Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi won his third consecutive term in last week’s elections. The results, announced yesterday, were no surprise. For most of Egypt’s history, elections have been a stage-managed affair.

But elections under El-Sisi are “not really a competition for votes,” says Stanford University’s Hesham Sallam in the latest episode of The Pivot podcast.

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They are, of course, an attempt to demonstrate the people’s support and signal the regime’s legitimacy. But, in Egypt today, Sallam argues, they’re also “really a competition for political roles inside El-Sisi’s political apparatus.”

The El-Sisi Model of Authoritarianism

El-Sisi and his allies are haunted by a repeat of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests that brought down then-President Hosni Mubarak.


Sallam, the author of author of Classless Politics: Islamist Movements, the Left, and Authoritarian Legacies in Egypt, states that El-Sisi blames the modest political opening in the late Mubarak era for the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

So, since taking over in 2013, El-Sisi has taken no chances. He crushed the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups with deadly force. Hundreds were killed in the 2013 Rabaa Massacre. An estimated 60,000 political prisoners languish in Egyptian jails. Many, including former President Mohamed Morsi, have died in prison.

Upon destroying Egypt’s nascent democracy with brute force, El-Sisi, Sallam says, adopted a “personalist style of rule,” departing from Mubarak’s corporatism.

A statement by El-Sisi in 2016 best captures his personalism. El-Sisi told an audience, “If you really love Egypt … listen to only me.”

But since 2018, El-Sisi has moved away from personalism. After failing to rebuild Egyptian politics from scratch, Sallam says, El-Sisi realized he needed the support of the traditional political families. Today, there’s also an expanded role for political parties and groups like Mostaqbal Watan, which is widely seen as the king’s party.

In Sallam’s view, this month’s presidential elections effectively serve as an audition for groups like Mostaqbal Watan to prove their utility to El-Sisi — the paramount figure in Egypt’s patrimonial system.

But El-Sisi remains perennially fearful of building an alternate pole of power in his system, whether it is a politician, party, or an oligarch. He simply cannot let anyone get too big for his britches. A hallmark of the El-Sisi era is that he vacillates between personalist and corporatist authoritarianism. It’s an endless game of rebalancing to keep one man on top.

Episode Description:

Hesham Sallam of Stanford University joins host Arif Rafiq to discuss Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s 10 years as ruler of Egypt and how this one man has dominated Egypt, its institutions, and its 110 million people for a decade. They dive deep into El-Sisi’s motives, how his brand of authoritarianism differs from those of his predecessors, and what the future holds for this new pharaoh and the 110 million people over whom he rules.


hesham sallam
(Image Credit: Stanford University)
  • Hesham Sallam, Associate Director for Research, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford University (@WazirElKif)

Hesham Sallam is a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, where he serves as Associate Director for Research. He is also Associate Director of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy.

Sallam is co-editor of Jadaliyya ezine and a former program specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. His research focuses on political and social development in the Arab World.

Sallam’s research has previously received the support of the Social Science Research Council and the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is author of Classless Politics: Islamist Movements, the Left, and Authoritarian Legacies in Egypt (Columbia University Press, 2022). Sallam received a Ph.D. in Government (2015) and an M.A. in Arab Studies (2006) from Georgetown University, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh (2003).

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.


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