In June 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected President post-revolution, Mohammed Morsi, was facing widespread public protests. The then Defence Minister and military Commander-in-chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced that the army would step in if Mr. Morsi did not respond to the “will of the people”. The following month, he told Egyptians, many of whom were hearing the largely behind-the-scenes general’s voice for the first time, that Mr. Morsi had been removed, the Constitution suspended, and an acting government now in place.
Initially denying any intention to hold office, , General Abdel Fattah el-Sisisaid in an interview ahead of the country’s 2014 elections, “you just can’t believe that there are people who don’t aspire for authority.”
In March 2014, however, he announced his resignation from the military and a bid to run for President. He won the election later that year with nearly 97% of the vote; the turnout was 47%. Mr. Sisi was re-elected in 2018 and is the current leader of the Arab Republic of Egypt.
Cut to now, when India has invited Mr. Sisi to attend the Republic Day celebrations on January 26 as chief guest. This is the first time an Egyptian head of state has been invited to the ceremony. The invite also marks 75 years of diplomatic ties between Cairo and New Delhi. A 180-personnel military contingent from the Egyptian Army is expected to participate in the parade.
The Ministry of External Affairs said Mr. Sisi will be accorded a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 25. During his three-day visit to Delhi, the Egyptian leader will hold a bilateral meeting and delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sign about half a dozen agreements, and discuss matters of defence, security, and counterterrorism.
Rising up the ranks
Born in 1954, Mr. Sisi grew up in the el-Gamaliya neighbourhood in the heart of Islamic Cairo, close to the Jewish quarters of the old city. Belonging to a family of arabesque furniture artisans, Mr. Sisi attended the area’s military-run school and later trained at the Egyptian Military Academy, graduating in 1977. He trained further at the United Kingdom Joint Services Command and Staff College and U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.
Serving for a couple of years in Egypt’s defence attachè in Saudi Arabia, he returned home in 2008 to head the country’s northern military zone as chief of staff.
Mr. Sisi’s ascent to power began in 2010, when he was appointed the head of military intelligence. He gained more prominence after the Arab Spring protests dislodged the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades since 1981. In early 2011, as the revolution ended, Mr. Sisi became the youngest general in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the military leadership that headed the country for eighteen months till its next election. According to the BBC, Mr. Sisi was assigned the task of liaising with the country’s influential Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned during Mr. Mubarak’s regime.
In June 2012, Mr. Morsi, a senior face in the Brotherhood, was elected President. He appointed Mr. Sisi, seen as a devout Muslim, as his Defence Minister and Army chief of staff. Just a year into his presidency and amid widespread economic hardship, Mr. Morsi faced public anger and violent protests over the concentration of power within Islamist circles, also struggling to reach a consensus with the Opposition. Mr. Sisi initially maintained ambiguity about which side the military would back, urging all sides to reach a compromise and announcing that the military would not dislodge anyone. In late June 2013, however, he issued a two-day ultimatum to the government, in his capacity as army leader, and eventually announced the removal of Mr. Morsi on July 3.
Promising greater freedom of expression, Mr. Sisi facilitated the installation of an interim government and did not immediately assume power. It was during this time that the acting government, backed by the military, carried out a crackdown on what they described as terrorism. In reality, they arrested several supporters of the ousted Mr. Morsi, and went on to ban all activities and organisations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Morsi’s supporters and those associated with the Brotherhood protested in large numbers, but the security forces cracked down on them.
The interim government also enacted a contentious law banning protests without prior approval of the police. In August 2014, on one of the worst days of violence, described as the Rabaa massacre, an estimated 800-1000 people died as forces dispersed protests at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo, according to international rights groups. The authorities claimed that protesters were armed.
In 2014, deciding to run for President, Mr. Sisi, then a Field Marshall, the highest-ranking officer in the country’s army, announced his resignation from the forces. Using “Long Live Egypt” as his campaign slogan, he promised development and stability to Egyptians.
After taking charge, the leader vowed to rescue the Egyptian economy. “All the hard decisions that many over the years were scared to take: I will not hesitate for a second to take them,” he said, before making economic reform measures required to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2016. Some of these were austerity measures that would decrease state spending on subsidies like fuel. He urged Egyptians to set aside their protests and help restore economic and political stability in the post-revolution era.
Mr. Sisi’s tenure, however, was marked by alleged human rights abuses and curbing of dissent. Groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that hundreds of Mr. Morsi’s supporters were killed, and several were handed death sentences in mass trials. His tenure also saw detention, travel bans, asset freezes, and in some cases, deaths of dissidents, students, activists, and political prisoners. Rights groups estimated that by 2020, nearly 60,000 people had been imprisoned for political reasons.
A 2020 Carnegie Endowment report noted that Mr. Sisi gave the military more power and control since the start of his first term. His government enacted a law permitting the armed forces to secure and patrol public roads and installations such as electricity and network towers, gas lines, oil fields, railways, and roads. Any crimes committed on such facilities could be investigated by military prosecutors and tried in military courts. According to HRW, 7,420 Egyptian civilians have been prosecuted in military courts since October 2014. In 2021, European countries and the US, a close Egyptian ally, signed a statement calling to end the prosecution of activists, journalists and perceived political opponents under counter-terrorism laws. Egypt responded by saying that the statement contained inaccurate information without proof.
The 2018 elections, in which Mr. Sisi was re-elected, drew criticism as three of his opponents dropped out of the race and one was imprisoned before the polls. A year into his second term, the parliament amended the Constitution to increase the President’s term from four to six years, allowing Mr. Sisi to stay in power till 2024 and to run for election again, overriding a ban on serving more than two terms in a row. The amendments also empowered the military to protect “the constitution and democracy”. They also made the President responsible for appointing top judges and the public prosecutor. After getting passed, these changes were confirmed in a snap public referendum.
The current visit
Presently, as the President is scheduled to visit India for Republic Day, Egypt is reeling under an economic crisis, which Mr. Sisi’s administration pins on the Ukraine War. The Egyptian pound has lost almost half of its value, inflation has soared and many imported products are unavailable. Egypt is borrowing $3 billion from the IMF once again, this time agreeing to privatize state-owned enterprises and reduce spending on mega-projects.
The visit to India is significant not just to mark the deepening of economic ties in sectors like defence, security, and new energy, but also signals the growing proximity between the two nations due to Cairo’s display of pragmatic diplomacy toward India as an influential power in the Arab world. Mr. Sisi’s administration has shown pragmatism in arenas such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), where it has increasingly maintained a cautious position while responding to Pakistan’s aggressive campaign on Kashmir. Besides, Egypt’s studied silence last year, during the uproar over former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s comments on the Prophet may also have helped India.