The Autocrat-in-Training: The Sisi Regime at 10

Issue Date January 2024
Volume 35
Issue 1
Page Numbers 87–101
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A decade has passed since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the Egyptian presidency. His reign has been marked by autocratic trial-and-error governance and the prioritization of personal desires and instincts over the needs of the Egyptian people. Sisi’s focus on state-led infrastructure projects, such as the building of new cities and a new Suez Canal, initially stimulated economic growth but masked underlying economic weaknesses. His military-centered economic strategy expanded the military’s role in the economy, leading to a precarious autocracy heavily reliant on coercion and external support. Sisi’s economic policies, marked by heavy borrowing and austerity measures, have disproportionately impacted low- and middle-class citizens, leading to rising poverty and social discontent. Despite attempts at economic reform, Sisi’s governance remains characterized by personalist rule, resistance to formal institutions, and a reliance on repression to suppress dissent, leaving Egypt in a precarious economic and political state.

A decade has passed since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the Egyptian presidency a year after leading a military coup against Mohamed Morsi (2012–13), the elected president for whom the general had been serving as minister of defense. Sisi’s reign has been that of an autocrat-in-training who rules mostly by trial and error, as his knowledge and expertise rarely match his excessive confidence. He has based his priorities, strategies, and decisionmaking more on a combination of desire, fear, and gut instinct than on the needs of the Egyptian people and what is actually feasible.

Not only is Sisi learning on the job, but his impatience, personalist sensibilities, and convoluted worldview often lead to impulsive decisions. When they backfire, he responds either with half-hearted reforms or by doubling down. This is how Sisi has approached the economy, dissent, and his own political apparatus. The result is a precarious autocracy that is incapable of managing competing economic priorities, is heavily dependent on coercion and external support, and is stubbornly opposed to the mediation of formal institutions and political alliances.

In the early years of Sisi’s presidency, he focused primarily on generating quick economic growth, as Egypt’s economy had been struggling since the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 Egyptian revolution after three decades in power. Sisi attempted to stimulate growth through state-led infrastructure projects: building the New Administrative Capital, dozens of new cities, a new Suez Canal, and a wide range of transportation infrastructure. These initiatives brought tremendous publicity and projected an image of modernity, thereby legitimizing Sisi’s personalist style of rule and bolstering his image as a national savior who was singlehandedly lifting Egypt out of despair and economic decline.

But there was more to these projects than quick growth and PR. Sisi had put the Egyptian Armed Forces (AF) in charge of them, thus expanding the military’s already significant role in the economy. Sisi’s military-centered economic strategy spoke to his distrust of both the civilian bureaucracy and the private sector. He viewed the former as slow, ineffective, and bogged down by obstructionism, especially compared to military institutions known for a command-and-control management style that is unbothered by bureaucratic resistance and conducive to quick execution. The private sector was never an appealing partner for Sisi, himself the product of a military establishment that had long resented Mubarak’s cozy partnership with big business, forged in the name of economic liberalization. That partnership had animated the people’s anger in 2011, perhaps reinforcing Sisi’s reluctance to cultivate a business class of his own. Thus the military had to take the wheel.1

This strategy worked at first. The economy grew, unemployment fell, and budget deficits shrank—all signs that the economy was bouncing back and was safe for investors. But these impressive figures were masking inconvenient realities that would later haunt the regime. Much of the growth was driven by state-led investments, few of which were creating secure jobs. While the government told donors that it was working to promote the private sector, Sisi was doing the exact opposite by crowding out private investments with military-led projects. And the focus on costly megaprojects, often with uncertain payoffs,2 came at the expense of other pressing needs, including social spending.

Eventually, the military-led strategy took on a life of its own. The Armed Forces had for decades been involved in the civilian economy, while enjoying tax exemptions, the free labor of its own conscripts, and unfettered access to land. But under Sisi, the military’s economic empire grew in new ways. Besides construction projects, the AF began to get involved in commodities sectors, the production of cement, steel, phosphate, and fertilizer, and the subsidized food-product trade.3 Before long, the economy became the mirror image of the military-dominated ruling coalition that came to power after 2013.

This was just one element in a broader process of militarization invading every corner of public life. The men in uniform made themselves comfortable not just in the economic sphere but also in media, the arts, higher education, and other civilian spaces. And they oversaw civilian ministries and governance bodies, whether officially or unofficially. Even hiring and training in many parts of the civil service fell to military officials. With the president effectively outsourcing governance to the Armed Forces, it was only natural for the officer-led economy to expand its reach.

