Next year will mark a decade since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in a coup d'etat against Egypt's democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi. By the spring of 2014, Sisi had symbolically consolidated power by taking 97 percent of the vote for the presidency in a tightly controlled election. From then on, not much seemed to change in the style or substance of Sisi's strict rule. He appeared to be a man in a hurry, contemptuous of politics and politicians, and disinterested in lengthy personal public appearances. Quiet and reserved by nature, he presumably calculated that the megaprojects he charged Egypt's military with implementing, coupled with the suppression of all dissent and menacing promises of a brighter future for all, were sufficient to ensure obedience, if not loyalty. He seemed not to want to waste his time pandering to the Egyptian public, even by holding formal public events or consulting with civilian experts. His was a one-man show, with the citizen audience only there to cheer dutifully.
Yet 2022 has seen a significant change in Sisi's leadership style and behavior. The year has been marked by a series of high-profile gatherings, including the "national dialogue" that members of the tamed opposition and token activists were invited to, which is due to resume following this month's U.N. climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. Late last month, Cabinet members, prominent businesspeople and leading economists gathered in a newly built hall in the new administrative capital, under construction in the desert outside Cairo, for a government-organized economic conference, where Sisi spoke at the opening and closing sessions for almost three hours. Preceding that confab, which aimed "to draw a roadmap for the future of the Egyptian economy," the government had launched, amid considerable fanfare, a new state ownership policy, which specified the economic sectors that will be privatized, retained in state hands or shared between the two. In parallel, there is the veritably frenetic activity by Sisi himself, compared to his previous standards, as he has popped up in numerous locales to cut ribbons at the openings of the many infrastructure projects being built and indulge in other photo-ops.
As part of this apparent rebrand, Sisi has stepped up his public appearances in Egypt. A president who used to speak sparingly now delivers long-winded addresses; his three hours of speeches at the economic conference set a record for his newfound verbosity. He has also adopted a more informal speaking style, attempting to engage with audiences, although it is fair to say he hasn't dropped his previous tone of lecturing and even hectoring Egyptians.
Not confining himself to the domestic front, Sisi also launched a diplomatic offensive targeting the Gulf, which included his first-ever visit to Doha in September. In addition to his talks with the Qataris, both before and after his trip, Sisi more openly courted the rulers of other Gulf states, most prominently Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the president of the United Arab Emirates. Sisi's talks with his Gulf benefactors focused on economic assistance to Egypt, but also included foreign policy issues of joint concern in Libya, the Horn of Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and likely elsewhere. Sisi, in turn, has undertaken similar outreach to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been looking to rebuild relations with Egypt to help Turkey's economy, after Erdogan condemned Sisi's coup against Morsi and essentially froze ties between Cairo and Ankara for nearly a decade. While it isn't a full détente yet, attempts at a rapprochement have resulted in Turkey cutting some of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, as evidenced by the shuttering of its affiliated media outlets in the country and expulsion of Brotherhood-associated journalists. Capping it all off, Sisi will be meeting this month with various heads of state in Sharm el-Sheikh, including U.S. President Joe Biden, as he plays happy host of the COP27 climate conference.
These changes in presidential behavior and rhetoric presumably are not just stylistic but reflect more profound calculations for Sisi. Egypt is under huge economic pressure, including staggering amounts of debt because of Sisi's building sprees, which of course has political reverberations. But has Sisi really changed? Might the political outreach melt away when and if Egypt's economic crisis passes? Is it all just an act to convince "Egypt's friends"—ranging from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to Russia and China, to say nothing of key Gulf states—that Egypt can and will be reliable and credit-worthy?
These changes in presidential behavior presumably are not just stylistic but reflect more profound calculations for Sisi. Egypt is under huge economic pressure, including staggering amounts of debt because of Sisi's building sprees, which of course has political reverberations.
- Robert Springborg
Or has Sisi really seen a new path for the country away from his regime's heavy-handed control of the economy, polity and even society? Is it conceivable that after devoting so much effort to creating a top-down, parallel ruling structure directly under his control, including the country's key repressive agencies, that Sisi might turn his back on it and "open up" Egypt like his predecessors all promised at various stages of their presidencies?
Penetrating the minds of decision-makers to plumb their real motives is a notoriously difficult task. In this case, with the limited evidence available—Sisi is an infamously secretive person, atop a closed regime—there are only possible explanations. But three make the most sense: reinvention, retrenchment and revetment. Reinvention refers to reform of the ruling system, driven by Sisi's possible realization that absent significant change, his regime might collapse. It could also be motivated by the calculation that having gathered sufficient powers into his own hands, Sisi can now afford to liberalize on his terms, as it is a process he can direct and control. Or—though least likely—Sisi might have even had a profound change of political heart, resulting from his growing awareness that the status quo was not delivering what Egypt and its citizens need. Whatever its motive, reinvention implies that the changes being made now are intended as cumulative, reinforcing and permanent.
