By Peter Hessler – The New Yorker
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has unwittingly revealed more about his country’s political structures than anybody could have imagined.
The Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who came to power in a coup that, in its aftermath, resulted in the massacre of more than a thousand supporters of his predecessor, has a reputation for speaking very softly. This quality often disarms foreigners. “When you talk to him, unlike most generals, he listens,” a European diplomat told me recently. “He’s not bombastic.” An American official told me that Sisi reminds her of a certain Washington archetype. “You have the political people who always want to be the loudest voice in the room,” she said. “And then there are people who are creatures of the system, who are just as capable but not necessarily the loudest.” She said of Sisi, “I also think the quiet, reserved posture is a forcing function to make people lean in and really think about what he’s saying. What signal is he trying to send? Is there a deeper meaning?”
Revolutions are often started by the bold and the outspoken, and then coöpted by those who are quiet and careful. A price is paid for early prominence; in many cases, the winners are the ones who wait. In February, 2011, when the Tahrir Square movement forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign, Sisi was the Army’s director of military intelligence, a position that was virtually invisible to the public. Five years earlier, he had completed a course at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but he seems to have hardly crossed the radar of top American officials. “I can’t tell you I recall any kind of special attention in the intelligence summaries with regard to Sisi,” Leon Panetta, who became the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the year of Tahrir, and who previously directed the Central Intelligence Agency, told me. In 2013, Chuck Hagel succeeded Panetta at the Pentagon. “Our military people did not know him well,” Hagel said of Sisi. Another U.S. official told me that biographical information about Sisi had been particularly thin. “People didn’t know a lot about his wife, people didn’t know a lot about his kids,” she said. “I don’t think that’s coincidence. I think it was an intentional aura that he constructed around himself.”
Mubarak held power for nearly thirty years without naming a successor, and he was toppled by a revolution that lacked leadership or organizational structure. Afterward, Egypt was ruled by a council of military officers who were supposed to oversee the transition to a civilian government. Sisi was the youngest member of this council, and reportedly he assumed a leading role in secret talks with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that had been banned in Egypt until the revolution. The Brotherhood had always had tense relations with the military, but during the post-Tahrir period, as the group rose to power through a series of popular elections, there were signs that an arrangement was being worked out. “Sisi was the one negotiating with the Brotherhood,” a senior official in the State Department, who had contact with both the military and the Islamists during this period, told me recently. “His view, I think, was that he was trying to influence, control, and smooth out the political process.” A European diplomat described the arrangement as “a cohabitation.” He said, “As long as the Brothers didn’t interfere too much in the military matters, then the military would allow them to get on with the business of civilian government.”
Brotherhood leaders trusted Sisi in part because he was a devout Muslim. And, at least initially, the military leaders seemed to hold up their end of the bargain. In June, 2012, when Egypt’s first democratic Presidential election was won by Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood, the Army didn’t interfere. Not long after taking office, Morsi forced the retirement of the Minister of Defense, along with the commanders of the Navy, the Air Defense, and the Air Force. This move was praised by young Egyptian revolutionaries, who saw it as a sign that Morsi was determined to reduce the Army’s influence. Many people were also encouraged by his choice of new Minister of Defense: Sisi. At the age of fifty-seven, Sisi replaced a seventy-six-year-old general, and the appointment seemed to reflect a transition to a younger, more enlightened officer corps.
It wasn’t long before Morsi attempted another bold move. In November, he issued a Presidential decree that granted him temporary powers beyond the reach of any court, as a way of preëmpting opposition to a new, Islamist-friendly constitution. This proved to be the turning point for the Brotherhood’s political fortunes. The group lost the support of most revolutionaries, and opposition grew steadily for the next six months, until many state institutions, including the police, essentially refused to work on behalf of Morsi’s government. Sisi made few public statements, but he opened a dialogue with Chuck Hagel, his counterpart at the Pentagon. In March, 2013, as the crisis was building, Hagel visited Cairo, where he met Sisi for the first time. “Our chemistry was very good,” Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, told me. “I think he saw me as someone who understood the military, who understood threats and war.”
As the crisis worsened, Hagel became the only person in the U.S. government with whom Sisi would communicate. Hagel estimates that they had nearly fifty phone conversations. “We were literally talking, like, once a week,” he said. “These would be hour-long conversations, sometimes more.” Many people believe that the military had always planned to overthrow Morsi, but Hagel is convinced that Sisi initially had no intention of taking power. Other diplomats agreed. “He’s not somebody who has spent his life lusting for power, lusting to become President,” a European diplomat who has met Sisi dozens of times told me. Several observers emphasized that motivations tend to be fluid during a period of political instability. “I’ve never been in the position of having millions of people tell me that I can change the country if I act,” a former senior official in the Obama Administration told me. “I don’t know what that would do to my psychology.”
On the last day of June, 2013, an estimated fourteen million people took to the streets in protest against the government. I asked Hagel what Sisi was saying during this time. “ ‘What can I do?’ ” Hagel remembered. “ ‘I mean, I can’t walk away. I can’t fail my country. I have to lead; I have support. I am the one person in Egypt today that can save this country.’ ”
Until the end, Brotherhood leaders seemed to believe that Sisi was on their side. “I think Morsi was pretty much totally taken by surprise when Sisi turned against him,” a senior official in the State Department told me. On July 3rd, soldiers took Morsi into custody, and Sisi appeared on television to announce that an interim government would rule until Egypt could hold elections and approve a new constitution. During the months that followed, Sisi enjoyed immense popularity, but he seemed intent on remaining a cipher. He rarely appeared in public, and he never joined a political party. When he ran for President, in the spring of 2014, he had no real platform. He didn’t attend any of his own campaign rallies. He never bothered to clarify some basic details about his life; his campaign’s official YouTube channel identified two conflicting birthplaces for him. Sisi has four adult children, but he has rarely referred to them in public, and his wife has been all but invisible.