Overspending, Borrowing, and Austerity

The spectacle of the megaprojects has helped to sustain these dynamics. Claiming credit for the grand structures—often in large ceremonies where Sisi boasted about his own wisdom and foresight—eventually became what can only be described as an unhealthy addiction for the president. Soon, he began to judge his own performance by how many highways, overpasses, resource-extraction facilities, or ports he developed in a given year. Indeed, the state’s swelling commitments to mega infrastructure projects were largely the product of Sisi’s obsession with the aesthetics of extravagant wealth and fascination with lavish Gulf cities such as Dubai.4 In fact, he kept spending on these endeavors as if Egypt were “a rentier state financed by hydrocarbon exports.”5

In reality, however, the country could not afford to emulate the “Gulf model” that Sisi so admired. Yet he made it work for a while, financing his spending sprees with the massive influx of external aid, notably from Gulf states, that came after the 2013 coup. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supported the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi as part of a regionwide effort to subvert any movement toward competitive politics in nearby countries, and to keep the so-called Arab Spring from spreading to their own societies. The billions of dollars that wealthy Gulf allies channeled into Egypt to prop up the postcoup regime and keep the Muslim Brotherhood at bay helped Sisi to pursue his ambitious and expensive state-led investments.

Equally important was Egypt’s enormous borrowing under Sisi. The country’s external debt more than doubled in Sisi’s first three years in office, and its gross debt-to-GDP ratio rose from 80 percent to 97 percent,6 largely due to a 2016 International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan for US$12 billion. The loan was attached to an economic-reform program intended to “boost growth and create jobs while protecting vulnerable groups.”7

Many international observers doubted that the Egyptian government would deliver on the promised reforms, but Sisi managed to project the image of a bold reformer who was making tough decisions that his predecessors had long avoided. But the truth was that he was spending flagrantly to fund the megaprojects and spoil his allies in the military with perquisites and pay raises while subjecting the lower and middle classes to the “Washington Consensus treatment.”

This effectively meant subsidy cuts and a host of price-hiking measures—currency devaluation, value-added taxes, and higher public-service fees—which contributed to rising poverty. Sisi also took on the state bureaucracy and its inefficiencies as part of his austerity drive, pushing through an unpopular law capping salary increases of civil servants and public-sector workers and making the terms of their employment, raises, and promotions conditional; and reducing workers’ influence and representation in the running of public companies.8 Sisi justified these policies with platitudes about the need for austerity and to end the bureaucracy’s expensive privileges.

Sisi appeared poised to dismantle the implicit but powerful social contract that had governed state-society relations since the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954–70): an authoritarian bargain in which citizens accepted limited political rights so long as the state protected their social and economic rights and wellbeing through well-established policies and practices, including welfare spending, state-employment opportunities, free education and healthcare, price subsidies, and labor protections. Yet since the 1970s, successive governments have pursued economic-liberalization policies that gradually chipped away at these rights. Although each of these government tried to convince the people that it had not abandoned “Abdel Nasser’s path” to social justice, in reality Egypt’s politically exclusive, but economically inclusive order was fading away, leaving behind a new, totally exclusionary, reality.

Sisi has followed a similar path, though much less cautiously and diplomatically than his predecessors. The former Armed Forces commander stands out for dropping all pretentions about the state’s commitment to social equity and distributive justice. He is quick to scold the public just as he would his soldiers at the slightest grumbling about his economic policies, telling low- and middle-income families simply to buck up and deal with worsening economic conditions. Never one to sugarcoat unpopular policies, Sisi once went on a televised rant chastising his predecessors for not raising train-ticket prices, fearful of inciting public anger, and suggesting that he was doing Egyptians a favor by hiking prices to finance railway-infrastructure improvements.9 But Sisi was not implementing these reforms to promote competitive markets and efficient government (per the expectations of international donors). He was just shifting the benefits of the Nasserist social contract from its traditional beneficiaries—the middle class and state employees—to the ruling coalition’s allies in the Armed Forces.

