Sisi in the Hot Seat: Reading Between the Lines

Former Field Marshall and presidential hopeful Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared on television for the first time in an extended interview on May 5 and May 6 of 2014. The interview was conducted by two leading presenters in Egyptian media who championed the ouster of former present Mohamed Morsi, Ibrahim Eissa, known to have been an opponent of Hosni Mubarak, and Lamis al-Hadidi, known to have been a supporter of his National Democratic Party. The interview covered various topics and for the very first time, Egyptians were privy to the man they celebrated as the hero of Morsi’s removal. Seeing Sisi speak out on many topics for the first time, much more can be inferred about him.

Sisi’s tone remains one of projected sincerity, and when it came to issues for which he was celebrated—Morsi’s removal and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood—he came out a hero. He relied on his past speeches to drive home many of the same points he has made publicly, yet there remain a few worrying signs of what may come with a Sisi presidency.

When new questions were presented to him, he was not able to handle them as proficiently as one would expect. He did not give direct answers appearing to avoid topics that were not to his liking, and often taking control of the conversation. Even though he was only pressed lightly, there was an air of impatience in his tone and mannerisms. At one point he rebuked the presenters saying, “Do you want to listen or do you want to talk?”

When it came to talk about release of Jihadis, Sisi put the blame on Morsi even though the majority of Jihadis were released by the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) of which he was a member.

When responding to questions about Egypt’s protest law, he skirted the issue as he justified a law that has not put an end to street unrest, and commended a judiciary whose independence and fairness has been questioned. As Eissa attempted to help him with the response to distinguish between peaceful protests and violent ones, Sisi rejected that attempt. He made it clear that “irresponsible protesting” can bring the country down even if without violence. He ignored that protests brought the army to power in 2011, and that he himself asked Egyptians to protest on July 26, 2013.

When asked about a presidential pardon for those imprisoned under the pretext of the protest law, his demeanor changed, and he appeared angry at the mere mention of the request. His answer was that now is not the time to talk about it.

Sisi asked for more support for a police force well known for its brutality, but brushed lightly over the topic of accountability over human rights violations. This may echo poorly in the future, but considering the current climate it is likely an answer that resonated well with many Egyptians craving a secure state.

The second part of the interview covered a wider range of topics from the energy crisis and the economy to foreign affairs and education.

Addressing the immediate energy crisis, he suggested the use of low-power bulbs as a means to cut down consumption, and save on fuel. There was an unfortunate mention of coal, an alternate source of fuel recently approved but discredited due to its health and economic hazards by activists and the minister of environment. When it came to education, Sisi said teachers would not be compensated through money but with gratitude.

Throughout the latter half of the interview, Sisi may have been attempting a mixture of firmness and softness, but in many cases it came across as scolding the public.

Also notably present were silences in place of answers concerning numerous issues including the arms deal with Russia, the appointment of Mahmoud Hegazy, Sisi’s relative as head of the army, and his position on Hamas. Most notable was his silence and a bit of a smirk when Eissa asked about parliamentary oversight over the army. After the silence, Sisi’s response was that the army was a great institution.

Sisi maintained part of his appeal, and throughout the interview engaged Egyptian women asking them for their support. But the biggest error throughout the long interview is that he did not offer much new. He pushed the Mubarak-era line that there weren’t enough resources and so people should not protest and ask for more, as he took the side of wealthy businessmen. He also made it clear that things will not improve any time soon and that people should bear the situation out of their love of Egypt. When questioned about the security and safety of the country, he said the army would always protect it. As he tries to build on past popularity, he must realize he will have to offer something new if his popularity is to be sustained. His answers indicated that the height of his ambitions are to restore order through existing institutions, keep the Muslim Brotherhood at bay and keep the country afloat.

In the interview, Sisi was clearly addressing his fan base, and it would not be surprising if many cheer him on for a great performance. It is, however, dubious that the interview won over many new supporters. His manner was that of a military man who spoke softly but did not expect to be challenged. An unspoken reaction to many questions came before his verbal responses, and he seemed unable to accept that many of his answers were unconvincing.  Many questions were dodged, the answers unsatisfactory and many of his sentences incomplete. If anything the interview may have had the effect of planting fears and concerns among many of his existing supporters.

Watch the full interview below:

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. A frequent commentator on Egyptian politics, he has written for various publications, including Ahram Online, Daily News Egypt, Counterpunch, Al Monitor and Jadaliyya, and he blogs at Notes from the Underground.