El Sisi's third term marks a changed Egypt after 10 years of his rule

Critics call for more freedoms but supporters say he has proved to have a pair of safe hands protecting Egypt from political upheavals and violence

Abdel Fattah El Sisi speaks after being sworn in for a third term as president at the country's parliament in the New Administrative Capital, the ultra-modern city east of Cairo. AFP
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Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi was sworn in for a third term on Tuesday, marking a decade in office for the former army general whose rule has fundamentally changed the most populous Arab nation.

He was sworn into office in front of parliament, as a 21-gun salute rang out.

“I have vowed from the first day … to make the security of Egypt and the safety of its dear people and the realisation of progress and development to be my only choice,” said the Egyptian President in a speech.

Mr El Sisi was re-elected in December for a six-year term that, barring unforeseen developments, will have given him a total of 16 years in office in 2030.

The swearing-in ceremony took place in the New Administrative Capital, the multi-billion-dollar ultra-modern city in the desert east of Cairo that has become a potent symbol of Mr El Sisi’s rule but also the often-maligned project critics cite as an example of his government’s lavish spending on non-vital enterprises.

The new capital is one of many mega projects that Mr El Sisi has undertaken and personally overseen as part of his ambitious vision for a modern Egypt that included the construction of hundreds of bridges, thousands of kilometres of new roads, more than a dozen new cities and an expansion of the Suez Canal.

Critics have blamed these projects, together with what they view as reckless borrowing and mismanagement of resources, for the economic downturn that rocked Egypt before a major infusion of funds from external sources began to fill its empty coffers over the past month.

Mr El Sisi and his government have stood by their policies, blaming the crisis on the coronavirus pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and, more recently, the Gaza war across Egypt’s eastern border.

“I am doing the maximum that I can. If I am successful, the credit should go to God’s generosity,” he recently said in televised comments. “If I don’t succeed, then the fault is mine and I take responsibility before God.”

Mr El Sisi, born and raised in one of Cairo’s oldest neighbourhoods in the city’s medieval quarter, has defined his rule in part by frequent religious references. But his religious piety and public humility belie a leader whose rule has been characterised by near-zero tolerance for dissent and the authorities' heavy-handedness when dealing with it.

He has, in the meantime, also proved to have a pair of safe hands that protected Egypt from the political upheavals and violence engulfing the region, with neighbouring Sudan torn by civil war, Libya to the west divided and mired in instability, and Gaza to the east devastated by an Israeli war nearing its six-month mark.

He is also credited with shepherding the country of 106 million through some of its most difficult years in the aftermath of a 2011 popular uprising that rocked the very foundations of the nation and gave rise to political turmoil.

As defence minister, he led the military’s 2013 removal of an Islamist president – Mohamed Morsi– whose one-year rule proved divisive.

The removal of Mr Morsi was followed by what many in Egypt see as one of the harshest crackdowns against the opposition in living memory, with authorities detaining thousands of his supporters and hundreds of the secular activists behind the 2011 uprising.

Mr El Sisi also dealt with a wave of deadly terror attacks blamed on militants centred in the north-east corner of the Sinai Peninsula.

Recently, however, the President has approved the release of hundreds of critics held in pretrial detention and launched a national dialogue that brought together politicians, MPs, experts, and academics to try to chart the nation’s new path.

The government adopted some of the recommendations reached by participants, but the process did not significantly influence policies pursued by the government.

However, more encouraging signs have emerged in recent weeks.

“There is improvement on the front of rights and liberties, but it depends on one’s definition of improvement,” said Negad Borai, a veteran rights campaigner and one of the national dialogue’s 19 trustees.

“There are still many loose ends. They have released hundreds but there are still many more still held in pretrial detention. They have unblocked some of the independent online news sites and are tolerating criticism of the government on social media platforms,” he added.

Additionally, small pro-Palestinian demonstrations restricted to the steps leading to the Journalists Union in Cairo have been tolerated as well as a small demonstration marking Women’s Day last month.

“The government privately acknowledges that the security measures and repression in the early years of President El Sisi’s rule were too harsh and maybe even wrong but were needed to stabilise the country. In contrast, it is standing firmly by its economic policies,” said Mr Borai.

President El Sisi has frequently voiced his contempt for politics and seized every chance to air his view that human rights must not be restricted to the right of assembly or freedom of speech. More important, he often argued, is the right to housing, jobs, health care, and education.

He owes his third term in office to constitutional amendments proposed by a parliament packed with his supporters and adopted in a national referendum in 2019.

Before the changes, the constitution stipulated that no president could serve more than two four-year terms in office.

The amendments kept the two-term cap but extended the term to six years and, in a clause especially added for his benefit, deemed the first of his two terms in office to have begun in 2018, not 2014 when he was first elected.

And as was the case in 2018, when he ran against an obscure politician, Mr El Sisi – the latest in a line of military men who ruled Egypt since the monarchy was overthrown some 70 years ago – again ran in December against three little-known politicians, winning 89.6 per cent of the vote.

But while critics question Mr El Sisi’s commitment to western democratic values, the Egyptian leader is credited with changing his country on various levels.

With the government waiting on his every word, his views have been embraced as the ideological underpinning of changes that have touched many fields, from filmmaking, divorce, and modernising the religious discourse to healthy living, morality, and law and order.

“Egypt is a fundamentally different place than it was 10 years ago,” said Michael Hanna, a prominent Middle East expert from the International Crisis Group.

“President El Sisi has created a regime that’s new and different from what was there before him. And it has been sustainable thus far.

“The main threat it faces will always be the economy. The recent infusion of billions of dollars to salvage the economy only buys time. Structural changes to the economy and how it’s run are needed,” said the New York-based Mr Hanna.

“There’s also a lurking danger from the lack of real opposition and legitimate ways for people to channel their views.”

Updated: April 03, 2024, 5:46 AM