This has become more obvious in recent years as Egypt’s debt ballooned to $165 billion in 2023, up from just $41 billion when Sisi took office in 2014. A third of Egypt’s annual budget now goes to debt servicing, and it is low- and middle-income households that suffer most from the consequences, including depressed state wages and austerity measures such as shrinking subsidies.10 Adding to the strain on ordinary citizens, the government implemented a wave of currency devaluations in 2022–23 to facilitate another IMF loan, this time for $3 billion. The Egyptian pound is now worth just half its previous value, and food prices are 71 percent higher than they had been.11

Sisi often blames Egypt’s economic woes on the war in Ukraine and the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic did hurt tourism and other key sectors and added pressure to the already overstretched budget. The Russia-Ukraine war, meanwhile, has prompted investor flight, raised food and energy prices, and limited opportunities for economic growth. But Egypt’s problems predate these shocks. The non-oil private sector was contracting even before the pandemic, thanks to the government’s relentless borrowing. The privileging of megaprojects has limited tradable sectors and deprived manufacturing and potential export sectors of financial and physical capital. Moreover, state social-protection and subsidy programs were suffering well before 2020.12 The pandemic and the war simply exposed existing vulnerabilities.

Once the postcoup outpouring of external financial and political support subsided, especially from the Gulf states, Sisi’s expensive long-term spending commitments became unsustainable. He had wrongly believed that the vast aid and credit he enjoyed in his early years would flow forever, a sentiment captured by a slip he made in a private conversation leaked to the media in 2015: “They [the Gulf States] have money like rice.” But by the end of the 2010s, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were shifting their focus away from Egypt. Threats of an insurgency or a countercoup in the country were no longer as pressing as they had been in Sisi’s first term, and he had squandered his allies’ goodwill by failing to show he could keep the country afloat without constant external bailouts.

By the time the president’s bet on endless abundance backfired, he had little room left to maneuver given economic pressures, growing debt, and less sympathetic external backers. In 2023, Egypt ranked second only to war-torn Ukraine “among countries most vulnerable to missing debt payments.”13 And with the new IMF loan that year, Egypt became the lender’s second-largest debtor after Argentina, prices continued to skyrocket, and struggling families found themselves in a more precarious position than ever.

Sisi’s longtime Gulf allies are now banding behind the IMF and demanding reforms, including spending limits and privatization of state companies, some of which those allies themselves have been eyeing for purchase in hopes of finally getting some returns on the money they have pumped into the country.14 That these governments—not exactly known for their spending inhibitions—staged an intervention over Sisi’s spending problem underscores just how serious Egypt’s fiscal crisis has become.

Whoever Chants Will Die

Key to understanding the president’s economic recklessness is his belief that the Egyptian people will ultimately have no choice but to bear the cost of his failing policies. Sisi’s economic path is predicated on denying the people access to channels of dissent by closing the political space through violence, politically motivated prosecutions and imprisonments, and rafts of laws outlawing dissent, crushing political life and civil society, and eliminating independent media. In other words, Sisi was betting not just on endless abundance but also on repression.

One of the slogans of anti-military and anti-police demonstrations between 2011 and 2013 was “Raise your voice high, and whoever chants will not die.” The voice of peaceful protesters had become so powerful, the thinking went, that security forces would never dare shoot them. Although this was hardly accurate—state violence against activists continued in various forms during that period—the chant illustrates how notions of popular sovereignty were capturing the public imagination and reinforcing activists’ sense of confidence and invincibility.

This confidence was shattered on 14 August 2013, little more than a month after the coup. On that day, security forces massacred nearly a thousand protesters in a violent ambush against pro-Morsi sit-ins in the Rabaa al-Adawiyya and al-Nahda Squares. The event, deemed by many a crime against humanity, was a critical step in inaugurating the postcoup political order. The massacre, along with the waves of repression that followed, sent a message to the people that the state would no longer tolerate large-scale protests. After the coup, the military-backed transitional government institutionalized this understanding through a draconian law granting authorities broad discretion in banning protests and clearing them by force.15

This was all part of the military’s effort, beginning in 2013, to proof against another revolutionary uprising. The first wave of repression targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, who were viewed as the biggest threat to the new political order: The movement was declared a terrorist organization; its political party, dissolved; its assets, frozen; and its media outlets, shuttered. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members were prosecuted in politically motivated trials and handed prison and death sentences. With many of its leaders in prison or exile, the Brotherhood was excluded from the post-2013 political order.

It was not long before the security apparatus turned its attention to movements and activists associated with the January 2011 uprising, including the leaders and members of the April 6th Youth Movement—an important organizer against Mubarak and, later, the military. The movement’s key figures were arrested in late 2013 for allegedly breaching the restrictive protest law, convicted in sham trials, and put in prison. The group was banned by court order in April 2014. It quickly became clear that all who had participated in anti-military activism since 2011 were being targeted for arrest and prosecution. By 2015, with tens of thousands of political activists and leaders behind bars, Egypt’s prisons were operating at 150 percent capacity. But Sisi did not relent, building more prisons (34 more by 2021) to accommodate his war against peaceful dissidents.16

Sisi’s approach to managing political dissent has been shaped by the belief that any political opening, however small, could lead to a repeat of 2011. Informing this view is a narrative that puts the roots of Mubarak’s downfall long before January 2011 and attributes it primarily to his move toward limited political liberalization. During Mubarak’s final decade in office, the state began broadly tolerating protests and criticism of the president. Had the Mubarak regime not tried to erect a façade of democracy, the thinking goes, the 2011 uprising would never have happened. Thus Sisi’s ruling establishment remained committed for several years to closing the political arena to any meaningful opposition.

