The words of the pro-government TV talk show host left no room for debate. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is synonymous with Egypt, he lectured his audience, and Egyptians are either on his side or are enemies of the nation.
“Whoever has a problem living in this country should grab his passport and leave,” said the TV host, Tamer Amin, telling viewers no one should complain about price hikes, power outages or other problems.
A year after the general-turned-politician took office in a landslide election win, el-Sissi largely has silenced political opposition and is trying to run the country as a one-man show, a far cry from the democracy millions dreamed of when they toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a stunning 2011 uprising.
A nation of some 90 million people, Egypt has had no parliament since 2012, political parties are quiescent and elections for a new legislature have been repeatedly delayed — meaning there’s little concrete debate on policy. Laws simply are issued by the presidency.
Police and powerful security agencies act with near impunity against opponents or those trying to engage in unwelcome political activity. Rights activists report a return of torture, abuses and arbitrary arrests surpassing even the 29-year Mubarak era. A strict law against protests in place since late 2013 effectively silenced street demonstrations.
The judiciary also has backed the security agencies’ heavy hand in ways unseen under Mubarak’s rule. Courts hand out mass death sentences — about 1,500 so far by some estimates — against Islamists, thousands of whom are in prison in a nearly 2-year-old crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular and leftist pro-democracy activists are jailed as well, some given long prison sentences for even small, peaceful protests.
“No one is certain now that we are on the right path or that there is hope at the end of a long tunnel,” prominent analyst Abdullah el-Sinawy, known for being close to the military, wrote last week in a column that harshly scrutinized el-Sissi’s legacy so far.
El-Sissi “does not have a magic wand to solve the insurmountable problems,” el-Sinawy wrote, but he said el-Sissi should do more to break with the Mubarak era. He pointed to how Mubarak-era businessmen have regained the power and impunity they enjoyed under the former president.
El-Sissi became Egypt’s most powerful figure when, as army chief, he led the July 2013 military ouster of the country’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, after massive public protests against Morsi and the political domination of his Muslim Brotherhood. A bloody crackdown ensued, killing hundreds of Islamists.
Praised by many Egyptians as a hero for “rescuing” the country from the Brotherhood, el-Sissi vowed from the start to bring security and repair the economy, saying outright that demands for rights and needless political debate cannot be allowed to undermine those goals. That message vaulted him into the presidency in elections, and he was inaugurated on June 8, 2014.
He still seems to enjoy strong popularity among large sectors of the population who see him as the only figure strong enough to lead. What grumbling that has become public largely come from supporters like el-Sinawi, warning him that he needs to show progress and change.
Some have debated whether el-Sissi supports the silencing of dissent or can’t impose his will on the many centers of power in the Egyptian state, which he needs for support and which have their own agendas — like the judiciary, the media, wealthy businessmen and the security agencies.
“State institutions are the most powerful and dangerous opposition to el-Sissi,” read the headline of a column this week by Ibrahim Issa, a prominent commentator close to the government.
“What the president says and what happens on the ground are two different things,” Issa wrote in the Al-Maqal newspaper.
Issa’s assertion highlights the strength and resilience of Egypt’s “deep state,” the term many pro-democracy activists use for the powerful state bodies like the military, police and judiciary that have their own independent power and interests. El-Sissi is no outsider to the deep state, but his repeated demands for change and hard work and warnings that prosperity won’t come overnight could run against those institutions’ interests.
El-Sissi has been able to bring some improvements to the economy. Egypt’s relations with the United States and Europe have improved after a period of tension, a change attributed in large part to el-Sissi’s stand against Islamic militancy in the region. El-Sissi’s Egypt also has moved closer to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, bringing billions of dollars in badly needed aid.
El-Sissi has accompanied his tough stand on militancy with calls for far reaching reform in Islam’s discourse to weed out extremism and replace it with moderate practices. He has been a driving force behind ongoing efforts to create a joint Arab military force to fight extremism.
Security has been more difficult to establish. Army and police are battling Islamic militants concentrated in the strategic Sinai Peninsula, and there are frequent bombings — usually small but sometimes deadly — against security forces in Cairo and other parts of the country.
That “war on terrorism” has allowed a freer hand to security agencies and fuels the overwhelming message on television stations that now is not the time for dissent.
Die-hard supporters in the media demonize critics, accusing them of treason or being on the payroll of foreign powers. One private TV channel has aired recordings of private telephone conversations by political activists and rights campaigners, apparently leaked by security officials, to discredit them. TV hosts — or even shows — seen as insufficiently supportive of the government have been taken off the air.
Non-governmental organizations, which had a relatively wide leeway under Mubarak, are now under heavy security scrutiny and in some cases have halted any controversial activities. Multiple international rights organizations have left the country.
Prominent rights lawyer Negad Borai was questioned three times by prosecutors over the past two weeks because he and other activists drew up a proposed law against torture and sent it to el-Sissi’s office for consideration. Two senior judges who were briefly consulted on the draft are likely to be disciplined by judiciary authorities.
“Our predicament is deep. In Egypt, the only crime that goes unpunished is torture,” Borai said.
Some supporters of el-Sissi have called for the anti-protest law, which requires that any demonstration get prior police approval, be lifted or amended. But el-Sissi has staunchly stood by it. The law’s proponents argue it prevents the constant protests that had disrupted life since 2011.
After one court recently issued a rare acquittal of a group of activists charged under the law, prosecutors immediately appealed in a show of the state’s zero tolerance policy. The activists had been charged because of a small Cairo gathering in January in which one participant — a young mother — was shot dead by police.
“The inclination (by the judiciary) has consistently been to reach a guilty verdict, not acquittals,” said Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, who represents the defendants.
Further intimidating any critics, prosecutors now aggressively investigate almost any complaint raised by “concerned citizens” against people suspected of supporting Islamists, criticizing the judiciary, the presidency or religion — all potentially criminal acts.
Flashing the four-finger sign symbolizing support for the Brotherhood, now outlawed and labeled a terrorist group, has led to trials and jail sentences. With authorities concerned about showing they back public piety even as they crack down on Islamists, writing irreverently on Islam or shows of atheism online have been a cause for arrest.
El-Sissi’s rise to power was accompanied by a wave of nationalism not seen in Egypt since the country’s wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973. The sentiment has been kept alive with seemingly endless allegations that the Brotherhood is secretly favored by the United States or that secular pro-democracy activists are paid by foreign powers to destabilize Egypt.
A populist with a knack for melodramatic gestures, el-Sissi feeds this nationalist sentiment with personal touches of his own and repeated warnings that Egypt faced a host of existential threats. His slogan “long live Egypt” often concludes his speeches — and has even been painted on his presidential plane.
Meeting recently with party leaders, el-Sissi said parliamentary elections would be held by the end of the year, according to his spokesman. But he also told them he would be prepared to back a coalition encompassing all the parties, suggesting he does not want an opposition bloc in the next legislature.
“The nation’s legislative institution has disappeared, political party activism is suspended and no one is left on the scene except the president,” wrote Cairo university political scientist Ahmed Abed-Rabbo in a recent article.