But since becoming President he has unwittingly revealed more about himself and Egypt’s political structures than anybody could have imagined. A string of secretly recorded videos and audiotapes, known as SisiLeaks, have featured the President talking openly about sensitive subjects that range from manipulating the media to extracting cash from the Gulf states. Human-rights violations have become much worse than they were under Mubarak, and the economy is dangerously weak. During the past year and a half, a plane crash in Sinai, the murder of a foreign graduate student in Cairo, and public protests over the sovereignty of two Red Sea islands have illustrated the tragedy of a failed political movement. Everything that it took for a man like Sisi to rise in revolutionary Egypt—secrecy, silence, and commitment to the system—has also made it impossible for him to enact real change.
In October, 2013, in one of the earliest of the leaked videos, Sisi spoke at a closed meeting of military officers. “The whole state has been taken apart and is being rebuilt,” he says to the assembled men. He sighs deeply—in the video, Sisi’s eyes are alert and surprisingly gentle. He’s a small, balding, neckless man, and he wears a camouflage uniform with stars and crossed sabres on the epaulets. He sits in front of a box of tissues, a large display of multicolored flowers, and no fewer than three containers of Wet Ones hand wipes. This strange tableau creates a “Wizard of Oz” effect—pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. “This is a time period that we are going through, and these are its fruits, its symptoms,” Sisi says softly. “But you will not be able to cope fully and go back to where you were. Where nobody mentions your name or talks about you.”
Last November, Sisi embarked on a state visit to the United Kingdom to meet with David Cameron, who was then Prime Minister. Sisi invited a number of prominent Egyptians to join him in London, including Sameh Seif El-Yazal, a retired general of military intelligence, who was leading a coalition of pro-Sisi candidates in the election for Egypt’s new parliament. On the EgyptAir flight, El-Yazal told me that the main goals of the trip were economic. “The U.K. is the largest non-Arab investor in Egypt,” he said. “I know there is a lot of interest, especially in the oil business. And we’ll be talking about the export-import issue as well.”
Four days earlier, a Metrojet airliner carrying Russian tourists had crashed after taking off from the beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, in the Sinai Peninsula, killing all two hundred and twenty-four people aboard. In 2014, a Sinai-based Islamist group had pledged allegiance to isis, but initial reports of the crash speculated that it was likely the result of a technical malfunction rather than terrorism. This detail gave the Egyptians hope that the crash wouldn’t further damage the tourism industry, which had been crushed since the start of the Arab Spring. El-Yazal told me that the trip’s agenda wouldn’t be affected by the news.
John Casson, the British Ambassador to Egypt, was on the same flight. When I stopped by his seat, he didn’t seem to be thinking about the economic goals of Sisi’s visit. Casson was studying a Carnegie Endowment brief entitled “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency,” and he referred to the number of Egyptian soldiers who had been killed in Sinai during the past two years. “It’s more than seven hundred, which is more than we lost in all of Afghanistan,” he said. (Some four hundred and fifty British soldiers died in the Afghan war.)
The night before, Casson had learned that British analysts believed that the plane had probably been brought down by a bomb planted by agents of isis. This information remained secret, although Cameron had telephoned Sisi to tell him. Months later, Casson told me that the crisis had unfolded “in real time.” As we were flying to London, a plane with British experts was headed in the opposite direction, to conduct an emergency evaluation of security procedures at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
Not long after we touched down in London, all flights between Sharm and the U.K. were grounded. It was unclear when and how the nearly seventeen thousand British tourists in southern Sinai would be repatriated. For the state visit, the timing couldn’t have been worse; on the first morning of Sisi’s trip, a headline in the Independent read “this could well destroy the confidence of tourists.” Sisi was staying at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, near Hyde Park, and, when I stopped by at eight o’clock on the evening of his arrival, the front entrance had been cordoned off by the police, because several dozen Egyptian protesters stood in front, chanting Tahrir slogans: Yasqut, yasqut, hukm al-askar! (Down, down with military rule!)
Inside, Sisi’s delegation had taken over the elegant Rosebery Lounge. Heavyset security officials were stationed beside the high bay windows, and businessmen sat at the tables, chatting in Arabic. Members of the Egyptian Presidential press corps were waiting for the evening’s briefing. I sat with Fathya Eldakhakhny, a reporter for Al-Masry Al-Youm, a privately owned newspaper. She doubted that members of the press would have an opportunity to ask many questions about the Sinai crash. “We are here for decoration, nothing else,” she said.
Eldakhakhny, a dark-haired, energetic woman in her late thirties, had served in the Presidential press corps for most of the post-Tahrir period. She said that in the days of Morsi it had been common to interact with the President’s spokesman. But since Sisi took office he had held only one press conference in Egypt, at which questions were scripted. “They chose three Egyptian journalists and told them that these are the questions you will ask,” Eldakhakhny said. The three journalists had confirmed to her that the questions had been planted. “I wrote an article about it,” she said, and then laughed. “They didn’t allow me to enter the Presidential palace for three months!”
After the coup, Sisi counted on the support of the Egyptian media. Most journalists had distrusted and feared the Brotherhood, and they were relieved when Morsi was removed. In a leaked video from this period, Sisi listens while a uniformed officer advises him on relations with the press. “In my opinion, I think that the entire media in Egypt is controlled by twenty or twenty-five people,” the officer says. “These people, sir, can be contacted or engaged with in a manner that is not announced.”
In fact, the meetings with the press weren’t kept very quiet. During the first couple of years after the coup, televised recordings of Sisi’s roundtables with prominent editors and talk-show hosts were often posted on YouTube. In one meeting, Sisi asks a group of journalists to pass sensitive information on to the authorities rather than publish it. “If you have any information on a subject, why not whisper it rather than expose it?” he says.
In Egypt, a President’s control over the media has always depended largely on individual negotiation. There’s no ministry of information or formal censorship apparatus, and the Internet is unrestricted. Under the Mubarak regime, boundaries weren’t formally defined, and the press was managed through a combination of subtle threats and rewards. After the revolution, this system collapsed, and there were two and a half years of virtually total freedom of the press, followed by the period of almost unanimous support of Sisi. At the time of the London visit, though, the press corps was showing signs of dissent. Recently, the media had reported on a series of floods and mismanaged public services in Alexandria.
