A chronology of key events:
circa 7000 BC - Settlement of Nile Valley begins.
circa 3000 BC - Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt unite. Successive dynasties witness flourishing trade, prosperity and the development of great cultural traditions. Writing, including hieroglyphics, is used as an instrument of state. Construction of the pyramids - around 2,500 BC - is a formidable engineering achievement.
669 BC - Assyrians from Mesopotamia conquer and rule Egypt.
525 BC - Persian conquest.
332 BC - Alexander the Great, of ancient Macedonia, conquers Egypt, founds Alexandria. A Macedonian dynasty rules until 31 BC.
31 BC - Egypt comes under Roman rule; Queen Cleopatra commits suicide after Octavian's army defeats her forces.
33 AD - Christianity comes to Egypt, and by 4th century has largely displaced Egyptian religion.
642 - Arab conquest of Egypt.
969 - Cairo established as capital.
1250-1517 - Mameluke (slave soldier) rule, characterised by great prosperity and well-ordered civic institutions.
1517 - Egypt absorbed into the Turkish Ottoman empire.
1798 - Napoleon Bonaparte's forces invade but are repelled by the British and the Turks in 1801.
1805 - Ottoman Albanian commander Muhammad Ali establishes dynasty that rules until 1952, although nominally part of the Ottoman Empire.
1859-69 - Suez Canal built, but it and other infrastructure projects near-bankrupt Egypt and lead to gradual British takeover.
1882 - British troops defeat Egyptian army and take control of country.
1914 - Egypt formally becomes a British protectorate.
1922 - Fuad I becomes King and Egypt gains independence, although British influence remains significant until mid-1950s.
1928 - Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna, who was killed in 1949. Campaigns to reorient Egypt and whole Muslim Middle East away from Western influence.
1948 - Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria attack the new state of Israel. Egyptian army's poor performance increases unpopularity of King Farouk.
1949 - Committee of the Free Officers' Movement formed to overthrow corrupt monarchy.
1952 January - At least 20 people are killed in anti-British riots in Cairo.
1952 July - Coup by the Free Officers' Movement. Farouk abdicates in favour of his infant son Ahmed Fuad II.
Rise of Nasser
1953 June - Coup leader Muhammad Najib becomes president as Egypt is declared a republic.
1954 - Fellow coup leader Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes prime minister and in 1956 president, ruling unchallenged until his death in 1970.
1954 - Evacuation Treaty signed. British forces, who began a gradual withdrawal under 1936 treaty finally leave Egypt.1955 - Prime Minister Nasser reorients Egypt away from West towards neutrality, buys arms from Communist Czechoslovakia to re-equip army after Western powers refuse to do so on terms acceptable to Egypt.
1956 January - Egypt and Britain relinquish control over Sudan, established at end of 19th century.
1956 July - President Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal to fund the Aswan High Dam, after Britain and US withdraw financing.
1956 October-November - Invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel over nationalisation of Suez Canal fails through US opposition, greatly enhancing President Nasser's standing at home and abroad.
1958 - President Nasser steps up campaign to promote pan-Arab unity, most visible signs of which were brief United Arab Republic unitary state including Syria (1958-61). He also supports friendly elements in Lebanese and North Yemen conflicts to little avail.
1961-66 - President Nasser adopts socialist policies, including nationalisation of industry and an ambitious welfare programme, combined with repression of Muslim Brotherhood and leftist opponents, in an unsuccessful attempt to boost the economy and the popularity of his government.
1967 May - Egypt expels UN buffer forces from Sinai and closes the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, then sign defence pact with Jordan. Israel interprets this as preparation for war.
1967 June - Israeli pre-emptive attack defeats Egypt, Jordan and Syria, leaving it in control of Sinai up to the Suez Canal and Egyptian-occupied Gaza.Emergency Law largely suspends civil rights. Remains in force with brief break in early 1980s until 2012.
1970 September - Nasser dies, having never recovered his leading role among Arab states after the 1967 defeat, and is succeeded by Vice-President, Anwar al-Sadat.