After the 2013 coup, there was a period of pro-Sisi nationalist euphoria. But by 2015, it had fizzled, and the president began to draw more open criticism. Protests erupted in 2015 and 2016 in response to deteriorating economic conditions, police brutality, suppression of press freedoms, and Sisi’s decision to cede Egypt’s sovereignty over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Sisi’s response to the increasingly fractious political scene was unforgiving. With every wave of dissent or sign of opposition—whether demonstrations, criticism of the president in the media, or the emergence of rival presidential hopefuls—the state became more ruthless in its repression.

In addition to continued arrests and prosecutions, Sisi placed heavier restrictions on civil society. Authorities blocked websites of hundreds of independent media outlets and civil society groups beginning 2017, and the following year, Sisi signed into law a bill legalizing state monitoring and regulation of private social-media accounts with large followings. The regime framed its repression of peaceful dissent as a war against terrorism. Efforts only intensified after 2017, when the president declared a state of emergency, enabling the prosecution of his opponents in emergency tribunals without due process. And licensed independent political parties began seeing their leaders and activists thrown in jail on dubious grounds.

By closing Egypt’s once-vibrant political sphere, Sisi faced little resistance in eliminating opponents while packing parliament, the bureaucracy, and the judiciary with his own loyalists. In 2019, he choreographed a constitutional amendment effectively allowing him to stay in office through 2030. All these moves insulated him from having ever to pay the political bill for his economic mismanagement. As long as he stays in office, ordinary citizens who now have no avenue for dissent or organizing a credible opposition will have to bear the costs.

None of this would have been possible without the security apparatus’s tight grip on independent media, which had played an important role in mobilizing public support for the antiregime demonstrations of 2011–13. Knowing this, Sisi’s intelligence bodies have kept these outlets on a tight leash. Today, nearly all privately owned media are controlled by the security sector through proxy ownership. The spaces available to publicly present alternative points of view are virtually nonexistent.

Although Sisi may have succeeded in demolishing the political field he inherited from the previous era, he has failed to build one of his own. Even with this mighty coercive capacity, the president has struggled to create a viable political apparatus capable of organizing his allies and advancing his administration’s agenda.

The Quest for a Political Apparatus

Sisi began his presidency by trying to sideline the dominant political groups and interests under Mubarak. Rather than forging alliances with existing parties or building a ruling party to coopt Egypt’s top political elites, Sisi relied on the popular support he had won after the 2013 coup. He also established an array of programs aimed at cultivating a new cadre of young politicians to supplant the traditional political classes he distrusted.

Sisi’s hope was to avoid the fatal missteps of Mubarak, who had tolerated an overtly corrupt group of politicians allied with his son Gamal inside the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Sisi worried that if he built a new ruling party, political climbers and special interests would use it to gain influence within the ruling establishment, which could undermine the president’s image and credibility. Sisi was not alone in his aversion to civilian politicians. Between 2011 and 2013, the military leadership became both familiar with and wary of politicians and how they work.

The president’s suspicious posture toward the traditional political class played a major role in how the regime managed the 2015 legislative election, using what I call the “fragmented-parliament strategy.” The regime engineered the electoral rules to guarantee a fragmented parliament with no single political party possessing either a majority or a large enough bloc to hinder the president’s agenda. Ultimately, the election yielded just that: a legislature dominated by nominally nonpartisan lawmakers and in which no single party managed to secure more than 10 percent of the seats.

While trying to keep parliament fragmented and weak, Sisi also worked to establish a political class of his own through what I call the “New Youth Project (NYP),” which comprised various initiatives to cultivate a group of young promilitary politicians. Sisi hoped that these younger and properly indoctrinated leaders could eventually take the helm of civilian politics rather than the opportunistic usual suspects. The NYP also aimed to tame and pacify contentious younger Egyptians, who had turned out in force during the 2011 uprising.

