March 13, 2018

IntelBrief: Egypt in Reverse 

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi (Alexander Zemlianichenko/pool photo via AP).
  • Ahead of its March 26-28 presidential election, the Sisi regime is intensifying its crackdown on a free press.
  • President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is running essentially unopposed for reelection; the regime has been relentless against even the hint of credible opposition.
  • Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia have improved, while its relations with the U.S. have worsened—lately over issues of North Korean arms deals.
  • The reelection of another Egyptian ‘strongman’ will be a significant step backward for the country, made harder to rectify after the fact if the constitution is amended.


Democracy and a free press are again facing an existential threat in Egypt. The regime of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is intensifying its long-running crackdown on journalists in the lead-up to the country’s March 26-28 presidential election. That the regime is still so intent on squashing any reporting that might raise questions as to the country’s current and future paths, even in an election where there is no credible opposing candidate, indicates the goals of the regime are looking beyond the counting of the upcoming ballots. As the Washington Post noted in a March 8 article, the election is not really about reelecting Sisi; it is about a ‘procedural hurdle to clear before the much more consequential effort of constitutional change.’

The expected push to remove term limits—combined with the regime’s absolute control over the national political dialogue and the military’s oversized role in the economy—will provide the briefest of moments for opponents to organize and promote a future for Egypt that isn’t a return to its past. There is, of course, opposition to Sisi and the return-of-the-pharaoh rule but it is scattered; the regime has been relentless against even the hint of credible opposition. The absence of unified and organized opposition makes it very unlikely that the expected constitutional changes will be thwarted.

After a brief dip in relations over disagreements regarding the Syrian war, Egypt and Saudi Arabia appear to have become closer. Both countries have exceedingly powerful one-man rule systems, with both leaders claiming the mantle of ‘reformer’ against a reform-resistant culture—though both are strengthening their grasp in terms of near-dictatorial powers. The March 4-7 visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Egypt is a clear sign of the improved relations. Egypt is supportive of Saudi Arabia’s 9-month long bitter dispute with fellow GCC member, Qatar, which has devolved into a stalemate with no winner. Saudi Arabia has always been a crucial financial supporter of Egypt—and of Sisi in particular—after the coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of President al-Morsi and put Sisi in power. Riyadh’s deep opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood matches Sisi’s, and the two are determined to prevent the group from gaining influence in either country.

Saudi financial support for Egypt is more important now given the relative downturn in relations between Egypt and the U.S. The issue between the two countries is not over human rights or freedom of the press. President Trump has expressed support for Sisi as a ‘strong leader’ and met with him at the White House in April 2017 and in Riyadh in May 2017. Rather, the issue is Egypt’s illicit purchases of North Korean military hardware that runs afoul of international sanctions. In August 2017, the U.S. suspended $291 million in military aid to Egypt because of allegations by the U.S. and the United Nations that Egypt was allowing the North Korean embassy in Cairo to serve as a hub for illicit arms deals. In 2016, a North Korean freighter was intercepted before it made port in Egypt and was found to be carrying 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades. As the U.S. increases pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs, it will look very negatively upon any actions that provide Pyongyang with monetary resources.

Egypt has had a long history of arms deals with North Korea, to which numerous U.S. administrations have routinely objected. The intense focus by the Trump administration on the issue is a rare but important point of contention between Cairo and Washington.


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