August 16, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1265

Three Years Into Al-Sisi's Rule: Difficult Challenges At Home And Abroad

August 16, 2016 | By C. Meital*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1265


Three years after the deposing of Muhammad Mursi and the rise to power of Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, it seems that the latter is gradually losing the sweeping popular support he enjoyed in the early days of his presidency. Al-Sisi is facing many difficult challenges on both the domestic and diplomatic fronts, as numerous crises stemming from the domestic and foreign policy of his government are piling up and undermining the popular support for him. On the diplomatic front, Egypt-U.S. ties have grown lukewarm and U.S. aid to Egypt has decreased, though in official statements both sides emphasize the warm relations between them;[1] relations with Italy are also strained due to the incident of Italian student Giulio Regeni, who was murdered in Egypt.[2] Currently, a crisis also seems to be brewing between Egypt and Britain, despite the warm official relations between them, due to Britain's decision to consider granting political asylum to members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In fact, Egypt has incurred much criticism from Western countries that accuse it of persecuting the MB, an allegation which Egypt denies.[3]

These crises join the ongoing crisis in Egypt's relations with Turkey and Qatar due to the latter's support for the MB and their position that the Al-Sisi's regime is illegitimate and staged a coup against the legitimate Mursi regime.[4]

The problems on the domestic front include criticism that Al-Sisi's regime persecutes its opponents no less than the former Egyptian regimes; the deepening economic crisis and the collapse of Egypt's tourist industry, which arouse public rage; an intense conflict between the regime and Al-Azhar, Egypt's supreme religious authority, as well as clashes between Muslims and Copts in the country.

This report reviews the challenges facing the Al-Sisi regime and the internal criticism in Egypt against him and his administration.

Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi (Image: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, May 20, 2016)

Complaints About Regime Oppression, Lack Of Transparency

Disappointment with Al-Sisi's regime among broad sectors in Egypt has been prominently reflected in the Egyptian press in the last few months. The criticism comes from liberal politicians and media figures who supported Al-Sisi's deposing of the MB regime in 2013, and some of whom also supported him for president. These figures, who pinned high hopes on Al-Sisi, now loudly protest the tyrannical and oppressive policies of the regime and its security apparatuses, and police brutality against regime opponents, professional unions and others. For example, political analyst Dr. 'Amr Hashem Rabi' wrote in Al-Masri Al-Yawm that "following the removal of the MB, it was hoped that the [regime's] legitimacy would be based on support for the values of democracy and freedom of thought and speech," but these hopes were soon dashed when Egyptians discovered that the Al-Sisi regime infringed on freedom of expression, oppressed civil society and persecuted journalists. He added that today "there are more regime supporters than MB supporters in prison."[5]  

Egyptian journalist Suleiman Gouda wrote in the same daily that Egyptians were disappointed with the regime and felt that Al-Sisi was not fulfilling the promises he had made before becoming president. "This is the feeling of many people I meet everywhere," he said, and added: "If things continue as they do now, then [the president], and the country, face political danger..."[6] Renowned Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany, who initially supported Al-Sisi, now accuses him of heading a regime that is no less corrupt, oppressive and tyrannical than Mubarak's.[7]

Moreover, Egyptian and international human rights organizations increasingly report that, despite hopes for improvement on the human rights front in Egypt, the Al-Sisi regime is practicing the same repressive policies as its predecessors, involving an iron fist against regime opponents, forced disappearances, and prisoner abuse in Egyptian jails, which prompts criticism of the government and the security apparatuses.[8] According to an Amnesty International report, for example, "Egypt's National Security Agency (NSA) is abducting, torturing and forcibly disappearing people in an effort to intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent..."[9]

The annual report of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights also addressed the phenomena of "illegal detentions", "forced disappearances of several detainees," and "political detentions and detentions based on religion."[10]

Three cases are noteworthy in this context: First, the expulsion of British-Lebanese journalist Liliane Daoud from Egypt to Beirut, under the pretext that her residency visa in Egypt had expired.[11] According to some reports, the real reason for her expulsion was her coverage of Egyptian affairs and her forthright criticism of how the country is managed.[12] Daoud herself claimed that her popular show on the Egyptian ONTV channel was canceled after the channel was purchased by Egyptian businessman Ahmad Abu Hashima, who is close to the Al-Sisi regime. She claimed that even in the period of MB rule there had not been such a deterioration of civil liberties.[13]