The project was grounded in the belief that for civilian politicians to accept the officers’ supremacy over politics and the economy, they must be trained in military-nationalist dogma and norms. The Nasser Military Academy thus became the NYP’s launchpad. The Academy began holding training programs for civilian youth in 2014. These programs promoted the military’s central role in governance and management of civilian affairs. The programs grew and found an institutional home at the Presidential Leadership Program and the National Training Academy, beginning in 2015 and 2017, respectively.17 Their graduates have gone on to assume senior posts in the state bureaucracy and intelligence-controlled media outlets. The NYP also sponsored forums such as the National Youth Conference and World Youth Forum to showcase youth participation and inclusion for international audiences.

The Mustaqbal Watan Party (MWP), meanwhile, was also part of the NYP vision. The MWP grew out of intelligence agencies’ efforts to build a youth movement to back Sisi’s 2014 presidential bid.18 The party’s founders were recruited largely from student-union leaders. Although Sisi himself has kept an official distance from the party, its alignment with the ruling establishment is well known. With state support, MWP candidates ran in the 2015 legislative election and secured the second-largest parliamentary bloc.

The party’s trajectory offers insight into Sisi’s ambition to replace the traditional political class with his own force of young politicians. Ultimately, the political pressures and challenges the president has faced in the last decade have undermined that vision, as the MWP’s evolution reveals.

Wake-Up Calls

By 2021, the MWP looked nothing like it had in 2014. The younger activists whom intelligence agencies had recruited from the student unions to drown out Mubarak-era insiders were no longer in the driver’s seat. They had been ousted starting in 2018 by the very insiders they were meant to replace. In 2016, just a quarter of the party’s Central Secretariat had ties to the NDP. By 2021, more than half did. Two-thirds of provincial leaders had NDP ties as well. As for the MWP’s founding signatories, only two remained in the Secretariat in 2021. Most surprising, it was Sisi himself who, caving to political pressures, greenlighted their exit. By that time, the president had learned that politics cannot be created out of thin air, as he had once envisioned.

The problems with Sisi’s political strategy began to emerge with the 2015 parliament. The president hoped that a fragmented parliament would be too dysfunctional to challenge the presidency. He did not anticipate that such a parliament would also be too dysfunctional to rubberstamp his laws. Although the legislature lacked organized blocs that could impede the president’s initiatives, it did have an independent caucus, known as the Alliance of 25–30 (in reference to the 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013 uprisings), that made a spectacle of opposing a president viscerally intolerant of criticism. Without a ruling party to impose consensus, assert the president’s agenda, and organize his supporters, parliament often descended into chaos, with Sisi’s allies publicly fighting among themselves. Fed up with the body’s abysmal state, the president ordered an unofficial freeze of parliamentary activities in 2019, nearly a year before the next elections.19

At this point, Sisi was coming to realize that he needed a robust political arm. Further underscoring this need was the regime’s inability to gather the resources necessary to contest elections effectively. This weakness was most pronounced at the municipal level, where elections have been postponed since 2014. Why? Official excuses aside, such as the municipal elections law being held up in parliament, the regime essentially lacked the organizational structure to recruit enough candidates to field in up to 55,000 municipal races.

Sisi eventually decided to engage the NDP functionaries in part because of his parliamentary woes and electoral limitations. The holdovers from the Mubarak regime had caused problems for Sisi since 2013. Mubarak’s last prime minister, the former Airforce general Ahmed Shafiq, has been the biggest of these thorns in Sisi’s side. Shafiq is a serial presidential hopeful who lost to Morsi in the 2012 race and then opted not to run against Sisi in 2014. Shafiq threw his hat in the ring again in the 2018 contest, but ultimately dropped out of the race under pressure and intimidation from the state.20 The former prime minister’s ongoing aspirations for the presidency, along with his supporters’ attempts to win a major bloc in parliament in 2015 and other challenges to the regime, stirred Sisi’s earlier fears that Mubarak loyalists could pose a serious threat. Sisi therefore needed not only to harness the expertise and resources of the Mubarakists, but also to keep them in check.

The rapprochement between the two camps took shape during the 2018 presidential race, when the regime enlisted ex-affiliates of the NDP (or ex-NDPers) to build support for a second Sisi term. The umbrella campaign for that effort was called Kuluna Ma‘ak Min Ajl Misr (KM-MAM), which means “we are all with you for the sake of Egypt.” The campaign was launched by Min Ajl Misr (MAM), an association formed in 2016 to support the pro-Sisi parliamentary caucus and recruit and train candidates for municipal elections on the regime’s behalf. To achieve these goals, MAM relied on Mubarak-era networks.