In the Rosebery Lounge, Sisi’s spokesman finally appeared and met privately with Eldakhakhny and the other Egyptian journalists for twenty minutes. Afterward, Eldakhakhny told me that she had been the only one to ask about the plane crash. “The spokesman didn’t want to answer,” she said. “He said, ‘We don’t want to focus on this issue. We want to focus on the visit. What I can say is that, in Egypt, we don’t want to make decisions until the end of the investigation.’ ”
Eldakhakhny told me that it was possible to push some boundaries under Sisi. “Like this thing right now,” she said. “The other journalists didn’t follow up on the question, but they took down what was said. And maybe after a while they will start to ask these questions, too.” After the meeting, the reporters from state-owned organizations had debated whether they would print the spokesman’s denial. Eldakhakhny said that she was going to publish it, so they decided that they would publish, too.
I asked if she would write about the protests at the hotel, and she laughed and buried her face in her hands, as if helpless. She told me that editors at the paper had decided that it was too risky to cover the demonstrations. Later, they adjusted: the newspaper ran a piece under a different byline, and the story emphasized the presence of pro-Sisi demonstrators in London, while claiming that all opponents were connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Eldakhakhny told me that such calculations are common. “Sometimes if we publish something we get a call from the President’s office: ‘Remove the story!’ ”
For the rest of the visit, the Egyptian government held its line. In Sinai, Russian investigators reported evidence of an explosion on the plane, and the Sinai affiliate of isis claimed responsibility. It had organized the attack in response to Russia’s air strikes in Syria. But Sisi and his administration refused to accept this possibility. The day after flights were grounded, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an aggrieved statement claiming that the British had made their decision “unilaterally, without consulting with Egypt,” despite all the direct high-level communication that had taken place.
The day that Sisi left London, I saw El-Yazal again, and he said that members of the delegation were angry about the British decision to ground the flights. “They should have waited until the visit was completed,” he said. His response seemed irrational—as a former intelligence officer, he must have known that any Western government would respond immediately to information that its citizens might be at risk from terrorism. When I spoke with one of the Egyptian journalists from the state press who had covered the visit, he told me that the British and the Americans had conspired in order to shame Egypt and destroy the tourist economy. “This is an insult,” he said. “Why would you want to embarrass the President?”
Egyptian pride sometimes drives policy, and officials have a reputation for being hot-tempered. “I’ve certainly been yelled at and sort of aggressively confronted by many Egyptians in the government,” one U.S. official told me. “But Sisi—I’ve never seen him lose his cool.” In London, when Sisi appeared with Cameron before the press, he was gracious toward his host. Casson told me that during the closed-door meetings Sisi showed no sign of anger or resentment. “In the meeting with the Prime Minister, he was statesmanlike, very candid,” he said.
When Westerners analyze the actions of an authoritarian figure, they tend to focus on his mind-set—the frequently petulant behavior of a man with unlimited power. But often the institution matters more than the individual, and a leader channels the psychology and the dysfunction of the state. For Sisi, who rose as a creature of the system, the response to the Metrojet crisis was essentially to step back and allow the government to follow its instinctive course of defensiveness, denial, and inflexibility. It made no strategic sense: since taking office, Sisi had sought to justify his crackdown on civil liberties by declaring that Egypt was in an existential battle against radical Islamists. The Metrojet bombing supported this narrative, but it also hurt Egyptian pride, which trumped terrorism. Sisi didn’t change his line until three months later, when, in a televised speech, he made a passing reference to the fact that terrorists had brought down the plane. After that, he never referred to the event in public.
Not long after the London visit, Eldakhakhny left the Presidential press corps. “This is not a job,” she said, when I saw her again. “You’re a postman. Just take the press release and deliver it to the newspaper.” She was now the editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s Web site, and I asked about her conclusions after nearly two years of covering Sisi. “He doesn’t choose good people to work for him, his advisers, his ministers,” she said. “If you work alone, then you will lose. I think that he doesn’t trust anybody except the Army.” She continued, “He needs a party.”
Of the four military men who have ruled Egypt during the past sixty years, Sisi stands out for his lack of interest in formal politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat were activists as young men, and both flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood before rejecting political Islam. As President, each worked to build a political organization, which under Sadat became known as the National Democratic Party, or N.D.P. Mubarak, Sadat’s chosen successor, used the N.D.P. to rule what was in effect a one-party state.
In some respects, Sisi is a natural politician, and his speeches, delivered in colloquial Arabic, often impress average Egyptians as sincere and sympathetic. But his political instincts are personal, not institutional, and the subject of politics does not seem to have interested him while he was growing up. Sisi’s immediate family includes thirteen siblings and half siblings; his father was polygamous, although little is known about the woman who in the Egyptian press is referred to as simply “the second wife.” The only family member whom Sisi speaks about with any frequency is his mother. She died during his second year in office, and he has described her as “an authentically Egyptian woman, in all the meaning of authenticity.” In 2013, an Egyptian journalist asked Sisi what he had done after announcing the removal of Morsi on television. Sisi responded, “I read the statement, and then I went to my mother.” (Her reaction: “May God protect you from all evil!”)
Sisi’s grandfather began a business making arabesques, wooden objects that are intricately patterned with inlaid mother-of-pearl. The Sisi clan came to dominate the arabesque trade in Khan al-Khalili, the premier tourist market in Cairo, and the family still owns nearly ten shops there. One afternoon last summer, I stopped at a store that was being tended by Mossad Ali Hamama, the thirty-two-year-old son of one of Sisi’s cousins. The shop’s back wall is decorated with a photograph of Sisi’s grandfather. In the black-and-white picture, he sits imperiously in a galabiya, a cane in one hand and a tarboosh on his head.
Hamama said that during summer vacation all teen-age male family members are apprenticed into some aspect of the business. Sisi trained as a sadafgi—he used a long-handled knife to carve out tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl. “We don’t have a situation where we say, ‘This is the son of a business owner, and this is the son of a President,’ ” Hamama said. “The only rule is about the way the elders and the youngers interact. If we’re talking about my father’s cousin, if he’s older than me, then I obey him.” He continued, “If an elder comes into the shop, even if he’s not in the business, he’ll sit down here as if he owned the shop. Our family is not from Upper Egypt, but you can say we have this tradition of the Upper Egyptians.”
Upper Egypt is known for conservatism, and I asked Hamama if he is sometimes bothered by this tradition. “No, it’s the opposite,” he replied. “Because, just as I respect my elders, one day I will be old and somebody will respect me.”