A second noteworthy case was the internal security forces' raid on the offices of the journalists' union to arrest two journalists, 'Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Saqqa, who had taken refuge there.[14] This sparked fierce protests and demonstrations by journalists, especially since, following the raid, union chairman Yahya Qalash and two of his colleagues were also arrested and indicted. These measures sparked an intense public debate on the degree of press freedom in Egyptian  and the regime's gagging of the media. The journalists' union demanded the dismissal of the interior minister, and some journalists even demanded that Al-Sisi personably intervene in the affair.[15]

A third case involving the suppression of criticism against the regime was the affair of the "Street Children," a group of six young activists who posted satirical videos on YouTube criticizing the Al-Sisi regime's policies and calling it 'cowardly.'[16] The six were arrested on May 7, 2016 on charges of calling for a demonstration and inciting against the president.[17]

The "Street Children" (Image:, August 1, 2016)

Broad circles in Egypt condemned what they called the regime's lack of transparency on matters of supreme national importance, such as the deal transferring sovereignty of two strategic Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. This move enraged many Egyptians, some of whom claimed that the issue should have been brought to a referendum.[18] Another issue that sparked criticism was the surprise visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry to Israel on July 10, 2016, and his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Elements in the Egyptian media complained that the Egyptian public had learn about the substance and content of the visit from foreign sources, instead of being informed by official government bodies, and warned of a further decline in the popularity of the president who chose not to include the public in decisions on such weighty matters as normalization with Israel.[19]

Criticism Of Worsening Economic Crisis

Another burning issue that concerns the Egyptian public, and is a source of great apprehension for the regime, is the deep economic crisis, manifested in a sharp drop in the Egyptian pound against the dollar and a steep rise in the prices of basic foods and electricity. This has encouraged profiteering and black market trading, which in turn deepen the crisis. There has also been a significant rise in unemployment, with 1.35 million people joining the ranks of the unemployed in the recent year alone. As part of its efforts to combat the crisis the government has urged the citizenry to prefer local products and to avoid trading dollars on the black market.[20] Also in a bid for economic stability, the government appealed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $12 billion loan,[21] in return for which it promised to severely cut its expenses. Al-Sisi said in this context that he "would not hesitate to take measures that were avoided for years," and urged Egyptians, in particular Egyptian women, to cut down on consumption and expenses.[22]

The IMF deal drew criticism from Egyptians who expressed concern that the loan would only worsen the economic crisis. Makram Muhammad Ahmad, a senior columnist for the government daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "We are repeating the same broken record... although everyone knows that what the [International Monetary] Fund proposes is not the correct solution for the economic crisis in Egypt, which requires bold decisions..." [23] Renowned Egyptian feminist writer and activist Nawal Al-Sa'dawi also addressed the economic crisis, saying that Egyptians have become "slaves of the dollar" and criticizing the government's dealings with the IMF.[24]

Reports in recent days that the government plans to raise the price of gas and electricity have also enraged Egyptians. The Revolutionary Socialists movement urged the citizens to protest by refusing to pay their electricity bills.[25] The government responded to the public outcry by reassuring that it would not raise prices for the needy.[26]       

It should be mentioned that the economic crisis currently afflicting Egypt is only a worsening of the harsh economic situation it has been experiencing for years. Egypt's population is over 90 million, and its economy has relied in recent years on massive loans from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[27] According to the Central Bank of Egypt, the country's foreign debt already amounts to $53.4 billion.[28]

Another indication of the depth of Egypt's economic difficulties may be the agreement it signed this April during the visit of the Saudi king in Cairo, in which it transferred sovereignty of the two islands to Saudi Arabia. The regime's claim that the islands had always belonged to Saudi Arabia failed to convince many Egyptians, who decried the agreement as an insult to Egyptian sovereignty. Many opponents of the agreement, some of them opponents of the regime, claimed that Al-Sisi had traded the islands for Saudi financial aid.[29] The Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily came out with the headline "Two Islands and a Doctorate for [Saudi King] Salman - [in Return for] Billions for Egypt." After the authorities stopped the presses to prevent circulation of the issue, the headline was changed to "Outcome of Salman Visit: Agreements Worth $25 Billion" (copies with the original headline were circulated on social media).[30]