By contrast, retrenchment refers to a temporary pulling back—giving ground as a tactical maneuver with the intent of regaining it once the threat has passed. Egypt's economic crisis has forced Sisi to appear to support reform, which he is not committed to and will roll back once conditions improve. In this interpretation, Sisi is playing nice as long as it takes to secure essential foreign funding—including the new $3 billion loan from the IMF, $5 billion apparently committed by Gulf countries, $1 billion anticipated from regional development banks and, most importantly, foreign private capital attracted by the favorable anticipated economic and financial impacts of the inflows of these public monies. Other small signs of political liberalization, like the "national dialogue" and more frank public statements about the depth of the economic crisis and previous misstatements about it, are straws in the wind that could blow either way. Of course, none of this has accumulated into substantive institutional changes in Sisi's regime, and there is nothing to say that they will, as they remain just words. If, in the wake of possibly better economic conditions next year, Sisi abandons this softer rhetoric and political symbolism, completely reverting to his didactic lecturing and obvious one-man rule, there is little if anything in the retrenchment so far to stop him.
The third explanation, revetment, implies that Sisi is shoring up his rule in the face of truly threatening rising waters of economic need, political discontent and active, in-house opposition within his own regime. Sisi essentially fears for his political life, so he is presenting a liberalizing façade while consolidating his power, as evidenced by recent personnel shifts in the high ranks of the military. In this interpretation, the situation in Egypt is too dire for relatively benign, temporary retrenchment. It requires instead the iron fist, from which there can be no escape; nor is there any commitment to reform.
And there are signals indicating revetment is underway. Prominent activists, such as Alaa Abd al-Fattah, have not been let out of prison despite the release of some other opposition figures and formal pleas by the British government leading up to COP27. In response to the growing calls for demonstrations on Nov. 11, the authorities have made new rounds of arrests on the eve of the climate conference. Meanwhile, Mohammed Anwar Sadat, the nephew of the former president and currently the chairman of the Reform and Development Party, made an unusually formal statement recently calling on Sisi to step down as president by not contesting the 2024 elections. It is unlikely that Sadat would have issued the statement so publicly, and while he remains in Egypt, without some support from "sovereign bodies," the term typically used for the security agencies and/or the military.
Reports of Sisi depending less on Military Intelligence, which he reorganized and renamed in June 2021, and the military in general for his rule and more on General Intelligence, which is directly under him, can be interpreted as the usual pattern of presidential rule in Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser. All members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when Sisi rose to power have now been replaced. Turnover in key command positions, including the heads of Military Intelligence, the Central Military Region—one of five military regions of the Egyptian Armed Forces, headquartered in Cairo—and the politically vital Department of Morale Affairs, has been uncharacteristically rapid. The recent absence of Abbas Kamel, head of General Intelligence and Sisi's former chief of staff, from joint public meetings with the president has been interpreted by some as reflecting their possible estrangement. But it might also just show the seriousness with which the regime is taking the threat of widespread demonstrations this month, hence the need for Abbas to be at his desk. Another possible cause is Kamel's need to deal with dissatisfaction among personnel in his agency, given their apparent support for the recently released Sadat statement.
There are strict limits on how much Sisi is willing to liberalize, just as there were for Nasser after 1967, Sadat after 1973 and Mubarak throughout his rule, despite what their various "openings" promised Egyptians at the time.
- Robert Springborg
Analysts seeking to determine which if any of these interpretations most accurately describes Sisi's intentions must confront the informational challenges faced by former Kremlinologists, and now by close observers of the goings on of the Chinese Communist Party. But even the maneuverings around Sisi cannot tell the entire story of what his regime intends. That does not preclude picking the scenario that seems best to fit the man, his entourage and the political economy over which they preside—although, of course, any such choice is necessarily conditional on outcomes, especially if it were for reinvention or retrenchment. In the first case, despite any hypothetical, sincere commitment to reform—which seems doubtful—there is the question of whether Sisi could actually steer any reforms through the labyrinth of military and security services that make up Egypt's regime. Even if he were to try, it would probably not be long before failure would become evident, hence his default to either retrenchment or, more likely, revetment.
Reinvention is also considerably less likely than retrenchment, which could also slide into revetment if the intended limited liberalization began to gather seemingly unchecked momentum. The default position in Sisi's regime, like other authoritarian regimes, is necessarily revetment. The other options are more experimental, adopted on a trial basis to see if liberalization can make ruling easier and more secure while obtaining wanted outcomes, including international support and domestic quiescence. If any possible retrenchment truly opened up politics in Egypt, leading to protests and a challenge to Sisi's rule from below, his regime would immediately revert to its iron fist.
There are, after all, strict limits on how much Sisi is willing to liberalize, just as there were for Nasser after 1967, Sadat after 1973 and Mubarak throughout his rule, despite what their various "openings" promised Egyptians at the time. None of them changed their ways, and it is unrealistic to anticipate Sisi might be the first—something foreign leaders, especially President Biden, should take to heart before boarding their planes for Sharm el-Sheikh.