When Sisi was in his mid-teens, he entered a military high school. The combination of Army discipline, a rigid family structure, and sincere religious conviction has created a person who by all accounts is deeply traditional. He married his first cousin, which is common for conservative Egyptians, and his wife and daughter are homemakers. I could find no evidence in the Egyptian press of any Sisi women having careers. Fathy El-Sisi, one of the President’s cousins, told the newspaper El Watan that Sisi had twice turned down an assignment to serve as a military representative in the United States, because the Egyptian authorities requested that his wife remove her hijab while in the West.
For Sisi, the Mubarak regime has served as a cautionary tale. Mubarak openly groomed his son Gamal for political power, and the extended family profited from corruption on a staggering scale. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, was also highly involved in politics, especially on behalf of women’s rights, and her role often offended Islamists and other conservatives. After the revolution, Mubarak and his sons were imprisoned, and their fate is undoubtedly one reason that Sisi has kept his family out of the public eye. Eldakhakhny told me that the Bahraini press once reported that Sisi’s wife had accompanied him on a state visit, so Al-Masry Al-Youm mentioned it in a story. The President’s press office immediately called the paper and demanded that the article be removed.
Sisi seems to have taken similar lessons from the N.D.P., which over time became dominated by corrupt businessmen. A number of American officials told me that during the first post-Tahrir Presidential election Sisi and other military leaders were wary of Ahmed Shafiq, Morsi’s opponent, a retired Air Force general who had been Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. For Sisi and other military men, Shafiq may have been even more threatening than Morsi. They seemed to believe that the Brotherhood could be easily controlled, whereas Shafiq might resurrect a party with real power. Even after the defeat of the Brotherhood, the authorities have made sure that Shafiq remains in exile—he’s currently in the Gulf, with the threat of legal cases in Egypt preventing his return.
“The biggest question about Sisi is whether he can grow from a commander-in-chief into a politician,” a European diplomat told me. “He gives the impression of seeing politics, as an activity, as a corrosive thing. It divides the nation.” A senior official in the U.S. State Department said that Sisi perceives only the risks and none of the benefits of a party. “Politicians actually need parties for more reasons than to get elected,” he said. “You need to hear from your people around the country.” Another European diplomat described visiting Sisi’s central campaign headquarters during the 2014 Presidential election, in which, after a number of his opponent’s supporters were arrested, Sisi won ninety-six per cent of the vote. The headquarters were in the remote outskirts of Cairo, and, when the European diplomat visited, she passed through heavy security and then found the place empty except for two retired government officials. “If you visit a campaign headquarters at the end of the election, it should be bustling with young people,” she said. “He chose not to campaign. But that could have been an opportunity to build a connection with young people.”
Without real parties, real political institutions, and real professional politicians, there are few ways for young Egyptians to get involved in politics, other than protesting in the streets. The existing parties are too weak and disorganized to enlist aides or volunteers on a regular basis, and laws aimed at limiting foreign influence have dismantled nongovernmental organizations. Sisi’s approval rating remains generally high, because citizens believe that he has brought security to the country, but polls show that the youth are much more skeptical of him than older Egyptians are. Roughly sixty per cent of the population is under the age of thirty, and young people dominated the original protests in Tahrir Square. They are also a major presence in the field of journalism. Most important, the young represent the sector that is most affected by Sisi’s greatest weakness: his economic policies.
One of Sisi’s first state visits was to China, in 2014, and he returned the following year. In the press, there was talk of following the example of the Chinese. The implication was that Egypt could use authoritarianism to make decisive economic policy, but few outsiders take this seriously. The Chinese certainly don’t. One Chinese diplomat in Cairo told me bluntly that Egypt is going in the opposite direction from China. “It’s a reverse image,” he said. Ashraf El-Sherif, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said, “I can understand a social contract that is authoritarianism in exchange for development. But in Egypt you have authoritarianism in exchange for non-development.”
In January, President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Arab League Headquarters, in Cairo, in which he said, “Turmoil in the Middle East stems from the lack of development.” Xi referred to “currency swaps,” “genetic engineering,” and “production-capacity coöperation,” and he used the word “development” twenty-three times. He said “religious” twice. He never mentioned “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “the Islamic State.” For the Chinese, the devoutness of the Egyptians and their commitment to traditional family and gender roles are so deeply entrenched that to comment on them publicly would be as pointless as complaining about the weather. But the cultural differences between the countries, and the ways in which they affect economic and social outcomes, are immense. (It’s impossible, for example, to imagine an ambitious Chinese turning down an overseas promotion so that his wife can wear more conservative clothing.)
In China, manufacturing has averaged more than thirty per cent of gross domestic product for the past three decades. In Egypt—a populous, young country, with cheap labor and great access to shipping lanes—manufacturing is only sixteen per cent of a weak G.D.P. Sisi’s speeches almost never focus on manufacturing, and his policies have done nothing to boost it. Egypt’s industrial sector is largely based on energy extraction and production, which employs relatively few people and fluctuates with oil prices. Tourism once contributed more than a tenth of the economy, but, with the turmoil of the Middle East, it has no immediate hope of recovery. In the World Economic Forum’s rankings of women’s economic participation and opportunity, Egypt is a hundred and thirty-second out of a hundred and forty-four countries, behind Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. This is even worse than Egypt’s ranking before the revolution, in part because the security climate has led families to further restrict the activities of wives and daughters. One result has been a spike in pregnancies: in 2012, Egypt recorded its highest birth rate in two decades.
The bloated civil service is one of the few sectors that employ many Egyptians. Not counting the police and the Army, the government has an estimated six million workers, more than twice as many as the United States and the United Kingdom combined. More than a quarter of the Egyptian budget is spent on government salaries. Another quarter is spent on interest payments for loans. Thirty per cent more is spent on subsidies, largely for energy.
