Egypt’s woes erode Sisi’s im­age of in­vin­ci­bil­ity

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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