi City”, the construction is due to be completed in 2020 but is still in its first phase.
In August 2015, the president unveiled a plan for a giant expansion of the Suez Canal – another flagship project intended to symbolize a “new Egypt”. Costing about €7.9 billion, the project was completed in less than a year.
The new Suez Canal brought netted record revenues of almost €8.6 billion between 2022 and 2023, leading Sisi to promise prosperity and security for all Egyptians.
But in a country plagued by an unprecedented economic crisis and at risk of defaulting on foreign debt, that is not an easy promise to keep.
Egypt relies heavily on revenues from Ukrainian and Russian tourists, so when the war started in February 2022, its economy was hit hard. The number of annual tourists from the two countries has dropped from 35 to 40 percent, according to local figures. Egypt is also the world’s leading importer of wheat. When prices rose as a result of the war, the country’s economy suffered.
In Sisi’s ten years in power, Egypt and its 105 million citizens – mostly dependent on Saudi Arabia’s money – have been plagued by poverty.
A key ally for the West
Despite his shortcomings, Sisi is still seen as a guarantor of stability and security in the region by many international leaders. Aside from his human rights abuses, the West sees him as a key ally in what they see as a troubled Middle East.
This is more the case since the bloody attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of the Gaza Strip. During a week-long ceasefire in Gaza from November 24-30, hostages held by Hamas were directed south of the enclave to Egypt. The Rafah crossing on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is also where humanitarian aid is brought to the Palestinian territory.
Read moreGaza-Egypt Rafah crossing clarifies: ‘This is not a normal border’
Back in 2014, the pragmatic Sisi kept a low profile when the West protested against him power stroke to seize power. The US and Europe did not congratulate him after his election victory, although they emphasized the need to return to respect for human rights as soon as possible.
In response, Sisi sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In November 2014, a month after the US halted military and financial aid to Egypt, the Kremlin announced it would deliver air defense systems to the country and said talks on the delivery of military aircraft were ongoing.
A shrewd strategist, Sisi knows the West cannot turn its back on the most populous Arab nation for long. Egypt is both a strategic mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a key ally in the fight against terrorism.
The fight against Islamic militants has moved the cursor on how world leaders view Sisi, especially in the case of the US. After years of difficult relations under the Obama administration, former US President Donald Trump congratulated the Egyptian leader in 2016. “I just want to let everyone know if there is any doubt that we are behind of President Sisi. He has done an extraordinary job in a very difficult situation. We are behind Egypt and the Egyptian people,” Trump said during Sisi’s first official visit to the US in April, 2017 .
When Sisi visited France in October of 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that he did not want to “teach” his Egyptian counterpart about human rights.
Between 2010 and 2019, Egypt imported French weapons worth €7.7 billion, according to the parliament.
Securing Sinai, another empty promise
Like his military predecessors, Sisi is obsessed with acquiring modern weapons and securing his borders. This is increasing because its neighbors – Libya, Sudan, Israel and the Gaza Strip – are all affected by the ongoing conflict.
For years, Egypt has been battling a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai region, a peninsula located in the northeast of the country. According to the opposition, this ongoing threat to Egypt’s internal security is being used by the authorities to suppress civil liberties.
In 2018, Sisi launched a large-scale “anti-terrorist” operation in areas where radical Islamists are widespread – some of whom have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, but so far in vain. Sinai is still a security headache for Sisi, who stands behind yet another empty promise.
This article is a translated version of the original French.