Every year at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting there seems to be one world leader who garners all the attention. Last year’s UNGA “It Guy” was Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. In 2012, the King of the Prom was Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader and a Muslim Brother. The year before that everyone wanted to hear from then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. This year all the Turtle Bay buzz is building around the man who is Erdogan’s bête noire and Morsi’s jailer, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Even though he is not getting a coveted “bilateral” with President Obama, Sisi is breakfasting with Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Madeleine Albright, breaking bread with New York’s titans of business over lunch, and presiding at a small meeting of opinion leaders in advance of his speech before fellow heads of state on Thursday, September 25. The Egyptian president’s message is a simple one: “Egypt is back, I am in charge, we have an economic plan, it is safe to invest, I am actually on the right side of history, and Egypt is stable.” Don’t believe it. Methinks Sisi doth protest too much. For all of the persistently positive messages coming from official circles in Cairo, there is nevertheless a certain skittish and vulnerable quality to them.
It is true, world leaders routinely come to the UNGA with sparingly little of interest to say and instead opt for laudatory statements about their country and its contributions to civilization. This is why—with perhaps the exceptions of the late Hugo Chavez’s antics and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s rants—the official proceedings at the UN are generally snoozers. Why should Sisi’s speech be any different? No one expects him to show up in New York and say, “I’ve made a hash of things, Egypt is in bad shape, folks.” Yet the optimistic messaging has been going on for months and in a particular way that indicates Egyptians need convincing of what they themselves are saying. Taken together, the relentless “ICYMI” emails from the Egyptian embassy alerting everyone and anyone about some nugget of ostensibly great news about Egypt, the mindless declarations of officialdom about “protecting the revolution,” the way the country’s elites have become adept at disregarding Egypt’s actual circumstances in favor of what can only be described as happy talk, and the ferocious response to anyone who challenges this narrative suggests a vulnerability and contradiction to the political project underway in Egypt during the last year. Egyptians and others who use the term “coup d’état” are at risk of being labeled supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism. President Sisi, his advisors, and supporters—of which there are many—prefer the much sunnier, if somewhat Orwellian “revolution fulfilling the will of the people” to describe the military intervention on July 3, 2013.
There is a saying in American politics that if you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth. The belief that the Affordable Care Act includes “death panels” is the paradigmatic case of this phenomenon. Yet in order for this kind of tactic to work, it seems that you need enough people who are pre-disposed to believe it. How many people believe that Tibet is and always was an integral part of China? Not enough because the Chinese government has to constantly say it. If ever there was a clear indication that Algeria would never be a départment (or départments) of France, it was the French government’s declarations in the mid-1950s that Algeria was an integral part of France. In the same way, Sisi doth protest too much about Egypt’s great progress, though it may not matter very much given his sky high approval ratings in at least one recent poll.
Let’s review the current situation in Egypt, anyway: Official unemployment remains a problem hovering between 13.4 and 12.3 percent so far in 2014, but everyone knows that the Egyptians lie about unemployment statistics and always have. Inflation is 11.5 percent, public debt is 92.2 percent of GDP, foreign reserves are a meager $16.8 billion, and foreign direct investment clocked in at an anemic $4.4 billion during the first nine months of the year. Total tourism revenue for the first half of 2014 was only $3 billion, which is down from the same period in 2013, when Egypt was convulsed with anti-Morsi protests and a significant deterioration of security. Speaking of security, 500 policemen and soldiers have perished in the fight against terrorists since July 2013 and at least 1,000 civilians have died in that time in confrontations with the security forces. Many more have been injured. By its own estimates, the government of Egypt indicates that it holds 16,000 political prisoners that include Muslim Brothers, other opponents of Sisi, and eleven journalists. This is not a pretty picture.
In fairness, Sisi has spoken to Egyptians about collective sacrifice and lamented a lost generation, but overall the message to Egyptians and the world is: “It’s all good.” This may serve the president’s current political needs and warm the hearts of at least some of the people Sisi will meet in New York City this week, but it could be the source of significant political difficulties for him. You can only blame the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorists for so long. As long as Sisi persists in telling Egyptians that 1) things are getting better and 2) their situation is improving specifically because of the way he is going about things, the lives of Egyptians better get better. If they do not, Sisi’s support is likely to deteriorate. Opponents will find ways to highlight the difference between what he is telling Egyptians and how they are actually experiencing the world. At a basic level, this gap between principles and reality is why Hosni Mubarak fell, Anwar Sadat confronted a revolt from all political quarters before his assassination in October 1981, and Gamal Abdel Nasser faced insurrection in early 1968.
Sisi no doubt feels more confident in his place than at any other time since the July 2013 coup. There are currently no obvious challengers to him. He has the support of the military and the General Intelligence Service. The Ministry of Interior seems to have fallen into line. He will not challenge the judiciary, which was instrumental in undermining Morsi. If, in fact, Sisi can rest easy that the state is his and he has popular support, he must now figure out how to maintain control of the population through something other than force of personality and sheer force. Happy talk will only get him so far.