If this sounds like a shell game, that’s because it is. For decades, Egypt has been propped up by foreign aid; since the coup, Gulf countries, which rely on Sunni Egypt to help counterbalance Iran and the Shiites, have provided more than thirty billion dollars. The question of whether this money bought the respect and gratitude of the Egyptians was effectively answered by SisiLeaks. In a series of secretly recorded conversations that were released to a Turkish television station starting in 2014, Sisi and his associates discuss Gulf money in the bluntest terms imaginable. In one conversation, Sisi and Abbas Kamel, the chief of staff, talk about making another request of Gulf leaders:
Sisi: Listen, you tell him that we need ten [billion] to be put in the account of the Army. Those ten, when God makes us successful, will work for the state. And we need from the U.A.E. another ten, and from Kuwait another ten, and a couple of pennies to be put in the central bank, and that would complete the 2014 budget.
Sisi: Why are you laughing?
Kamel: He will faint, he will faint . . .
Sisi: They have money like rice, man.
Sisi and Kamel make casual calculations, with every number representing a billion dollars. The dialogue reads like a screenplay about Arab leaders on the make—“Glengarry Gulf State”:
Sisi: The Emirates put in four.
Kamel: That makes it nine.
Sisi: And Saudi Arabia put in four.
Kamel: That makes it thirteen. And three more—that makes it sixteen.
Sisi: And four from Kuwait.
Kamel: That makes it twenty.
Sisi: And then?[Voice unclear]: Twenty and add to them 3.6 that comes from, from, from January, yes. And the 1.5 from the U.A.E.
Kamel: That makes it twenty-five. Like I was saying to you, sir, and the oil.
Sisi: Did I count the oil?
Kamel: Yes, sir, you did.
Nobody in Cairo seems to know who is directing economic policy. After taking office, Sisi reduced some subsidies for fuel and electricity, which economists cheered as a first step toward a more sustainable system. But few other proactive measures were taken. Instead, Sisi mostly focussed on grandiose mega-projects, like the expansion of the Suez Canal, which cost more than eight billion dollars and, in the opinion of most economists, is unlikely to provide much benefit in the near future. A relatively weak attempt to reform the civil service was finally passed by parliament in October.
“Sisi thinks, like all military men, that the economy is a collection of projects that the military runs,” Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University, told me. “He hasn’t got a clue.” The military mind-set is also deeply defensive. Unlike the Chinese, who for many years kept their currency undervalued, as a way of attracting investment and manufacturing, the Egyptians have expended a large amount of the country’s financial resources on propping up the pound. In the past year, the black-market rate for U.S. dollars rose steeply, and the government responded by making it all but impossible to exchange at the official rate. Manufacturers like General Motors and L.G. temporarily halted production, because they couldn’t convert local income into dollars to pay for imported parts.
In August, Sisi’s government finally agreed to a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Egypt considered such an action in 2011 and 2012, but support from the Gulf, the United States, and elsewhere allowed the government to postpone hard economic decisions. The delay has proved costly. By the time Sisi’s government accepted I.M.F. support, the terms had become much more stringent than before. A new law has effectively frozen government salaries, and the I.M.F. insisted that Egypt devalue the pound, reduce energy subsidies, and introduce a value-added tax—a brutal combination in an economy that already has an inflation rate of more than fifteen per cent.
In the beginning of November, the government allowed the pound to float, and the currency has lost more than half its value. During the coming months, life will become much harder for the average Egyptian. More than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and yet the country as a whole has enjoyed a kind of economic fantasy. “Compared with other countries in Africa, Egypt has quite a high standard of living, even though it’s a dysfunctional economy,” a foreign businessman in Cairo told me. “Have they been living beyond their means?” He continued, “When you have a lot of imports, a large workforce, and wages that are quite low, and yet you’re not exporting—it doesn’t add up.”
Government officials rarely seem to comprehend the situation, in part because they have been conditioned by a long history of subsidies. Since 1979, when Egypt agreed to a peace treaty with Israel, the United States has given Egypt approximately fifty billion dollars in aid. The current rate is about $1.5 billion per year, most of which is military aid, including weaponry and other equipment. Naturally, the recipients tend to fixate on these objects rather than on larger economic issues. After Morsi was removed, the Obama Administration decided not to designate the event as a coup, which would have triggered an automatic cancellation of aid. As a half-measure, the U.S. temporarily withheld some key military equipment. But this policy, instead of inspiring deep reflection about democracy and human rights, resulted in ever more obsessive thinking about certain pieces of shiny metal. “The fact that you could meet an Egyptian on the street who would know that there was an executive hold placed on the Apache helicopters is crazy,” one U.S. official who frequently travels to Egypt told me. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from Orange County who is a staunch supporter of Sisi, told me that during meetings in the past two years the President has talked about the need to get spare parts for tanks.
“We always used to say, ‘The poor Americans give a billion and a half a year and get nothing for it,’ ” a European diplomat told me. “Well, the Emirates and the Saudis gave thirty billion dollars in two years and got nothing for it.” But all these countries have received exactly what they paid for. They’ve always been motivated by narrow definitions of stability: the U.S. wants peace between Egypt and Israel, and the Gulf wants peace between Shiite and Sunni countries. All of them want an Egyptian government that fights Islamic extremism. If they truly desired social and political change, they wouldn’t direct the majority of their funding toward the Egyptian military, a conservative institution with no expertise in economics, education, or social and political policy. It’s hardly surprising that a military man like Sisi views the world defensively. But long-term political stability may require immediate economic and social change. “If you’re a foreign country that’s relying on Sisi as a provider of stability,” the foreign businessman told me, “and he is consistently failing to create sustainable jobs for young Egyptians, then what kind of stability is he offering?”
On February 3, 2016, the body of Giulio Regeni, a twenty-eight-year-old Italian graduate student at the University of Cambridge, was discovered in a ditch beside the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road. Regeni had been researching a dissertation about Egyptian labor activism, and friends last saw him on January 25th, the fifth anniversary of the revolution. As the story emerged, the details constantly changed. At first, the police claimed that Regeni had died in a car accident, but the public prosecutor’s office revealed that he had suffered bone fractures and bruises and that his face and body were covered with cigarette burns and stab wounds. An Egyptian forensics official estimated that he had been tortured for up to seven days.
