CAIRO – Beaming, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sat before an audience next to a young TV presenter who praised him for his transparency and straight talk. She then selected a number of questions and complaints from thousands submitted by the public to an online page called “Ask the President.”
For the next hour, Egypt’s leader dispensed solutions to people’s problems and concerns on live TV.
When one person wrote in complaining police had shut down an unlicensed food cart run by two women, el-Sissi replied he wants to start a program to license such carts in public squares. Then he turned to his interior minister – the powerful head of police sitting in the front row – and chided him good-naturedly, asking why he doesn’t give out temporary licenses until a permanent system is set up.
Egypt’s general-turned-president has deftly maneuvered his way to being a leader through whom nearly everything is funneled, sidestepping state institutions that are largely weak anyway. The parliament is dutifully loyal, his Cabinet waits on his every word, and the media are almost completely without dissenting voices.
At the same time, he has put himself out before the public in a way no Egyptian leader has before. El-Sissi appears often at televised gatherings and a series of heavily publicized youth conferences where he answers questions from people in the audience or – in one case last month – questions submitted to the “Ask the President” page on a website linked to his office.
Throughout, he projects a carefully cultivated image of a detail-oriented workaholic, in touch with the people, tough-minded but sensitive to their woes.
That image has served him well, helping preserve his popularity among a significant section of the Egyptian public, despite the pain of high prices inflicted by austerity measures he imposed to salvage a sinking economy, a dragged-out fight against Islamic militants and concerns over his increasingly authoritarian ways.
His televised appearances give an impression of freedom and transparency, though his government has rolled back most freedoms won by a 2011 uprising, suppressed civil society groups and jailed thousands of opponents.
“He wants to come across as the one who holds all the strings, solves everything, and the only one with ideas. It’s a combination between authoritarianism and PR,” said Hisham Kassem, a prominent publisher and media expert.
El-Sissi and his supporters say there is no other way to fix a nation deeply damaged by turmoil since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. The outreach, they say, reassures and rallies a public struggling with cripplingly higher prices for food, fuel and services from the economic reforms, which included the floating of the currency and lifting of some subsidies.
El-Sissi has also been boosted by a turnaround on the world stage, where he was initially shunned for ousting an elected president in 2013 and overseeing a massive crackdown on Islamists and secular opponents. Now he has been embraced by many Western leaders, including President Donald Trump, as an ally against terrorism and illegal immigration.
El-Sissi does not hide his disdain for politics and does not have a political party, a contrast to Mubarak, whose ruling party was a tool for enforcing loyalty in the government and the streets.
Instead, the military remains el-Sissi’s main arm. He has expanded the military’s role in the economy, bringing it into new fields of manufacturing and infrastructure construction – so much so that some complain private investors are at a disadvantage.
“If the armed forces hadn’t been an integral part of confronting this massive (economic) development, we would have probably not been able to achieve what we have,” he said in a recent interview.
He has also enrolled hundreds of carefully vetted young graduates in a program to produce a new leadership generation. Many of them are to be assigned to ministries and government agencies, effectively installing el-Sissi loyalists to realize his policies.
“It’s clear that he has no trust in most state institutions,” said Negad Borai, a prominent rights lawyer who is among a number of activists banned from travel.
“He sidesteps most institutions and deals directly with the people through these televised functions,” Borai said. “The bottom line is, he and his preferred institutions, primarily the military, are doing everything themselves.”
El-Sissi’s public outreach has been enabled by the grip he holds over the media, where dissenting voices have been squeezed out and celebrity talk show hosts have been empowered as his unofficial spokespersons and cheerleaders.
In his appearances, el-Sissi shows a mix of diligence, patriotism, religious piety and “regular guy” moments – heartily laughing at a joke or choking back tears listening to a mother talk about a son killed fighting militants.
During a recent TV program discussing poverty in rural areas, the host was visibly delighted when el-Sissi phoned into the show, ostensibly unplanned.
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” el-Sissi said humbly before talking about his government’s efforts to build homes and infrastructure.
He often proclaims his gratitude and admiration for how Egyptians are enduring the hardships, promising they will be rewarded with better times.
He combines that with tough love, telling Egyptians they can no longer depend on subsidized prices. He angrily told Cairenes this week to stop complaining about higher metro fares, saying services in Egypt remain among the world’s cheapest.
And he has maintained the security agencies’ iron fist.
One of the questions read during the “Ask the President” session was from a prominent rights activist, Gamal Eid.
Eid wrote that the main security agency shut down five public libraries he set up using funds from an international award. In the complaint, he referred to the agency by its former, but still widely used name, “State Security,” rather than “National Security,” as it has been called since 2011.
“Do we have State Security?” el-Sissi asked his interior minister with a mocking smile.
El-Sissi said Eid should lodge a court case. “The ruling will be binding on you and the Interior Ministry,” he said. But then he added that closing the libraries must have been done in the interest of protecting Egyptians.
Eid later told the Associated Press there is no way to appeal in court because police closed the libraries without ever producing an official order.
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