CAIRO — With his landslide reelection victory, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has deepened his grip on the Arab world’s most populous country and a key U.S. ally, making him arguably the country’s most autocratic leader since it became a republic in 1953.
His consolidation of power, marked by wide-scale repression and targeting of opponents, is widely expected to grow in his second term. His supporters are already pushing to alter presidential term limits to allow Sissi to remain in office past his new term.
But his outsize economic and political ambitions are at the same time breeding resentment within the general population, the business community and, some analysts say, inside Egypt’s highly influential military.
“The past few months have indicated some tensions and divisions,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation. “But there’s nothing to date that suggests that impacts the way in which Sissi at the end of the day can exercise power. He is in charge.”
On Monday, Egypt’s election commission officially confirmed what was already a foregone conclusion: In an election where Sissi arrested or pushed out all of his credible challengers, he won 97 percent of all valid votes.
Critics say Sissi has been emboldened by President Trump, feeling free to use coercion in securing a landslide victory. Since Trump signaled during a trip to Saudi Arabia in May that human rights in the Middle East would not be a priority for the White House, repression under Sissi has escalated.
On Monday, Trump called Sissi to congratulate him on his election victory. A White House statement said, “The two leaders affirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt, and noted that they look forward to advancing this partnership and addressing common challenges.”
Voter turnout, however, was only 41 percent — six points lower than in the 2014 presidential election. Voter participation dropped despite a campaign by Sissi’s loyalists, business executives and local authorities to get Egyptians to go to the polls with offers of cash, food, services — even religious trips to Saudi Arabia — for those who went to the polls.
The proportion of “spoiled votes” was more than 7 percent, higher than in any previous Egyptian election.
“There were more people too disillusioned to enter the polls, and probably a lot more people going to the polls who didn’t want to go to the polls than last time,” said Timothy Kaldas, a political analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “This time the urgency amongst the population to vote was a lot less than last time.”
Sissi’s supporters applaud his ambition. They point to his economic and infrastructure projects, including building new roads, expanding electricity capacity, and encouraging more investments in the country’s oil and gas sectors.
But Sissi has also embarked on expensive megaprojects, including a new branch of the Suez Canal and a $45 billion new administrative capital outside Cairo. Many economists say these will provide little return for years, even decades.
Those funds, critics say, could be better spent helping Egypt’s mostly impoverished population of about 100 million people. While the economy is showing signs of a rebound, even middle-class Egyptians are struggling to cope with IMF-imposed austerity measures, rising prices and falling subsidies.
In his second term, Sissi will face growing expectations from ordinary Egyptians. Many who voted for him said in interviews they hoped he would produce more jobs for youth, better services, and lower prices so meat and other basic items could be affordable.
“The things I most wish he takes care of in his coming term are education and health services,” said Mona Kamel, 52, a housewife who voted for Sissi. “This is what will build the infrastructure for our country.”
Other supporters of the president credit him with restoring stability, especially after the violence that followed the 2011 Arab Spring revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Two years later, the military led by Sissi, overthrew the elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and later jailed him along with tens of thousands of members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Those actions helped trigger a rise in Islamic militancy, including the emergence of an Islamic State affiliate in the northern Sinai Peninsula and new threats in the Western Desert.
Sissi’s supporters give him good marks on fighting extremism, but his critics say he’s using the specter of terrorism to target anyone deemed a threat to his regime.
Days after Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia, Sissi blocked dozens of websites. Now more than 500 sites are blocked. Human rights groups say extrajudicial killings are on the rise, and hundreds of activists have “forcibly disappeared” at the hands of Egypt’s security services.
The Egyptian government has also tried to tame the foreign media, especially when it is critical. Egypt’s prosecutor general has referred to the foreign media as “forces of evil” and vowed to take legal action against anyone who publishes “fake news” that harms the country.
The United States withheld nearly $300 million in military and economic aid to Egypt in August over human rights concerns, surprising Sissi’s government, and U.S. diplomats say they are working privately to raise human rights concerns with Egyptians. The United States, however, still provides $1.3 billion in aid annually.
Sissi took no chances with elections. He arrested two ex-military commanders — Lt. Gen Sami Anan and Col. Ahmed Konsowa — after they announced their intention to challenge him. Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister and air force chief, withdrew after reportedly facing pressure from the regime. Two other candidates pulled out, citing intimidation and attacks by the government media.
Ahead of the election, Sissi also targeted several high-ranking miliary figures. In October, Sissi fired his army chief, and in January, he fired his top intelligence chief. Some analysts said that these actions may have been a response to disaffection among some in the military and intelligence services and that this could augur more tension ahead.
Sissi also courted controversy by ratifying an agreement under which Egypt gave two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, triggering protests at which he was accused of selling Egyptian lands for aid. Some in the military agreed with that criticism, Hanna said, adding that neither Anan nor Shafik would have considered running against Sissi without support from some military figures.
“Sissi’s inner circle sees this as a red line,” Hanna said. “The idea of unity of the security establishment is important. And any attempt to introduce divisions is dealt with harshly.”
In a televised victory speech on Monday night, Sissi said he would work for all Egyptians, including the ones who did not vote for him. “Our country is painting a great national painting, a painting that does not exclude anyone,” he said. “The scene of Egyptians, from all walks of life, lining up [to vote] was inspiring and hopeful.”
He also thanked his sole challenger Moussa Mostafa Moussa, for leading “an honorable and civilized competition which showed his patriotism and decent political decorum.”
But for many Egyptians, Moussa’s candidacy underscored that the election was a farce. An obscure candidate who publicly backed Sissi for a second term, Moussa was widely derided by Egyptians as “a puppet” running to provide a democratic veneer to the elections.
Kaldas said Sissi has been effective in his recent takedowns of detractors and those he suspects are against him.
“His ability to do so suggests that whoever within the regime has objections to Sissi, they are neither powerful enough or organized enough to be consequential right now,” Kaldas said.