In late March, the Ministry of Interior claimed that four men who had been killed in a shoot-out with police were part of a criminal gang that had kidnapped Regeni. Ministry officials displayed Regeni’s passport and other identity cards, claiming that they had been found with the gang members. But the story quickly collapsed under investigations by Egyptian and foreign journalists, until even Egyptian officials publicly acknowledged that there didn’t seem to be a link to the gang. The signs of torture, along with the fact that Regeni’s documents seemed to have been planted with the gang, suggested that the security forces were most likely responsible for the death. Regeni’s research was only mildly sensitive, and there seems to be no logical reason why he would have been tortured. Italy recalled its Ambassador to Egypt, in protest.
While the crisis was building, Sisi delivered a nationally televised address. He claimed that Egypt was the victim of conspiracies, and said, “Don’t listen to anybody’s words but mine.” He criticized those who protested against the government, and he blamed Egyptians for not contributing enough to a fund that has been established to help alleviate the country’s financial crisis. In a display of military math, he declared, “If only ten of the ninety million mobile-phone owners in Egypt would donate one pound to Egypt every morning, then we would have ten million every day.”
During this period, a number of influential talk-show hosts, who a year earlier had been staunch supporters of the President, openly criticized him. “I think the President no longer communicates with the people,” Youssef Al-Hosiny, a host on the ONTV station, which is privately owned, said on air. In the past, Al-Hosiny had been so loyal that Sisi once offered him a job, but now the host turned to the camera and said, “Sir, are you annoyed by the chants, and not annoyed by the killing or the torture?” (Later, after Al-Hosiny’s criticism intensified, his show was temporarily taken off the air.)
In the spring, I spoke about the Regeni case with Anwar Sadat, a nephew of the former President, who had just been named the head of the parliament’s human-rights committee. At the time, the appointment was considered a positive sign, because Sadat is well respected by the international community. He spoke of the hundreds of disappearances that have occurred since Sisi came to power. “Every day, it’s not only Regeni,” Sadat said. “Every day, with Egyptians.” In the past year, instances of disappearance and torture have spiked, and Egypt currently has more than forty thousand political prisoners. Sadat said that under previous regimes it would have been unimaginable for a foreigner to be tortured to death, and he believed that it might reflect a breakdown in command. “It could have happened because of young officers who are not professional,” he said. “A mistake. It wasn’t something intentional.”
In August, Sadat resigned from the human-rights committee, citing a lack of coöperation by the government. When we met, he said that Sisi’s relationship with the police is complicated. “He doesn’t trust them, but he has to use them,” he said.
In Egypt, there’s a history of tension between the military and the police, with a shifting balance of power. Mubarak never fully trusted the Army—for one thing, Islamist officers had assassinated his predecessor—and he built up the Ministry of Interior as a bulwark of support. His police became notorious for their brutality and poor discipline. Egypt has mandatory military service for males, and conscripts with the lowest levels of education are assigned to the police. The behavior of the security forces was one cause of the revolution, but none of the subsequent governments have been strong enough to force reforms. “Once, I asked Sisi, ‘Why don’t you do something about the police?’ ” a senior official in the U.S. State Department told me. “He said because he couldn’t. He said, ‘It’s a million-man mafia.’ ”
During the summer of 2013, after the coup, thousands of Morsi supporters held sit-ins at two locations in Cairo. Chuck Hagel told me that he repeatedly warned Sisi not to take violent action, but Sisi emphasized the difference between the police and the Army. “He was saying they were working with the police, but they’re trying to back the police off from being too brutal,” Hagel told me. “I said, ‘You’ve got to find a way to handle this.’ And that’s when he would say, ‘I don’t control the police.’ ”
Even under Mubarak, each institution strived to carve out its own sphere of influence, a dynamic that has become much more pronounced since the revolution. And the tradition of police brutality is so entrenched that it’s become a kind of applied dysfunction. Sisi, like all Egyptian leaders before him, knows that the police can do things for which he is not directly accountable. On the morning of August 14, 2013, the security forces cleared the pro-Morsi sit-ins with shocking brutality. The protesters weren’t entirely peaceful—some had weapons, and eight police officers were killed. But the vast majority of demonstrators were unarmed, and the security forces didn’t provide adequate warnings or safe exits for people to leave. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than a thousand people were killed that day.
After the massacre, Hagel and Sisi spoke on the phone. “He said that he was sorry, so sorry,” Hagel remembered. “He said he wished it hadn’t come to this. This was never something he wanted, or his country wanted.” He went on, “He talked about his family, and he talked about his wife.”
I asked what Sisi had said about his family.
“They were sickened by it,” Hagel said. “He said his wife was very upset, and his family, to see all of this bloodshed.” He continued, “He didn’t say they blamed him for it, but they were really touched by it. He said they were praying for everybody.”
The massacre effectively ended a phase of the revolution. Egyptians experienced, in the words of one European diplomat, “a neuralgia about disorder.” After more than two years of protests and political violence, it seemed that everybody was traumatized and exhausted. Near the end of 2013, the government enacted a law that effectively forbids any demonstration without official approval, with a maximum punishment of a year in prison.
Today, the neuralgia defines Egyptian public life. Citizens engage in politics in unpredictable and irrational ways, as if reacting to sudden spasms of pain. In April, Sisi’s cabinet announced that two uninhabited islands in the Red Sea, which Saudi Arabia had placed under Egyptian control in the nineteen-fifties, were to be returned. After private negotiations, Sisi had agreed to what some might describe as an act worthy of praise: a peaceful transfer of territory in the Middle East.
But there was no public discussion or debate in parliament, and the announcement seemed timed to coincide with a new Saudi aid package. When Sisi appeared on television, he was defensive, and this time his references to the maternal fell flat. (“My mother taught me not to take other people’s things.”) Activists and journalists organized a protest in front of the Journalists Syndicate, in downtown Cairo. Several hundred people participated, in the most significant demonstration since Sisi took office.
The Journalists Syndicate is state-funded, and the authorities have generally been able to coöpt the institution. Under Sisi, dozens of journalists and bloggers have been imprisoned, but most of them have been young people who are not members of the syndicate, or who lack the backing of registered publications. During the controversy over the islands, though, the crackdown broadened. At one point, some journalists who had been harassed by the authorities sought refuge in the building, and three syndicate board members were charged with harboring fugitives. When I met with Khaled El-Balshy, one of the board members who had been charged, he told me that he was a liberal, but he had never considered himself a dissident. “If I have a chance of not going to jail, I’ll take it,” he said. “I’ve always said what I’ve wanted to say, but I say it in a careful way. But now you’re dealing with a crazy regime.” He was late to our appointment, because he had been signing off on power-of-attorney forms, in case something happened to him. A few months after our meeting, El-Balshy and the two other board members were sentenced to two years in prison, a decision that is currently being appealed.