1971 - The Aswan High Dam is completed, with Soviet funding, and has a huge impact on irrigation, agriculture and industry in Egypt.
1972 - President Sadat expels Soviet advisers and reorients Egypt towards the West, while launching an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to open the economy to market forces and foreign investment.
1973 October - Egypt and Syria go to war with Israel to reclaim land lost in 1967. Egypt begins negotiations for the return of Sinai after the war.
1975 June - The Suez Canal is re-opened for first time since 1967 war.
1977 January - "Bread riots" in major cities against end to subsidies on basic foodstuffs under agreement with World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
1977 October - President Sadat visits Israel, beginning process that leads to 1979 peace treaty, return of occupied Sinai Peninsula, and Egypt's suspension from Arab League until 1989. Egypt becomes major beneficiary of US financial aid.
1981 October - President Sadat assassinated by Islamist extremists month after clampdown on private press and opposition groups in wake of anti-government riots. Succeeded by Vice-President Hosni Mubarak.
1981 - President Mubarak reimposes State of Emergency, restricting political activity, freedom of expression and assembly.
1986 - Amy deployed in Cairo to crush mutiny by Central Security paramilitary police.
1991 - Egypt joins allied coalition to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and benefited from major multilateral loans and debt relief in return, allowing government to launch another attempt at liberalising economy.
1992-97 - Gama'a al-Islamiyya Islamic Group begins five-year campaign of attacks on government and tourist targets, culminating in killing of 62 people at Luxor historic site in 1997.
2005 May - Referendum backs constitutional amendment allowing multiple candidates at presidential elections, after months of opposition protests.
2005 July - Scores of people are killed in bomb attacks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh as Islamists resume terror attacks.
2005 December - Parliamentary polls end with clashes between police and supporters of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, who win record 20% of seats by standing as independents.
2006 April - Bomb attacks in the Red Sea resort of Dahab kill more than 20 people.
2006 November - Egypt is one of at least six Arab countries developing domestic nuclear programmes to diversify energy sources, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports.
2008 April - Military courts sentence 25 leading Muslim Brotherhood members to jail terms in crackdown targeting the organisation's funding. More than 800 arrested over a month. Brotherhood boycotted municipal elections after only 20 candidates allowed to stand.
2009 February - Leading opposition figure Ayman Nour freed after serving three years of five-year sentence on forgery charges that he said were politically motivated.
2009 August - Twenty-six members of an alleged cell of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah go on trial in Cairo on charges of plotting attacks in Egypt and helping to send weapons to Hamas in Gaza.
Fall of Mubarak
2010 February - Former UN nuclear chief Mohammed ElBaradei returns to Egypt and, together with opposition figures and activists, forms a coalition for political change.
2010 June - Muslim Brotherhood fails to win any seats in elections to the Shura consultative upper house of parliament; alleges vote was rigged.
2010 November - Parliamentary polls, followed by protests against alleged vote rigging. Muslim Brotherhood fails to win a single seat, though it held a fifth of the places in the last parliament.
Mubarak's rise and fall
President ruled for three decades before being swept aside by a popular uprising
Profile: Hosni Mubarak
2011 January - Anti-government demonstrations, apparently encouraged by Tunisian street protests which prompted sudden departure of President Ben Ali.
2011 February - President Mubarak steps down and hands power to the army council. Goes on trial in August, charged with ordering the killing of demonstrators.
2011 April-August - Protests continue in Cairo's Tahrir Square over slow pace of political change. Islamist groups come to the fore. Army finally disperses protestors in August.
2011 November - Violence in Cairo's Tahrir square as security forces clash with protesters accusing the military of trying to keep their grip on power.
2011 December - National unity government headed by new Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri takes office.
2012 January - Islamist parties emerge as victors of drawn-out parliamentary elections.
2012 May - Military leaders announce the end of the state of emergency in place since Anwar al-Sadat's assassination in 1981.
2012 June - Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi narrowly wins presidential election.
Court sentences ex-President Mubarak to life in prison for complicity in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising.
2012 August - New prime minister Hisham Qandil appoints a cabinet dominated by figures from the outgoing government, technocrats and Islamists, but excluding secular and liberal forces.