The severe economic crisis provoked increased criticism of the government from Egyptian MPs and prominent public figures, some of whom even warned against the outbreak of a "revolution of the hungry."[31] Already in April, following demonstrations against the islands deal with Saudi Arabia, prominent businessman Ahmad Abu Hashima, who is close to the regime, said that if a third revolution takes place in Egypt it will be a revolution of the hungry.[32] Two months later, on June 27, Egyptian MP Ihab 'Abd Al-'Azim, member of the parliament's National Defense Committee, warned in a budgetary session that a revolution of the hungry may break out in Upper Egypt if the government continues to marginalize that region. This provoked a rebuke from Parliament Speaker 'Ali 'Abd Al-'Aal, who ordered to strike the expression "revolution of the hungry" from the record.[33]

Egyptian MP Mustafa Bakri also addressed the economic crisis in Upper Egypt and the volatility of the situation, writing: "The Egyptian government should examine its policy regarding Upper Egypt and its problems, which have become chronic, for the silence over what is happening, the rise in poverty rates, and the decline in services constitute a threat of a potentially great disaster, because hunger leads to a loss of confidence, and a sense of marginalization leads to accumulated rage and stress..."[34]

Egyptian "economic team" ministers cannot deal with the rising dollar (Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, July 29, 2016)

Many Egyptian writers also criticized the impotence of Prime Minister Sherif Isma'il and his cabinet in the face of the worsening economic crisis, and called on them to act swiftly to stop the situation from deteriorating further. Dr. Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser wrote in the government daily Al-Ahram: "From the Al-Ahram platform, I call on the prime minister and on the ministers of electricity, oil, water, and irrigation, as well as on MPs, to examine this insane rise in prices and put a stop to this matter..."[35]

Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' columnist Karam Gaber wrote: "It is a bad omen that the current government is remaining in place. There is a wall between it and the problems of the people, and it has no [clear] approach regarding how to deal with genuine crises..."[36]

Emad Al-Din Hussein, editor-in-chief of the independent Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq, also expressed outrage at the government's impotence, and warned: "The government should act quickly before it is surprised by yet another rise in the dollar rate, which would lead to disastrous consequences that only Allah knows..."[37]

Al-Sisi and his government fear the outbreak of another revolution driven by economic crisis, like the one that brought down the Mubarak regime in 2011. As a result, they have been trying to douse the flames of protest, and Al-Sisi has held frequent meetings with relevant ministers and various elements to discuss the situation. Thus, for example, at a meeting with the ministerial economic committee, Al-Sisi stressed the importance of creating the required balance between economic reforms and their impact on the needy, and spoke of social support programs and maintaining the price level of basic food products.[38] The claim that economic reforms would not negatively impact the needy recurs frequently in statements by the prime minister and cabinet members, as well as in editorials published by the government daily Al-Ahram.

The wretched Egyptian citizen and the Egyptian currency hanging in "the government slaughterhouse" (, July 26, 2016)

Terror Attacks And The Collapse Of Egyptian Tourism

Another issue that weighs heavily on the Egyptian economy is the blow dealt to the tourism industry by the October 2015 downing of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 over Sharm Al-Sheikh, and the May 2016 crash of EgyptAir Flight 804 en route from Paris to Cairo. These two incidents led both the UK and Russia to suspend all flights to Egypt, and the suspension remains in place today.[39]

Russian tourism had brought in substantial revenue for Egypt; its loss has had a severe impact on the Egyptian economy, and is of great concern to government officials. In recent months, the Egyptian government has been devoting major efforts to reviving the Russian tourism market. For example, Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy visited Moscow twice in July 2016 to discuss renewing Russian tourism to Egypt.[40]

These efforts are also evident in statements by Egyptian officials, who reiterate that intensive contacts are underway to revive this tourism. Thus, for example, Egyptian Ambassador to Russia Dr. Mohamed Al-Badry said that there is also pressure from Russian tourism companies to revive tourism to Egypt. He added that a committee of Russian experts visited airports in Sharm Al-Sheikh and Al-Ghardaqa and afterwards met with Russia's transportation minister to give him a positive report on this issue.[41] Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid confirmed that Russian technical teams are visiting Egyptian airports in preparation for a return of Russian tourists.[42] Additionally, on August 8, 2016, a delegation of Russian businessmen and representatives of Russian security firms arrived in Egypt to examine collaborating with Egypt in maintaining security in Egyptian airports.[43]

Further evidence of apprehension regarding the collapse of the tourism industry can also be seen in statements by Egyptian Tourism Minister Yehia Rashed, who called on countries worldwide not to issue warnings about travel to Egypt unless absolutely necessary.[44] Another step in the efforts to mitigate the tourism crisis was Al-Sisi's decision to establish a supreme tourism council, to be headed by him personally.[45]