There had been an attempt to hold a second protest over the islands on April 25th, and early that afternoon I made my way toward the syndicate. Police were everywhere; one plainclothes cop sauntered past with a wad of plastic handcuff restraints dangling from his back pocket, like a workman’s tools. A block from the syndicate, a dozen or so men were loitering on the street, and I struck up a conversation with Hossam Khalil, a twenty-seven-year-old journalist who writes for a Web site called Alhayat News. He told me that he was there to protest, not to report.
“People should have the opportunity to give feedback,” he said, of the dispute over the islands. The demonstration was scheduled to begin in less than half an hour, but the police had barricaded the street in front of the syndicate. Hossam was accompanied by Bakr Ahmed, an accountant, who told me that he didn’t really care much about the islands. “I’m here to support Hossam, because he’s my friend,” he said. While we were talking, more than twenty plainclothes police suddenly moved in. They checked I.D.s and hustled the young men toward a row of police vans. When an officer saw my foreign passport, he told me to leave. After ten minutes, I called Hossam’s phone, but it was off—I assumed that it had been impounded.
An Egyptian journalist texted me to say that the demonstration had been moved to Mesaha Square, an obscure location on the Giza side of the Nile. I arrived as carloads of young people spilled out onto the peripheries of the square. Soon, they coalesced into a chanting mass of around three hundred: “Down, down with military rule!”
It took seven minutes for the police to respond. They fired tear gas and rounds of birdshot, and soon the protesters were fleeing in all directions. I ran with a group that headed east on a residential street, where we were stopped by a terrifying sight: a plainclothes cop, his face furious, shouting and sprinting toward us with his pistol drawn. What was he yelling? Whom was he pointing the gun at? Why was he running against the flow of dispersal? But these were questions to add to the eternal mystery of Egyptian police work. Whatever he was chasing, it wasn’t us; along with half a dozen others, I flattened myself against a wall until the maniac had charged past.
Two blocks from Mesaha, everything was quiet, and I approached four young men who I assumed had been part of the protest. But my questions confused them—in the grand, chaotic scheme of the city, the demonstration had been so small that these men hadn’t even noticed. They brightened when they realized that I was a foreigner. “Can you help translate this?” one asked, handing me a printed response to a visa application to the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service. One sentence read, in English:
It is not felt to be sufficiently probable that you will return to your country of origin promptly, due in part to the local or general situation in your country of origin/habitual residence and/or your weak social ties there.
I did my best with the translation and kept walking toward the Nile. What would you do if you were a young Egyptian? Hossam called my cell phone late that evening, to see if I was all right. He had been detained by the police for more than six hours and released; Bakr was still being held, along with nearly three hundred others. Three days later, Bakr appeared before a judge. The young accountant, who had been arrested before he even reached the protest, was sentenced to two years in prison.
In detention, Bakr found that it was difficult to undergo interrogation as a political prisoner when he had committed no act of protest, belonged to no political organization, and in fact held no strong political opinions. His instinct was to create an alibi: he told the interrogating officer that he had been retrieving a computer that was being repaired near the syndicate. Two days later, during another interrogation, he claimed that he had been picking up a suit from a tailor, because his cousin was getting married. Later, he couldn’t explain why he had created a new narrative, other than the fact that the interrogators seemed dissatisfied.
They also didn’t like Bakr’s responses to questions about his voting history. Since the revolution, he had gone to the polls three times, and in each case he had deliberately spoiled his ballot. In 2011 and 2012, this was a common act by young people who disliked all the electoral choices. But the practice confused the interrogators. “They said, ‘You’re weird, you’re strange, how are you so full of contradictions?’ ” Bakr recalled. They asked if he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, or if he had any relatives in the organization, and his denials seemed to disappoint them even more. Finally, they asked if he was a Muslim. When he said that he was, they brightened: “So why didn’t you vote for Morsi? Don’t you want Sharia law?”
Sisi has successfully portrayed himself as standing against a wave of radical Islam, whereas activists often claim that his crackdown will only create new militants. But both these narratives may be wrong. There’s no evidence of the kind of broad-based movement of religious resistance that arose during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, when Islamists engaged in violent attacks across Egypt. Nancy Okail, who directs the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, which analyzes reports of terrorism, told me that the previous generation of Egyptian radicals always portrayed their struggle in highly religious terms. “It addressed issues of traditional culture,” Okail said. “For example, they threw acid on women who were not covered.” In those days, Islamists also attacked hotels and night clubs that served alcohol, and foreigners were a prime target.
The current movement rarely targets foreigners or tourists, with the exception of the Metrojet bombing, which was intended as a statement against Russian policy in Syria. There have been scattered attacks on Coptic Christian churches, including a recent bombing that killed more than two dozen worshippers at Cairo’s main cathedral. But the vast majority of terrorism has focussed on the Egyptian police, the Army, or other representatives of the state. Okail told me that while the current resistance uses the model of radical Islam, its targets tend to be political rather than religious or cultural. The same is true of the terrorists’ statements, which often focus on issues that have little to do with Islam, such as the Red Sea islands. “Messages now are nearly as political as if they were produced by a political group,” Okail said.
There has been almost no violence in Upper Egypt, which was a hotbed of radical Islam thirty years ago. These days, most attacks occur in Sinai, where Okail says that the total number of fighters is only between five hundred and a thousand. Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute who studies isis, told me that around six hundred Egyptians have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. That’s fewer than the number of German citizens who are believed to have joined isis, and much lower than the figure for Tunisians. A Belgian is six times more likely than an Egyptian to join isis in Syria and Iraq.
