CAIRO—The criticism was blunt—and startling, since it came from a TV presenter on a state-owned station that, like most other media in Egypt, usually has nothing but praise for Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the country’s general-turned-president.
Presenter Azza el-Henawy demanded el-Sissi take action after deaths from floods in areas north of Cairo last month that many blamed on neglect of infrastructure by authorities. She said corruption was being ignored and addressed the president, saying, “As long as no one is held accountable, you will be just talking and making promises and we will get no results … This is why the people are fed up.”
El-Henawy was promptly suspended by the state broadcaster for “unprofessional conduct.”
Her outspoken comments on Nov. 1 pointed to the erosion of the aura of invincibility that el-Sissi has enjoyed. El-Sissi had seemed impervious to criticism ever since he, as military chief, led the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, after nationwide protests against Morsi and the political domination of the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sissi then stormed into the presidency with a 2014 landslide election victory.
For more than two years, he has been lauded as Egypt’s savior. The media have praised his every move, telling the public that he is putting Egypt on the path of security and economic revival. He’s had virtually no political opposition, since secular political parties have largely joined the cheerleading and a fierce crackdown has crushed the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of its protesting supporters and jailing thousands more. Secular and pro-democracy activists who fueled the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak were not spared, with dozens jailed, mostly for breaking a law effectively banning street protests.
But in recent weeks, el-Sissi seemed to struggle with expectations among a population that is fatigued by years of turmoil and has still seen little improvement in the economy, corruption or infrastructure.
Worries over the economy have been compounded by the crash of a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai Peninsula that killed all 224 on board. The U.S. and Britain believe it was downed by a bomb planted by the Sinai branch of the Islamic State group, which has been waging an insurgency against el-Sissi’s government. Russia suspended flights to Egypt and on Friday took the further step of halting EgyptAir flights to Russia—all likely to have a devastating effect on tourism.
El-Sissi himself appears to have little tolerance for criticism.
“It’s inappropriate! We are crossing all boundaries. It’s inappropriate!” he said, visibly angry during an address on Nov. 1 after a different TV presenter was critical of him for meeting with a senior Western businessman when the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria was inundated by rain.
“Are you punishing me for taking this job?” he said. The speech inspired widespread mockery on social media.
Asked by a TV reporter Wednesday about the tourism crisis, he proclaimed bombastically that people shouldn’t worry so much. “We don’t eat? Then, we won’t eat. We go hungry? So be it. What is the problem? As long as our country is secure and we’re moving forward. Success is clear,” he said.
Although the grumbling hardly poses any immediate threat to el-Sissi’s authority, even a dulling of enthusiasm could represent a shift in his popularity.
There are no reliable opinion polls on el-Sissi’s approval ratings. But relatively low turnout in last month’s first round of parliamentary elections—26.6 percent—has been interpreted by commentators, including supporters, as evidence of distrust in a political process overseen by el-Sissi and discontent over the economy.
Cracks have grown in the fierce anti-protest law imposed after Morsi’s fall, despite long prison sentences imposed on those who organize rallies. In recent weeks, numerous groups have held protests to air various grievances, though the demonstrations have not been large and focused on specific demands, not larger political issues.
“These social and economic crises are beyond el-Sissi’s control,” explained Imad el-Deen Hussien, editor in chief of the independent Al-Shorouk daily and an el-Sissi supporter. “It is impossible to tell accurately if he is losing popularity. But that is the general feeling many have.”
El-Henawy’s defiant commentary was the most overt toward el-Sissi, but there has increasingly been grumbling over perceived policy failures. Reasons included the flooding, the loss of value by the Egyptian pound, the negative fallout from the arrest of a wealthy newspaper owner and the military’s detention of a leading rights advocate and investigative journalist.
On her show this week, Lamees el-Hadidi, a popular TV anchor who ranks among el-Sissi strongest supporters, appeared to indirectly fault el-Sissi.
She cited the arrests of businessman Salah Diab and his son and the international outcry over the military’s detention of Hossam Bahgat, a rights activist and investigative reporter. All three have since been released, but the damage may have already been done to Egypt’s investment climate and its already poor track record on freedoms.
“There is a very costly political price (for the arrests),” el-Hadidi cautioned. “We must have a political mind that runs this country, one that considers whether that price is too costly and high.”
On the human rights front, el-Sissi supporters’ declarations that security is more important often drown out any criticism—but even among them there have been voices worrying things are going too far.
There has been a spate of disappearances of young activists that pro-democracy advocates blamed on security agencies. The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, denies responsibility. Dissenting voices are swiftly silenced. A sweeping terrorism law has raised concerns over police power.
“The security apparatus is in full control,” said Waheed Abdel-Meguid, a former lawmaker and a political analyst. “El-Sissi empowered them to end political life in Egypt because he thinks it gets in the way of his work. Now they are free to do whatever they want. The result is they make decisions that reflect poorly on him,” he said.