How Long Will Egypt’s Strongman President Rule?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

May 8, 2019

Egyptian voters have overwhelmingly approved constitutional reforms extending the length of presidential terms, enabling President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi to continue ruling for the next decade.  The timing of the referendum is interesting, considering the ongoing popular unrest in Algeria and Sudan, where demonstrations have ousted aged autocratic leaders and are demanding free elections. It is this context that has led regional commentators to wonder whether el-Sisi’s grip on power will continue as long as he seems to hope, with Egypt facing an anemic economy and increased insecurity along its borders.


According to a recent report by Gulf News on last week’s referendum, “Constitutional changes, which could allow Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi to rule until 2030, were approved by 88.8 per cent of the voters who cast their ballots in a referendum held this week…. Egyptians voted over three days this week beginning Saturday on the constitutional changes that extend the presidential term to six years instead of four, allowing Al Sissi’s current term to end in 2024 instead of 2022. A provisional article makes it possible for Al Sissi to run for another six-year term.”

Daily Sabah’s Ali Bao Rezeg expresses some concern about what the referendum implies for Egypt and the region, suggesting that “[w]ith his insistence on amending the constitution despite the chaos hitting his neighbors, el-Sissi has shown that he has yet to learn the lesson of the Arab Spring uprisings, which, so far, have led to the ouster of six leaders in several Arab countries. Amending the constitution is not the only dynamic that threatens el-Sissi’s throne. Egypt has been suffering recently due to a major collapse in politics, economics and human rights. All of which may eventually lead to Egyptians following in the footsteps of the Algerians and Sudanese.”

But Mr. el-Sisi’s supporters argue that Egypt needs him at the helm for the foreseeable future. For example, in an op-ed for Arab Times, Ahmad-Al-Sarraf contrasts el-Sisi’s rule with that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which preceded it: “I was the eyewitness to how quickly Egypt deteriorated under their stupid rule, and how they ‘sucked’ the remaining blood from the face of Egypt, and how the hijab covered not only the heads of almost all women but also affected their thoughts and also minds of men, thus creativity or what remained of it disappeared…. During this visit, I saw how the recovery of Egypt has begun and how the clean blood flows in the veins and to the old face, and how large groups of people have discovered the devastating danger represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Almost everyone is grateful for the achievements of the new era, which, if limited to the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood will be a great and sufficient achievement.”

The Brotherhood’s short-lived rule in Egypt is also the lens this Khaleej Times editorial uses to discuss a reported U.S. plan to ban the Muslim Brotherhood: “The U.S. has shown it is willing to put all options on the table to bring down an ideological organization that wallows in hate against governments and people. The Brotherhood claims their activities are merely political in nature and have even gained power through the ballot in Tunisia. They have masked their activities well and are the ideological fountain of the ruling AKP in Turkey. In the Middle East, the organization’s true colors are for all to see – power through extremism is their goal. The US decision to ban the group will send them into political and ideological oblivion.”

But as Al Ahram’s Samir Sobhi puts it, political Islam is not the only challenge facing the government: “In Sinai, one of the holiest places in Egypt, a war is now being waged on two main fronts: to combat terrorism and to develop the Peninsula…. Sinai has been the theatre of two wars. Following the 30 June Revolution, Egypt declared war on terrorism that was being carried out in Sinai by terrorists and extremists. However, it has also declared another battle, this time to complete the urbanization of Sinai. Terrorism has been eradicated from Sinai with the help of the army, the police and local residents, and stability has been restored. The time is now ripe to develop Sinai further and to build its future.”

In a feature article for Al Arabiya, Sonia Farid notes that insecurity along the Egyptian border has increased in step with chaos in Libya and Sudan, explaining Egypt’s attempts to mediate a political solution in both countries: “Following the eruption of protests in Sudan and the military offensive in Libya, apprehensions of insecurity on Egypt’s western and southern borders have started growing. It was no coincidence that both ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar visited Cairo as tensions reached their peak back home, in a demonstration of where Egypt’s bets were placed at the time…. If its southern and western neighbors embrace the same view of stability and adopt the same approach to national security, the Egyptian government can rest assured that neither protests nor armed struggles will be exported to its turf.”

But according to Al Jazeera’s Marwan Kabalan, as long as such efforts don’t address the underlying political and social demands of the local populations, the creation of “a new military crescent” will only lead to further polarization and violence: “There seems to be a concerted effort to establish a crescent of military-ruled countries from Sudan in northeast Africa to Algeria in the northwest through Egypt and Libya to ward off popular upheaval and keep ‘Islamist’ forces in check. It is based on the misguided belief that military strongmen such as el-Sisi in Egypt, Haftar in Libya or even Bashar al-Assad in Syria can provide security and stability in the region. But the truth is – as all uprisings since 2011 have demonstrated – the stability, which they promise, is a mere illusion…. The Middle East will not achieve stability until this vicious circle of despotism, violence and extremism is broken. Establishing a military crescent in North Africa is not the right solution for the region.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top