MAM’s rise to prominence underscored the perception that the New Youth Project had failed. MAM assumed roles that the MWP’s youth leaders had once been poised to play, including recruiting proregime politicians, advancing Sisi’s parliamentary agenda, and building popular support for the president. The dominance of ex-NDPers inside MAM signaled that the president had tempered his skepticism of the old regime’s political players and determination to replace them with pro-military youth.

By the eve of the 2018 election, MAM had become the Sisi regime’s de facto political brand after launching various subsidiary groups that riffed on the slogan “For the sake of Egypt,” including KM-MAM and its many ex-NDPers with extensive experience running political campaigns. The election itself ultimately proved to be a nonevent: The president won with more than 97 percent of the vote after running against a single opponent who happened also to be a Sisi cheerleader, Moussa Mostafa Moussa of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. Yet the contest was nonetheless significant in that it reconfigured Sisi’s political apparatus by solidifying MAM’s role as the primary executor of the regime’s political operations. MAM would now assume a role that had thus far been vacant: that of the regime’s political arm.

Not long after the election, the state press announced that MAM was forming its own political party. The revelation was a slap in the face to the MWP, which had long expected to become Sisi’s ruling party. But the president had apparently lost faith in the MWP’s young amateurs and their ability to manage electoral and parliamentary politics. Sisi therefore decided that he needed MAM’s seasoned politicos—the very ones he had sidelined in his first term.

Within a month of these developments, MAM and the MWP announced that they would merge. This was not a merger of equals. MAM essentially took over the party, replacing many of its younger leaders with MAM officers, including ex-NDPers. So began the MWP’s transformation. By 2020, the party had become a hub for former Mubarakists who were trading their experiences, resources, or public stature for a spot in Sisi’s political apparatus. These figures included senior lawmakers and high-profile NDP leaders (or their relatives), as well as midlevel politicians who had been rising in the ruling party’s ranks during Mubarak’s final years. Others were functionaries who used to lead the NDP’s youth-mobilization efforts or provincial operations.

The MWP’s overhaul marginalized many of its original young leaders (although not its then-president, Ashraf Rashad, who remains in the leadership today). This did not spell the end for Sisi’s NYP, though. It lives on in other ongoing initiatives, including the abovementioned youth training programs. The persistence of such programs speaks to Sisi’s continued determination to create a community of young politicians ideologically committed to protecting the military establishment’s role and interests.

Perhaps to compensate for sidelining MWP youth leaders, Sisi also created a new body through which to channel the NYP’s engagement in politics, called the Coordination Committee of Parties’ Youth Leaders and Politicians (CPYP). An association drawing from young leaders across different parties, the CPYP provided a space for cultivating political talent along the lines envisioned by the NYP. Thus Sisi never fully dismantled his youth project. He simply reconfigured parts of it, namely, the MWP, to accommodate a larger role for the traditional elites he now needed after the humbling experience of trying to manage politics without their resources and skills.

Into the Horse Race

The MWP overhaul was a prelude to the regime’s shift toward formal politics. After 2018, Sisi began retreating from his first-term strategy of containing civilian politics by keeping it factionalized and inconducive to collective action. With a political arm now in place, the Sisi regime began taking a more interventionist approach to managing political life, more actively dictating political outcomes and regulating the licensed opposition’s access to formal politics. Most notably, the regime abandoned the fragmented-parliament strategy it had used in 2015 in favor of a party-centric approach aimed at handing the MWP legislative control in 2020.21

Accordingly, Sisi rewrote electoral laws to ensure that the MWP would win a decisive majority in parliament and that opposition parties would not receive a meaningful number of seats unless they negotiated their way onto the regime-sponsored electoral list. The strategy worked: The MWP controlled a majority in the 2020 parliament, and the state of fragmentation that characterized the previous legislature was over; less than a quarter of the 570 elected seats went to independent lawmakers (compared to three-fifths in 2015).

As Sisi began focusing on building a decisive advantage for the MWP, he also became more aggressive with the licensed opposition. Even before the MWP’s reorganization, the regime had shown incredible brutality in silencing dissidents who questioned its legitimacy. But after 2018, the security establishment became obsessed with disrupting legal opposition groups, targeting not only their leaders but also their strategists and staffers who worked behind the scenes.22

As significant as it was, the restructuring of the MWP may not have produced the outcome that Mubarakist elites had hoped for. Sisi continues to keep the MWP at arm’s length and has avoided recognizing it as his official ruling party. The regime has made no effort to encourage state officials to join the party, and its representation in senior government posts remains limited at best. Notwithstanding occasional chatter about the MWP getting control of a few ministries, there is nothing to indicate that Sisi is serious about carving out a meaningful role for MWP in governing the country. The mixed signals have left the party in an awkward spot that one might describe as Sisi’s “political friendzone.”

