Abdel Fattah El-Sisi | The General with an iron grip 

Abdel Fattah El-Sisi | The General with an iron grip 

India’s Republic Day Parade Chief Guest, who came to power in Egypt in 2013 through a coup, is trying to build a careful balance between the West and the East, while keeping the country under his tight control

In early 2011, the eyes of democratic activists worldwide were on Tahrir Square, as thousands descended on the public square at the heart of Cairo to demand the resignation of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. At the time, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was the Director of Military Intelligence, a powerful post in a regime that ruled by emergency powers for 30 years. As the crowds grew, the military seemed less inclined to support Mubarak, especially as reports grew in credence that Mubarak planned to install his son Gamal as his successor.

The tide turned immediately, and as Mubarak stepped down just weeks after the protests began, his resignation was seen as a massive victory for the Arab Spring movement. Within a year, Egypt saw its first civilian President, elected through a popular vote for the first time — Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leader, won with more than 50% of the vote, defeating a former Prime Minister of the Mubarak regime.

President Morsi made Mr. Sisi, who had won the hearts of many Egyptians for the military’s role during and restoring stability after the Tahrir Square protests, his Defence Minister and Commander of the Armed Forces in August 2012. The post was significant — for decades, the military and the ultraconservative Muslim Brotherhood had been enemies, and the MB was proscribed and prosecuted in Egypt by every regime since 1948, accused of fomenting violence, terrorism and a string of assassinations. While many had misgivings about the MB, especially its ties to radicalised terror groups, most of the world welcomed the advent of real elections in Egypt, and Morsi was welcomed in many capitals, including New Delhi, Riyadh and Beijing.

In the short period since the protests began, Mr. Sisi had broken with his President (Mubarak), and superseded all his seniors in the military, a portent of things to come. Within a year, by June 2013, Mr. Morsi’s Islamist policies, confrontation with the judiciary and economic misgovernance brought Egyptians out at Tahrir Square again — for what was called the ‘Tamarrud’ movement, or rebellion. Mr. Sisi, once again broke with his President, this time Morsi, and announced his dismissal. In a televised address on July 3, Mr. Sisi said Morsi was unfit to rule, and as a result it was for him, “based on the Army’s historical and patriotic responsibility” to suspend the Constitution, and to appoint the Chief Justice as the provisional President.

Brutal crackdown

The coup was followed by a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents — Gen. Sisi, who was soon made Field Marshall Sisi, was accused of ordering the police and armed forces to clear protesters from the Rabaa square, in a night of bloodshed that saw more than 900 killed. Many countries expressed concern and even long-time ally the U.S. froze its military aid to Egypt.

In elections in 2014, however, Mr. Sisi ran for President, winning 96.91% of the vote. The staggering, if controversial, mandate led to a turnaround in Egypt’s ties with the world. PM Narendra Modi invited and met President Sisi thrice, once for the India-Africa Summit in 2015, then for a full state visit in 2016, and last week, as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day Parade, the first time an Egyptian leader has been accorded the honour.

During the visit, Mr. Sisi and Mr. Modi upgraded ties between the two countries to a Strategic Partnership, and Indian officials discussed closer defence ties, including providing Egypt with equipment and platforms, that Egyptian officials compare to the 1960s cooperation between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Mr. Sisi is seen as consummate statesman with global powers, and has built a careful balance between the West on one side and Russia and China on the other, taking a stand akin to India over the Ukraine conflict. Egypt’s ties with Israel have traditionally been closer than the rest of the Arab world since the 1979 Camp David accord, and Mr. Sisi has spoken publicly about Egypt-Israel military cooperation on fighting trans-border terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, something that strikes a chord in India. PM Modi and President Sisi have reportedly forged close ties during their meetings, and the latter is due to return for a fourth visit later this year, as India has designated Egypt one of its Special Invitees to the G20 summit.

Along with the international stature and ease with global leaders, Mr. Sisi has also received growing criticism for his authoritarian rule of Egypt, in step with the sort of “strongmen” leadership that was seen through the 2010 decade — with Alpha-leaders being elected in democracies across the world from the U.S. to the U.K., Brazil, Poland, Hungary, India and Pakistan. In step with the trends, Mr. Sisi’s government hasn’t just targeted religious extremists, but journalists, women, gay rights activists, NGOs, human rights groups and comedians.

“The military has 60 years of experience,” Bassem Youssef, the satirist who shot to fame during the Tahrir Square protests for his caricatures of Mubarak and Morsi, told the BBC after relocating to the U.S., fearing arrest in 2018. “The difference between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is that one tried to stop my show and eliminate me, and couldn’t; and one tried and succeeded because of experience.”

When asked by U.S. channel CBS on the ‘60 Minutes’ show, Mr. Sisi rejected the charges. “We are dealing with fundamentalists and extremists which caused damage and killed people over these last years. I can’t ask Egyptians to forget their rights or the police and civilians who died,” he said. The image, however, stuck.

‘Favourite dictator’

In 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly walked into a meeting with Mr. Sisi on the sidelines of the G-7 conference in France’s Biarritz, and asked the media gathered, “Where is my favourite dictator?” Regardless of the moniker, Mr. Sisi’s popularity with the Egyptian professional classes has only grown, as is his pitch to Egyptian pride, secular traditions and promises to focus on the economy with an “Egypt vision 2030”.

Mr. Sisi has also wowed many with his infrastructure splurge — including smooth new highways, the Suez Canal expansion and the construction of a brand new capital 50 km away from Cairo. In 2021, he invited the world’s elite to a gala show at the newly built billion-dollar museum, where 22 mummies of Egyptian Kings and Queens were transported from the old museum in a grand convoy called the “Pharaoh’s Golden Parade” that circled Tahrir Square, and said the “grandiose spectacle was further proof of the greatness of a unique civilisation that extends into the depths of history”.

Some have questioned the expense of Mr. Sisi’s spectacular projects, especially as Egypt had to apply for IMF rescue packages to deal with its economic crisis. While Mr. Sisi himself rejects any comparisons to the Pharaohs, he projects his unapologetic iron grip over the country as a strength that has provided Egypt stability.

And in what is also a sign of the times — Tahrir Square, once the venue for the world-famous protests, has been repainted in military khaki colours and rebuilt by Mr. Sisi to house a Pharaonic-era obelisk. It is off limits, even to tourists, as armed policemen are, under orders, to ensure that visitors don’t stop there for too long, or demonstrate again.

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