Many writers in Egypt called for action to revive Russian tourism, while others criticized the UK's and Russia's  "boycott" of tourism to Egypt, calling it discriminatory in comparison with other countries also impacted by terror such as Turkey, to which Russia had already renewed flights, that had been suspended following the downing of the Russian jet in November 2015.[46] For example, Supreme Press Council member Salah Montasser wrote: "Seven months have passed since Russian tourism to Egypt was halted due to the airliner crash in Sinai, and it has shown no signs of revival... Russia is considered a friend of Egypt, but is this a bond of friendship?... Instead of standing with Egypt... [Russia's] halting of tourism means that it has chosen to stand with and support terrorism..."[47]

The Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister meeting with the Russian Transportation Minister (Image:, July 19, 2016)

Muslim-Copt Clashes And Criticism Of Stagnation In "Renewal Of Religious Discourse"

The Al-Sisi regime has also been criticized on the religious and sectarian levels, most prominently over the fact that, despite the president's statements and promises to reform the religious discourse in the country, no progress has been made on this front. The term "renewal of religious discourse" was coined by Adly Mansour, former chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, who was appointed as interim president after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi's MB regime in July 2013. Mansour explained that the goal was "the renewal of religious discourse - a conscious and responsible renewal... that deals with the problem of extremism and the mistaken or flawed understanding of Islam..."[48] President Al-Sisi adopted this call for "renewal of religious discourse" and even took it one step forward during a speech in Al-Azhar in December 2014, in which he called for a "religious revolution."[49] Over the past year, Al-Sisi has repeatedly called on Al-Azhar to promote the renewal of religious discourse as well.[50]

However, many politicians and journalists in Egypt claim that despite the talk, no progress has been made on this front. Many of them blame Al-Azhar, claiming that it does not desire a renewal of the discourse but rather its stagnation.[51] Some also said that the president was displeased that Al-Azhar did not heed his calls.[52]

Former culture minister Gaber 'Asfour addressed this issue, saying: "Al-Azhar, for the most part, aside from a small minority, has become Salafi in its attitude. Do not believe that they will do something they don't believe in. They work against development. How can they renew the religious discourse when they are the ones who caused it to stagnate?" 'Asfour even argued that Al-Azhar's educational system was "atrophied and backwards" and that it produces terrorists.[53]

Egyptian journalist Ahmad 'Abd Al-Tawab published two articles arguing that, despite ostensibly welcoming Al-Sisi's call to revolutionize the religious discourse, Al-Azhar has done nothing to implement it. On the contrary, according to him, "for over two years [Al-Azhar's] activity has been in the opposite direction: it has mercilessly attacked anyone with a differing opinion without hesitating to use the weapon of accusations of heresy."[54]

Al-Masri Al-Yawm columnist Ahmed Al-Shami wrote in a similar vein: "Al-Azhar has forgotten that, when the president charged it... [to enact] a revolution for the renewal of religious discourse so that it matches the [current] time... it was the first to abandon this task. The question now is whether Al-Azhar has lifted a finger to rescue the religious discourse from extremism? And the answer is simply 'no'..."[55]

Nevertheless, despite Al-Sisi's many challenges and crises, at this stage he is apparently uninterested - and unable - to confront Al-Azhar, as it is considered one of his bases of support. Evidence of this can be seen in the crisis that erupted in recent weeks between the ministry of religious endowments and Al-Azhar on the topic of uniform Friday sermons. The ministry attempted to require mosque preachers to read uniform sermons provided by the ministry, an initiative which was met with complete opposition by Al-Azhar, on the grounds that it would harm the religious discourse and the abilities of the imams.[56] Al-Sisi, who fears a confrontation with Al-Azhar and requires its support, decided to side with Al-Azhar, and in a meeting with Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb he stressed the state's full support for the institution.[57]

Another widening religious rift in Egypt, which has escalated to violent clashes, is the one between Muslims and Copts, especially in the rural governorates of Minya and Beni Suef, which in recent weeks have seen repeated cases of assault on Copts and arson of their homes, usually based on rumors that the homes are used as churches. In one particularly severe case, an elderly woman was dragged naked through village streets following suspicions that her son was having an affair with a Muslim woman.[58] In another case, one person was killed and several others injured following rumors that a home was being used as a church.[59] This wave of anti-Copt violence has led to increased media criticism of Al-Sisi and his government due to their inability to defend the Copts, who had supported them during the June 30 revolution, and in promoting laws such as the Church Construction law, to help cement their religious rights.[60]

In an attempt to alleviate Coptic protests, Al-Sisi met with Coptic Patriarch Tawadros and stressed the need for national unity.[61] Concurrently, the Egyptian parliament began working to promote a law regulating the construction of churches in Egypt.[62]

Al-Sisi meeting with a Coptic church delegation headed by Tawadros (Image: Al-Watan, Egypt, July 28, 2016)


* C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI.





