In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi provided many outlandish explanations for the state of affairs in Egypt. He described the egregious bloodshed of the preceding years as better than continued Islamist rule, emphasized supposed commonalities between European domestic security policies and his own, played down the humanity and democratic capacities of Egyptians, and gave Samuel Huntington a pat on the back.
Mirroring the sensibilities of his interviewers, who, in a separate article, described Cairo as an ungovernable “lost city” that is “focus[ed] on self-destruction,” Sisi presented Egypt as comprised of uncontrollable and uneducated masses needing a forceful ruler. The President described seemingly intractable “civilizational gap[s]” between Egypt and his interviewers’ native Germany, where both the people and security forces are supposedly civilized and responsible. Egypt, by contrast, is a land without accountability. Of course, Sisi did not include himself and his government among the uncivilized and unaccountable, and explained away any perceived wrongs he may have committed.
While the President’s statements revealed an orientalist logic, it remains unclear whether Sisi’s orientalism is internalized or merely performed. As reflected in the interview, Sisi regards the irrational nature of the illiterate, swayable Egyptian masses as a matter of fact. Yet, at the same time, he also repeatedly deflected criticism about the state’s repressive policies by alluding to the poor and disaffected, whose need for food, energy supplies, and employment opportunities hinges on the stability Sisi’s policies are supposedly creating.
As he insisted, Sisi’s methods for maintaining stability are distasteful only to Westerners who are constrained by their “cultural, civilizational, and developmental vantage point[s].” These perspectives are ill-suited for interpreting and judging Egyptian civic life. During the interview, Sisi balked at the interviewers’ “criteria” for human rights, after they denounced the Rabaa Square massacre and other atrocities. He insisted their view of human rights was too narrow. In a bizarre but not wholly unexpected move, he deflected criticism again, this time by alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood—an omnipresent spectre responsible for any and all violence in Egypt. Sisi explained that the interviewers’ perspectives on human rights was inadequate as it did not account for the Muslim Brotherhood’s manipulation of hearts and minds, which he considered a human rights violation of equal if not greater force than state violence.
Sisi continued by describing Muslim Brotherhood affiliates as terrorists led by a blind desire for martyrdom and deserving of violent extra-judicial suppression. In presenting this narrative, Sisi aimed to deflect responsibility for the repression in Egypt away from himself and onto the Brotherhood.
This logic may seem peculiar. But as the political analyst Maged Mandour argued in Open Democracy, this “liberalism without democracy” aligns with the position of the urban classes who support Sisi and dismiss the desires of the unenlightened masses. According to Sisi’s vision, rights are alienable and contingent on the status of the rights-holder; those who have not assimilated to “civilized” bourgeois liberal society do not merit protection, as they are little more than illiterate, backward terrorists. These citizens have no place in Sisi’s republic.
Sisi’s orientalist statements may indeed represent his true beliefs. But, it is also clear he is using the vast majority of Egyptians as a rhetorical tool to justify his human rights abuses and consolidate his own power.