This reality speaks to the president’s persistent distrust of the political elites. This is not surprising, as Sisi’s accommodation of Mubarak loyalists came out of necessity, not conviction. Thus the MWP’s role as an acting ruling party is perhaps evidence that the president is hedging his bets. Sisi may still believe that the NYP will one day deliver his dream of a new class of young politicians loyal to the military and with enough political know-how to replace the veteran political elites whom Sisi so resents. Until this happens, if it ever will, Sisi may have to keep the MWP in its current form.

Learning on the Job

Egypt’s president began his reign confident that he could restructure the country’s economy and political field to his liking. He pushed forward a development plan that elevated the military’s control over the economy and advanced grand, prestige-building projects, with little regard for the costs and risks of these ventures. The erstwhile general expected his foreign allies and the Egyptian people to bear the costs of this vision indefinitely. And although he now knows that this is untenable, he has not changed course.

The president’s speeches suggest that he is stuck in 2014 and has yet to fully grasp that the moment of abundance is long gone. He reminisces about the Gulf states’ largesse after 2013 coup, and hints that Egypt needs for them to revive that same spirit of generosity to help the country overcome its current economic challenges. Sisi is still betting that Egypt is “too big to fail,” and that its allies will, sooner or later, come forward with a bailout plan. But even if these external backers are not prepared to accept Egypt’s total collapse, Sisi’s bet ignores the fact that they are probably willing to tolerate some degree of instability and economic precarity before doling out more money.

Amid worsening economic conditions that have made life much harder for ordinary Egyptians, Sisi has over the last year sometimes tried to soften his tone with the public. He once said, for example, that he was prepared to ignore IMF recommendations that could further raise consumer prices. Yet he still defends his megaprojects and costly infrastructure investments, which have not abated. Last spring, just as Egyptians were getting crushed by a 30 percent inflation rate, the pro-Sisi media boasted about the New Administrative Capital’s “Grand Mosque” having broken the world record for highest pulpit and heaviest and largest chandelier. If these signs are any indication, Sisi may choose to continue on the same economic path he forged in his first term. This would surely cause more suffering and spark popular anger, and thus would only increase the president’s dependence on repression and the continued closure of political space.

Although Sisi managed to clear the political field that Egypt enjoyed before 2013, he has struggled to establish a new one of his own. Sisi initially refused to either institutionalize his coalition through a formal ruling party or to incorporate old-regime politicos into his political apparatus. Instead, he tried circumventing the political elites of the old regime by creating his own “army” of loyal young politicians. This strategy created as many problems as it solved. Eventually, the president saw that his way was not working, and he turned to the very political classes he had snubbed to do what he had avoided for years, institutionalizing his political apparatus. Yet Sisi has yet to fully embrace this course, however, perhaps still believing in his ability to rule without any political class or party. It remains to be seen whether he will drop his resistance to a ruling-party project in his third term. But we know already that any such project will be limited by Sisi’s own personalist sensibilities and distrust of institutionalized politics.

Is Sisi more secure today than he was at the beginning of his reign? Certainly, he managed to consolidate power by eliminating opponents, rewarding his military allies politically and economically, and shutting down all channels of political expression and dissent. Yet he remains heavily dependent on the use of repression and has struggled to build a constituency for his regime outside the security establishment that protects him.

After spending a decade leveling the political field, Sisi now finds himself without a lot of resources to build a credible façade of participatory politics—one that could absorb the shock of popular anger at the deteriorating state of the economy and mitigate international criticism. Sisi’s fear of repeating Mubarak’s missteps may have fed his personalist sensibilities and his aversion to institutionalized forms of authoritarianism, embodied by ruling parties, managed political pluralism, and limited political competition. At the same time, it also deprived the president of the political tools that would have enabled him to sustain his rule without constantly feeling the need to repress the slightest hint of opposition. But, as the memory of 25 January 2011 always reminds us, when popular anger turns fierce, repression alone is hardly a safe bet.

Hesham Sallam is senior research scholar and associate director for research at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

NOTES

1. That is, even if it had to outsource work to private companies. Abdel-Fattah Barayez, “More than Money on their Minds: The Generals and the Economy in Egypt Revisited,” Jadaliyya, 2 July 2015.

2. See, for example, “The Suez Canal Between Ambition and Reality,” Alternative Policy Solutions at the AUC, 6 August 2023.

