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Egypt's president under unusually stinging criticism at home

16 March 2016, 15:29

CAIRO (AP) — Criticism of Egypt's president has gathered momentum in recent weeks as Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's honeymoon in power appears to be ending.

The boldness of the criticism suggests that el-Sissi's aura as the man who "saved the nation" from Muslim Brotherhood rule and the chaos of revolution has faded. Replacing it now is the image of a leader struggling to fix the economy, stop police abuses or suppress an insurgency by Islamic militants.

A recent speech in which el-Sissi seemed angry and frustrated was widely derided not only by social media mockery but also by powerful voices in the media who had backed el-Sissi's rise to power.

"Mr. President and you gentlemen running the security agencies, you are wrong, and what you are doing will lead to the return of the Brotherhood. That will be hell for you and the people," veteran politician Mohammed Abu el-Ghar wrote. "Read history and think a little, so we can all save Egypt."

For nearly two years, the media commentariat, politicians, officials and religious leaders have pushed a message that any criticism of el-Sissi, his government or security agencies was tantamount to treason, undermining security.

El-Sissi vaulted to heroic status in the media when, as military chief, he led the army's July 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi amid massive protests against political dominance by the Brotherhood. He then won the presidency in a landslide election victory.

Since then, he has waged a fierce crackdown, arresting thousands of Islamists and killing hundreds more and suppressing pro-democracy activists who fueled the 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Public protests have been effectively banned. Rights activists have raised alarm over widespread torture and secret detentions by police.

For nearly two years there was little outcry from the public as many supported any measures to restore stability. But a string of recent troubles has pointed to problems that are harder to explain away as caused by "enemies of Egypt."

The downing of a Russian passenger jet — widely blamed on Islamic militants — highlighted security failures, and the government's reluctance to acknowledge it as a terror attack raised criticism. The attack was a devastating blow to Egypt's tourism industry, which further gutted the economy.

The culture of abuse inside security forces, meanwhile, may have landed el-Sissi's government in an international scandal. An Italian graduate student, Giulio Regeni, disappeared on Jan. 25 and he was later found tortured to death.

Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution that stopped just short of accusing Egyptian authorities of killing Regeni. Egyptian officials deny police were behind his death, but even some supporters in the media have cast doubt on the denials.

The government's image was dented by a series of court rulings seen as outrageous. Among them, a young author was sentenced to two years in prison for the publication of sexually explicit excerpts from his novel — a step not taken under Mubarak or the Islamist Morsi. The sentence angered artists and intelligentsia who long cheered el-Sissi out of fear of Islamists.

"Your state is a theocracy, Mr. President," columnist Ibrahim Eissa wrote. "Your state and its agencies, just like those of your predecessor, hate intellectuals, thought and creativity."

El-Sissi has also appeared vulnerable in his government's struggles to repair an economy deeply damaged by five years of turmoil.

The government has been forced to let the Egyptian pound's official value slide to record lows. That has prompted public fears of price increases, given Egypt's dependence on imports.

Another difficult question is how to deal with subsidies that eat up billions of dollars but are vital for millions of impoverished Egyptians. El-Sissi partially lifted fuel subsides last year without unrest, a tribute to his popularity. But another envisaged round of reductions may not go down so well as Egyptians cope with higher prices and unemployment.

Abdullah el-Sennawy, a prominent pro-el-Sissi columnist, warned that further cuts would be "political suicide."

"To recklessly deal with the lives of ordinary people who can barely secure basic life requirements is a recipe for social unrest that security agencies won't be able to contain," he wrote in the Al-Shorouk newspaper.

El-Sissi's own ranting, televised speech on Feb. 24 damaged his image of being in control.

He demanded Egyptians listen to no one but him and stop criticizing the government, vowing to "remove from the face of the Earth" anyone who tries to "bring down" the state.

On the economy, he called on Egyptians to work harder and donate to the government. In a melodramatic gesture, he said he was prepared to sell himself if that would benefit Egypt — opening a rich vein of mockery on social media. Someone quickly posted an ad on the auction website eBay for a "slightly used" general, with el-Sissi's picture.

The speech went over terribly.

"Don't tell us we must listen to you alone," said Youssef el-Husseini, a TV anchorman and firm el-Sissi supporter. "No, we want to do a great deal of talking, discussions and speaking about democracy. Is it democratic to tell us to only listen to you?"

Azza el-Hennawy, an outspoken state TV host, blasted el-Sissi's call for Egyptians to work harder.

"Egyptians do work," she said, "but most, perhaps even all, government leaders don't work. You too, your excellency, don't work. You have not resolved a single issue since you took office."

With the bolder criticism, budding dissent emerged last week within long silent political circles.

A group of politicians and public figures led by leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran for president against el-Sissi in 2014, announced a coalition to create a "political alternative" toward a democratic Egypt. The group avoided directly challenging el-Sissi, but the open talk of an "alternative" was startling.

Also, members of the 50-seat assembly that drafted the 2014 constitution and several prominent figures announced they would work to "protect" the document, opening up a new front of political pressure.

That constitution — perhaps Egypt's most liberal ever — set strong civil rights guarantees and liberties that have been widely ignored since, particularly by the security agencies and the judiciary.

- AP

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