Sisi Smiles

A photo essay on Sisi's Egypt, where ordinary citizens endure daily injustices and deepening repression.

Congregants gather on January 25 to mourn the victims of last December's suicide bomb attack on Egypt's main Coptic cathedral in Cairo. Hamada Elrasam / Jacobin

“It is the ‘so-called step down,’” photojournalist Hamada Elrasam tells me in Cairo, referring to the recent acquittal of ex-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who stood trial for a combined six years on charges of ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 revolution, the embezzlement of public funds, and corruption.

“What, Mubarak will reign once more?” I ask. “Why not?” Elrasam replies. “But no, what I mean is, now Sisi’s in power.”

Like Mubarak, who was an air chief marshal, army-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a military politician. Elrasam’s “so-called step down” alludes to the continuation of tyrannical brutality with impunity: Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for thirty years, was on trial for conspiring to kill 239 demonstrators during the eighteen-day uprising that led to his resignation; and on August 14, 2013, over a month after the military coup against the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, then–defense minister Sisi was in the position of “overall responsibility” when at least 817 protesters were massacred during the security forces’ raid of a mass pro–Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.

In sum, it’s “the same regime, the same corruption, the same brutality.” And at present, Mubarak is free while Sisi’s government is “getting away with incredible crimes and human-rights violations.”

On Monday, President Donald Trump hosted Sisi at the White House and lavished him with praise. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi,” Trump said with a smile. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”

In fact, human rights groups estimate that tens of thousands of political prisoners are languishing in Sisi’s jails, far more than the “darkest period of repression” under his predecessor’s rule.

Trump and Sisi’s warm regard for one another is nothing new. Following their initial exchange at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump described Sisi as a “fantastic guy.” Two months later, Egypt’s governing strongman was the first world leader to call the celebrity business tycoon to commend him for winning the election.

Military spending is part and parcel of their mutual affinity.

As the Intercept detailed in a series of reports last month, the Trump administration is the “military-industrial complex personified” — it appoints defense contractors to key government positions, has proposed an additional $54 billion in defense spending, and carried out more airstrikes in Yemen in thirty-six hours than occurred in all of 2016.

Egypt, meanwhile, receives an annual $1.3 billion in US military assistance, and Trump enthusiastically backs Sisi’s counterterrorism campaign. “You have a great friend and ally in the United States and me,” he told Sisi at Monday’s press conference. (Following Morsi’s ouster, the Obama administration suspended some aid to Egypt for about two years; in the end, though, Obama quietly accepted Sisi’s authoritarianism, mirroring his stance toward Mubarak.)

In early January, Elrasam started conceptualizing a photo essay that would depict “Egypt’s unsettling atmosphere” — where the military and big business celebrate gains, while ordinary Egyptians endure injustice and deepening repression.

This is the result.

January 25, downtown Cairo: A police general hands a gift bag from the interior ministry to a civilian in Tahrir Square on the sixty-fifth commemoration of National Police Day (which coincides with the six-year anniversary of the revolution). Hamada Elrasam / Jacobin
January 25, downtown Cairo: Ahmed El-Sheikh’s left eye was blinded after riot police fired birdshot into an anti-Mubarak demonstration around Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011. “We didn’t achieve the revolution’s demands — bread, freedom, equality — and one of our main purposes was to oppose police abuse,” the twenty-six-year-old journalist and documentarian tells Elrasam, suggesting that his injury is an allegory for the revolution. “Today, the police are celebrating their national day once again, which is a clear sign that nothing has changed.” Hamada Elrasam / Jacobin
December 25, 2016, central Cairo: In the aftermath of the suicide bombing of Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral, the congregation gathers in mourning and solidarity. The explosion, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, left at least twenty-eight people dead, including sixty-three-year-old Isis Fares. Hamada Elrasam / Jacobin
January 12, west Cairo: Mohamed Abou Zeid holds up a portrait of his younger brother Mahmoud, aka “Shawkan.” Inside a defendants’ cage in a Tora Prison courtroom, Shawkan raises his hands in the shape of a camera. The twenty-nine-year-old photojournalist and prisoner of conscience is one of more than seven hundred defendants embroiled in the ongoing “Rabaa sit-in dispersal” case. Despite accounts that Shawkan entered the sit-in “with a camera in hand,” he is facing such charges as “weapons possession” and “murder.” In 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Egypt as the world’s third worst jailer of journalists, and Reporters Without Borders named Sisi a “predator of press freedom.” Hamada Elrasam / Jacobin
April 14, 2013, south Cairo: “Mubarak looked like a president on a stretcher,” Elrasam recalls. “Not a president on trial for corruption and murder on a stretcher.” The dictator-on-trial was wearing pristine leather shoes and a deluxe prison uniform. “Plus,” Elrasam notes, “he was airlifted from his room at a military hospital to the court hearing by a military helicopter, and he was accompanied by a team of medics and military personnel.” The photo, he adds, foreshadowed the “so-called step down.” Hamada Elrasam / Jacobin