By Aidan Lewis
CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been criticised as a despot for crushing opposition lingering from a brief period of democracy, while winning praise from supporters for boosting security and driving an army-led infrastructure binge.
The former military chief secured a third, six-year term on Monday after winning 89.6% of the vote in an election overshadowed by the war in neighbouring Gaza and a faltering economy, a decade after he toppled Egypt’s first democratically-elected president.
Activists say tens of thousands of people were jailed in the ensuing crackdown, before Sisi turned his attention to state- and army-run mega-projects and development schemes.
The flagship project is a $58 billion New Administrative Capital rising in the desert east of Cairo, a site Sisi said would mark the birth of a new republic.
“We are not leaving Cairo, or Alexandria or Port Said or other provinces. We are moving forward with the old and the new together,” he said.
To his critics, the former intelligence general has led Egypt deeper into authoritarianism than even late former president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2011 after ruling for three decades under a state of emergency.
Rights groups say Sisi has muzzled political opponents, activists and media, while security forces have carried out arbitrary detentions and torture with impunity.
Courts have passed death sentences on hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood since Sisi deposed their leader Mohamed Mursi – who had been freely elected as president in 2012 – after mass protests against his rule.
Sisi has said there are no political prisoners in Egypt, that stability and security are paramount, and that the state is striving to provide social rights such as housing and jobs.
CRACKDOWN ON THE BROTHERHOOD
In 2013, when Sisi was armed forces chief and effectively running the country, hundreds were killed when security forces broke up a sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa Square in support of Mursi.
Egyptian officials said some protesters were armed.
Brotherhood leaders were jailed after Mursi’s overthrow and Sisi drove the movement, which he calls a terrorist group, underground.
The century-old Brotherhood – which is one of the world’s most influential Islamist organisations, mixing religious teaching with political activism and social welfare programs – has denied links with violence and said it has sought power only by democratic means.
Rabaa Square no longer exists. One of many new bridges built under Sisi’s rule runs straight through the area.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the cradle of the 2011 uprising, has been revamped in a makeover that critics see as intended to erase the memory of the pro-democracy revolt.
Ahead of an election in 2018, Sisi warned that anyone who threatened Egypt’s stability would be dealt with harshly.
“I will die before anyone messes with its security,” he said, adding that the 2011 revolt, when the army stood by while Mubarak was forced out, would not be repeated.
Brotherhood official Mohamed el-Beltagy recounted meeting Sisi one night in Tahrir Square in 2011, recalling that Sisi introduced himself with the words: “I’m General Abdel Fattah. Intelligence.”
According to Beltagy, Sisi warned him that there would be bloodshed unless he convinced his people to back down. “So please, spare the bloodshed and leave now. End the sit-in and the revolution and go home.”
As Sisi cemented his grip after Mursi’s ouster, he enacted reforms backed by the International Monetary Fund that won plaudits from many economists.
His push to modernise a decrepit infrastructure is meant to galvanise the economy and create jobs after decades of headlong population growth and unplanned construction.
Large-scale construction projects championed by the state include expansions of the Suez Canal, agricultural schemes and a sprawling network of roads and bridges branching out from eastern Cairo that Sisi frequently inspects.
But some economists also point to a continued lack of decent jobs for a young population, a growing debt burden and the military’s opaque grip over key economic assets.
Sisi has said that Egypt’s booming population is a cause of concern to him. “You are worried because you have six children. I have 100 million,” he said in 2022.
Sisi is the latest in a line of Egyptian rulers drawn from the military.
He sought to set the pace when he took office in 2014 – holding cabinet meetings at 7 a.m. and joining a cycle race on his first weekend as president. The message was clear. The new president would get things done.
Schooled in the barracks, Sisi distrusts anything that clashes with the military’s austere outlook. He has flattened Egypt’s once vibrant media scene and used the military to keep the private sector in check, according to Hisham Kassem, a former newspaper publisher and political activist who was jailed this year.
“The way he basically brought the military back to power shows real prowess,” Kassem said.
CONNECTION WITH THE POOR?
Born on Nov. 19, 1954, Sisi displayed signs of unusual discipline as a young boy, people in his old neighbourhood of Cairo said. While other boys played football or smoked, Sisi and his friends lifted weights made of metal pipes and rocks.
Neighbours and relatives said he came from a tightly knit religious family and memorised the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
He lived in a small apartment on the rooftop of a run-down building owned by his extended family. Although they were relatively well-off, Sisi has sought to show a connection with the struggles of ordinary Egyptians.
Mursi appointed Sisi as army chief and defence minister in August 2012, mistakenly calculating that the military would let the Brotherhood pursue its Islamist agenda – including sharia (Islamic law) – if its own entrenched privileges were protected.
After the Brotherhood made missteps in power and after crowds gathered to demand Mursi resign, Sisi appeared on TV on July 3, 2013, to announce his rule was over, and to promise an election, which Sisi won by a landslide the following year.
Lacking the charisma or rhetorical skills of former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Sisi projected a simpler persona.
At public events he appears flanked by ministers and generals and makes long, improvised remarks in colloquial Arabic from an armchair, chivvying officials to meet deadlines.
Abroad, Sisi has established new ties in Africa while courting China and Russia and wooing Gulf Arab states that poured billions of dollars into Egypt to cushion economic shocks before adopting a more cautious approach.
Relations with the United States – a major supplier of military aid – have swung with politics in Washington.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump was quoted calling Sisi “my favourite dictator”. Successor Joe Biden’s administration criticised Sisi’s human rights record before engaging more closely with it during conflicts in the Gaza Strip.
(Writing by Michael Georgy and Aidan Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)