Egypt’s woes erode Sisi’s image of invincibility
The criticism was blunt - and startling, since it came from a TV presenter on a state-owned station that, like most other media in Egypt, usually has nothing but praise for Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the country’s general-turned-president. Presenter Azza El-Henawy demanded Sisi take action after deaths from floods in areas north of Cairo last month that many blamed on neglect of infrastructure by authorities. She said corruption was being ignored and addressed the president, saying, “As long as no one is held accountable, you will be just talking and making promises and we will get no results ... This is why the people are fed up.”
Henawy was promptly suspended by the state broadcaster for “unprofessional conduct”. Her outspoken comments on Nov 1 pointed to the erosion of the aura of invincibility that Sisi has enjoyed. Sisi had seemed impervious to criticism ever since he, as military chief, led the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, after nationwide protests against Morsi and the political domination of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi then stormed into the presidency with a 2014 landslide election victory.
For more than two years, he has been lauded as Egypt’s savior. The media have praised his every move, telling the public that he is putting Egypt on the path of security and economic revival. He’s had virtually no political opposition, since secular political parties have largely joined the cheerleading and a fierce crackdown has crushed the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of its protesting supporters and jailing thousands more. Secular and pro-democracy activists who fueled the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak were not spared, with dozens jailed, mostly for breaking a law effectively banning street protests.
But in recent weeks, Sisi seemed to struggle with expectations among a population that is fatigued by years of turmoil and has still seen little improvement in the economy, corruption or infrastructure. Worries over the economy have been compounded by the crash of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai Peninsula that killed all 224 on board. The US and Britain believe it was downed by a bomb planted by the Sinai branch of the Islamic State group, which has been waging an insurgency against Sisi’s government. Russia suspended flights to Egypt and on Friday took the further step of halting EgyptAir flights to Russia - all likely to have a devastating effect on tourism.
Sisi himself appears to have little tolerance for criticism. “It’s inappropriate! We are crossing all boundaries. It’s inappropriate!” he said, visibly angry during an address on Nov 1 after a different TV presenter was critical of him for meeting with a senior Western businessman when the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria was inundated by rain. “Are you punishing me for taking this job?” he said. The speech inspired widespread mockery on social media.
Asked by a TV reporter Wednesday about the tourism crisis, he proclaimed bombastically that people shouldn’t worry so much. “We don’t eat? Then, we won’t eat. We go hungry? So be it. What is the problem? As long as our country is secure and we’re moving forward. Success is clear,” he said.
Although the grumbling hardly poses any immediate threat to Sisi’s authority, even a dulling of enthusiasm could represent a shift in his popularity. There are no reliable opinion polls on Sisi’s approval ratings. But relatively low turnout in last month’s first round of parliamentary elections - 26.6 percent - has been interpreted by commentators, including supporters, as evidence of distrust in a political process overseen by Sisi and discontent over the economy.
Cracks have grown in the fierce anti-protest law imposed after Morsi’s fall, despite long prison sentences imposed on those who organize rallies. In recent weeks, numerous groups have held protests to air various grievances, though the demonstrations have not been large and focused on specific demands, not larger political issues. “These social and economic crises are beyond Sisi’s control,” explained Imad el-Deen Hussein, editor in chief of the independent Al-Shorouk daily and a Sisi supporter. “It is impossible to tell accurately if he is losing popularity. But that is the general feeling many have.”
Henawy’s defiant commentary was the most overt toward Sisi, but there has increasingly been grumbling over perceived policy failures. Reasons included the flooding, the loss of value by the Egyptian pound, the negative fallout from the arrest of a wealthy newspaper owner and the military’s detention of a leading rights advocate and investigative journalist. On her show this week, Lamees El-Hadidi, a popular TV anchor who ranks among Sisi strongest supporters, appeared to indirectly fault Sisi.