3. Yezid Sayigh, “Praetorian Spearhead: The Role of the Military in the Evolution of Egypt’s State Capitalism 3.0,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series no. 43 (2021): 9, 19, 24.

4. Sayigh, “Praetorian Spearhead,” 11.

5. Robert Springborg, “Follow the Money to the Truth About Al-Sisi’s Egypt,” POMED, 7 January 2022, 2, https://pomed.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/2022_01_Final_SpringborgSnapshot.pdf.

6. For gross debt-to-GDP ratio, see www.macrotrends.net/countries/EGY/egypt/external-debt-stock. Doaa A. Moneim, “Egypt’s Gross Debt to Reach 92.9% of GDP in 2023, Highest Record in Five Years: IMF,” Ahram Online, 12 April 2023, https://english.ahram.org.eg/News/495669.aspx.

7.IMF Executive Board Approves US$12 Billion Extended Arrangement Under the Extended Fund Facility for Egypt,” IMF, 11 November 2016.

8. Maria Golia, “Taking On Egypt’s Big Bureaucracy,” MEI, 15 October 2015, www.mei.edu/publications/taking-egypts-big-bureaucracy; and Beesan Kassab, “Farewell to Worker Participation in the Management of the Public Business Sector,” Mada Masr, 17 September 2020.

9. Recording of the remarks can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBWPXdCLymI.

10. Amr Adely, “Al-din lil-jami’ wal-fawa’id li-ashab ra’s al-maal,” Al-Manassa, 21 May 2023, https://manassa.news/stories/11192.

11.Emirati and Egyptian Central Banks Agree to Currency Swap Deal,” Al-Jazeera, 28 September 2023; Mirette Magdy, “Egypt Inflation Soars as Higher Food Costs Add to Currency Angst,” Bloomberg, 9 September 2023.

12. Timothy E. Kaldas, “Egypt’s Next IMF Loan: How to Avoid the Failures of the Past Six Years,” TIMEP, 7 June 2022; Maged Mandour, “Egypt’s Market Free Capitalism,” Sada, 2 June 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/87232; Amr Adly, “Crowding Egypt’s Private Sector In, Not Out,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 8 May 2023; Mohamed Ahmed Abbas, “Taqiym barnamij al-da’m al-naqdi fi misr,” Egyptian Institute for Studies Report, 19 June 2019. See also Beesan Kassab, “Do Not Rest Assured: People in Need Are Still Not Getting Their Food Subsidies,” Mada Masr, 3 October 2019, www.madamasr.com/en/2019/10/03/feature/economy/do-not-rest-assured-people-in-need-are-still-not-getting-their-food-subsidies.

13. Netty Idayu Ismail, “Egypt Splits Investors over Default Risk After Devaluations,” Bloomberg, 26 September 2023, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-09-27/egypt-transfixes-market-as-jpmorgan-imf-moody-s-wait-and-worry.

14.Gulf States Play Hardball over Sending Billions to Rescue Egypt,” Middle East Monitor, 25 February 2023 .

15.Egypt: Deeply Restrictive New Assembly Law,” Human Rights Watch, 26 November 2013.

16. Hossam el-Hamalawy, “Egypt: A Decade of Counter-Revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 7 March 2023.

17. Nathan J. Brown and Mark Berlin, “Steering the Wide Egyptian State: Ideology or Administration?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 May 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/05/28/steering-wide-egyptian-state-ideology-or-administration-pub-81924.

18. Hossam Bahgat, “Anatomy of an Election,” Mada Masr, 14 May 2016.

19. On parliamentary opposition, see, for example, “Amid Mass Passing of Laws, Egypt’s Parliament Rejects Civil Service Law,” Mada Masr21 January 2016; “A Presidential Directive to Freeze Parliament,” Mada Masr, 1 October 2019.

20. Nour Youssef, “Egypt’s Presidential Race Loses Popular Candidate,” New York Times, 7 January 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/07/world/middleeast/egypt-ahmed-shafik.html.

21. See Hesham Sallam, “Repression, Legal Engineering, and State-managed Elections in Sisi’s Egypt,” in Francesco Cavatorta and Valeria Resta, eds., Routledge Handbook on Elections in the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Routledge, 2023).

22. One important example of this trend is the 2019 “Hope Alliance” case, which involved the arrest and fabrication of charges against opposition figures planning to run in the 2020 legislative elections. See Mostafa Mohie, “Hossam Moanis: A Backstage Force in Oppositional Politics,” Mada Masr, 7 January 2021.

 

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