[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 20, August 8, 2016.

[2] Italian dissatisfaction with the investigation into Regeni's death led to a decision by the Italian parliament to halt the supply of spare parts for Egyptian jets. This sparked rage in Egypt, which formed a parliamentary committee to handle the affair and sent representatives to Italy to discuss the relations between the two countries. Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 1, 11, 2016; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 11, 2016.

[3] Egypt's foreign minister denied that Egypt is holding political trials for MB members. See Al-Watan (Egypt), August 9, 2016.

[5] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 8, 2016. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.6549, Three Years Later: Egyptian President Al-Sisi's Supporters Express Disappointment, Call His Regime Tyrannical, July 29, 2016.

[6] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 13, 2015.

[7] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 27, 2015.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 4, 2016; Al-Watan (Egypt), July 13, 2016.

[9], July 13, 2016.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 4, 2016

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt) June 27, 2016.

[12], June 29, 2016; Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), June 29, 2016;, June 27, 2016.

[13], June 28, 2016; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt) June 29, 2016.

[14] An arrest warrant had been issued against the two for "membership in outlawed organizations, attempting to overthrow the regime, and calling for an April 25 demonstration to protest the surrender of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir.", July 27, 2016.

[15] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 1, 2, 30, 2016;  Al-Watan (Egypt), May 2, 7, 2016, 2016; Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 2, 2016; Al-Wafd (Egypt), May 2, 2016; Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 5, 2016.

[16], May 8, 2016.

[17] May 10, 2016; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 2, 2016.

[18] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 22, 2016; June 21, 2016.

[19] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 11, 12, 2016.

[20] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 28, 2016.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 12, 2016.

[22], August 13, 2016; Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 14, 2016.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 10, 2016.

[24] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), August 8, 2016.

[25] Al-Shurouq (Egypt),, August 10, 2016.

[26] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 1, 2016.

[27] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), April 8, August 9, 2016.

[28] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), June 9, 2016.

[29] Al-Wafd (Egypt), April 9, 2016;, April 8, 2016.

[30], April 12, 2016.

[31] Al-Watan (Egypt), Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 27, 2016;, July 30, 2016; Al-Ahram, Al-Watan (Egypt), July 28, 2016; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 29, 2016.

[32], April 25, 2016.

[33] Al-Watan (Egypt), June 27, 2016.

[34] Al-Watan (Egypt), July 25, 2016.

[35] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 10, 2016.

[36] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), July 26, 2016.

[37] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), July 26, 2016.

[38] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 28, 31, 2016.

[39] Al-Watan (Egypt), November 6, 2015;, November 6, 2015. Al-Watan (Egypt), May 19, 2016.

[40] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 18, 27, 2016. It should be mentioned in this context that a delegation of British security officials visited Egypt to review security procedures at airports, and that Russia has set various conditions for Egypt on this matter. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 19, 2016; Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 23, 2016.

[41] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 5, 2016.

[42] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 9, 2016.

[43], August 9, 2016.

[44] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 23, 2016.

[45] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 10, 2016.

[46] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), July 4, 2016; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 9, 2016.

[47] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 29, 2016.

[48], January 12, 2014.

[50] The most recent instance was a speech delivered by Al-Sisi at the ministry of religious endowments for Laylat Al-Qadr, in which he asked to fight the spread of extremism and the besmirching of Islam. Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 30, 2016.

[51] Al-Hayat (London), June 25, 2016.

[52] It should be mentioned that Al-Azhar intended to publish a comprehensive paper on the renewal of religious discourse written by Dr. Salah Fadl, but has not yet done so, triggering more criticism. See Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 22, 2016;  Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 4, 2016.

[53] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), July 10, 2016.

[54] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 25, August 6, 2016.

[55] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 8, 2016.

[56] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 27, 2016.

[58] Al-Wafd (Egypt), May 26, 2016.

[59] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), July 18, 2016,, July 18, 2016.

[60] Al-Watan (Egypt), July 9, 2016.

[61] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 29, 2016.

[62] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), August 2, 2016.

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