“In Egypt, people are not turning to these organizations, because they know better,” Hassan told me. He explained that isis recruits from foreign countries tend to be relatively educated and sophisticated, but they have a poor understanding of Islam, which makes them susceptible. In contrast, Egypt’s long tradition of radical Islam and the recent experience with the Muslim Brotherhood have effectively inoculated most citizens against such ideas. For Egyptians, who mostly supported the coup, the Brotherhood’s failure was also a failure of political Islam. “I think that, more than we realized at the time, the Islamists suffered a political defeat,” one European diplomat told me. “We tend to see them as defeated by the security forces, but the political defeat may have been just as big.”
In Egypt, people who might be isis recruits elsewhere—the educated and sophisticated—tend to believe that isis was created by the United States as a way of destabilizing the region. That’s how ineffective the terrorists’ slick videos have been: in the eyes of many Egyptians, isis represents America, not Islam. And Egyptian mosques, which were politically important in the early years of the revolution, now seem peripheral. Under Sisi, strict new rules limit who is allowed to preach Friday sermons, effectively removing Salafis and other radicals from the pulpit. The government issues standardized weekly sermons, and this year’s topics have included “Islam Is the Religion of Building and Construction” and “National Products and Their Priority in Selling and Buying.” There have been sermons about conserving water and electricity. Sheikh Sayyid el Komi, the imam at the dormitory mosque at Ain Shams University, in Cairo, told me that during the electricity-conservation sermon he announced that the mosque would use only fifteen of its thirty ceiling fans. It seemed hard to believe that this was the message at a university that, only a few years before, had produced thousands of student demonstrators intent on transforming the nation.
In 2013, after the massacre, I interviewed imams and believers at more than two dozen mosques around Cairo. At that time, a minority of the sheikhs had been adamantly anti-coup. This spring, I revisited them and found that their opinions hadn’t changed, but they saw no point in being involved in politics. This contrasted with pro-democracy activists, who were more likely to perceive an existential crisis in the current climate. But Islam has many potential outlets other than politics, and the imams now seemed focussed on their communities. “Amid the depression and poverty, many people are just trying to live,” Sheikh Ahmed el-Sayyed, the imam at Aziz Bellah Mosque, whose congregation is known to include many Salafis, told me. In 2013, Sheikh Ahmed had seemed under pressure, and I heard him deliver a sermon with a clear message of resistance. But this year he appeared much more relaxed and philosophical. During one Friday sermon, he told the congregation, “If happiness comes from power, then the ministers would be happy.”
Two of the most adamantly anti-Sisi imams whom I met in 2013 were subsequently removed from their posts. In the years since, each had received a good reassignment after a small bribe was paid to the authorities. This surprised me—nowadays, a human-rights activist can’t solve a political problem so easily. The imams told me that none of their close friends or colleagues are in prison, whereas activists all have a long list of jailed comrades. But it seemed easier for the imams to distance themselves. “The next wave of change will happen because of the economy,” one of them told me. “People won’t have food, and they’ll go out into the streets.” I asked if this meant that the anti-Sisi imams are unlikely to lead any future resistance, and he nodded. “They won’t start it,” he said. “But, if it happens, then they’ll participate.”
This year, Sisi has engaged in some moments of unusual public honesty. “Take a good look at your country,” he said, during a televised address in May. “This is the semblance of a state, and not a real state.” Five years after Tahrir, the revolution’s main achievement is one of exposure, not reform. With every illusion stripped away, Egypt is revealed to be a state without real institutions, led by a man who is not a real politician.
Despite all the country’s problems, the possibility of total collapse remains remote. Unlike colonial creations such as Syria and Iraq, Egypt has a powerful sense of unity—after all, it’s the oldest country on earth. And the fact that radical Islam has little appeal to today’s Egyptians, despite all that they have suffered, is another positive factor. Some analysts point out that Mubarak became less military-minded over time, and perhaps Sisi, who seems to have no weakness for corruption, will develop in positive ways. Even his fiercest critics fear the alternatives. “I think that, whether Sisi is the perfect choice or not, we have no choice but to have him succeed,” Anwar Sadat told me. “Egypt cannot afford any other third revolution.” A European diplomat said that Sisi could easily counter any movement against him, much as President Recep Erdoğan did in response to the recent coup attempt in Turkey. “He could make a call to the people and say, ‘I stand for order,’ ” the diplomat said. “And that will go down very well.” It would likely also appeal to American officials—after Donald Trump won the election, the first foreign leader to call with congratulations was Sisi.
“If Sisi left now, somebody from the military institution is going to run the country,” Hossam Khalil told me. He expected Sisi to serve two four-year terms, after which he hoped for the election of a civilian leader—an extremely modest goal for a young man who had risked a prison term by going out into the street. But the line between today’s expectations and tomorrow’s demands is not always straight or predictable. In Egypt, it’s impossible to imagine how the revolutionary experience will settle into the psyches of the more than fifty million people who are younger than thirty.
In May, Hossam stopped working, because he felt depressed and guilty about leading Bakr to the protest. He followed Bakr’s court hearings, and he tried to console Bakr’s mother, who is a widow. And then in early June, right before Ramadan, Bakr and the thirty-two defendants who appeared with him were unexpectedly acquitted.
On the evening after Bakr’s release, I met him at a café downtown. He looked tired and thin, but he said that he had been fortunate in prison. Others had been tortured, but he wasn’t. He said that some of the guards were young conscripts who wept when they saw their peers hauled in as prisoners.
In a non-state led by a non-politician, Bakr seemed like a kind of non-activist. He had never joined a political organization or issued a statement; in fact, he hadn’t spoken a single word on the day of his arrest. His interrogations had been a farce of suspicion, fear, and confusion. Every time he had entered a voting booth in Egypt’s fledgling democracy, he had spoiled his ballot. And yet he had spent six weeks as a political prisoner, an experience that seemed utterly senseless. But, when I asked what he had learned, his response was surprisingly coherent.
“I learned that even though I have a right, and it’s my basic right, there’s a price to be paid, and I have to pay it, just like other people have paid it,” he said. He took a deep drag on a Karelia cigarette and smiled—there’s no happier smoker than a young man who has just got out of prison, on the first night of Ramadan, after the fast has broken. He said, “I also learned that the oppressor is always afraid.”
This article appears in other versions of the January 2, 2017, issue, with the headline “The Shadow General.”
Peter Hessler joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2000.