Islamist fighters attack an army outpost in Sinai, killing 16 soldiers, and mount a brief incursion into Israel, beginning new insurgency.
President Morsi dismisses Defence Minister Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Annan and strips military of say in legislation and drafting the new constitution.
Tension over new constitution
2012 November - President Morsi issues a decree stripping the judiciary of the right to challenge his decisions, but rescinds it in the face of popular protests.
2012 December - Islamist-dominated constituent assembly approves draft constitution that boosts the role of Islam and restricts freedom of speech and assembly. Public approve it in a referendum, prompting extensive protest by secular opposition leaders, Christians and women's groups.
Government paralysis weakens the currency and delays a $4.8bn (£3bn) IMF loan.
2013 January - More than 50 people are killed during days of violent street protests. Army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi warns that political strife is pushing the state to the brink of collapse.
2013 June - President Morsi appoints Islamist allies as regional leaders in 13 of Egypt's 27 governorships, including member of a former Islamist armed group linked to a massacre of tourists in Luxor in 1997. Protests force Luxor governor out.
2013 July - Army overthrows President Morsi amid mass demonstrations calling on him to quit.
2013 August - Hundreds killed as security forces storm pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo.
Some 40 Coptic churches are destroyed in wave of attacks.
2013 October - US suspends large part of $1.3bn (£810m) in aid.
2013 December - Government declares Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group after a bomb blast in Mansoura kills 12.
2014 January - New constitution bans parties based on religion.
2014 May - Former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi wins presidential election.
2014 June - International outcry as three al-Jazeera journalists are jailed after being found guilty of spreading false news and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood. They are freed in February 2015.
Islamic State attacks
2014 November - Sinai-based armed group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledges allegiance to extreme Islamic State movement, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq. Renames itself Sinai Province.
2015 February - Egyptian aircraft bomb Islamic State positions in eastern Libya after extremist group released video apparently showing killing of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Egypt seeks UN mandate to sanction international intervention in Libya.
2015 May - Ousted President Morsi sentenced to death over 2011 mass breakout of Muslim Brotherhood prisoners, along with more than 100 others. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in April over arrest and torture of protesters during his 2012-2013 rule.
2015 June - Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat and three members of the public killed in suspected Islamist car bombing in Cairo.
2015 July - Islamic State launches wave of attacks in North Sinai.
2015 October - Islamic State claims responsibility for destruction of Russian airliner in Sinai, in which all crew and 224 tourist passengers were killed.
2016 January - Islamic State carries out attack at Giza tourist site and is suspected of attack on tourists in Hurghada.
2016 April - Egypt announces that it will hand over to Saudi Arabia two strategic Red Sea islands, sparking public outrage and unrest.
2016 May - EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo crashes into the Mediterranean Sea.
2016 November - IMF approves a three-year $12bn loan to Egypt designed to help the country out of its deep economic crisis.
2016 November - Egypt's appeals court overturns the death sentence of former president Mohamed Morsi and orders a retrial in connection with a mass prison break in 2011.
2016 December - A bomb attack on a Cairo church kills 25. The blast is claimed by Islamic State militants who threaten more attacks on Christians.
2017 February - Dozens of Coptic Christian families flee northern Sinai after a number of killings by suspected Islamist militants.
2017 April - State of emergency declared after suicide bombers kill dozens at two churches where worshippers celebrate Palm Sunday.
2017 May - Egyptian military carries out a series of airstrikes against alleged jihadist training camps in Libya, after the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for ambushing and killing Christians on a bus in Minya province.
2017 June - Egypt joins Saudi-led campaign to isolate Qatar, accusing it of promoting terrorism.
2017 November - Jihadists attack mosque in Bir al-Abed village in North Sinai, killing 305.
2018 February - Preparations for presidential election are underway amid crackdown on the opposition. Islamic State group urges people not to vote, threatens to attack polling stations.
The Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who came to power in a coup that, in its aftermath, resulted in the massacre of more than a thousand supporters of his predecessor, has a reputation for speaking very softly. This quality often disarms foreigners. “When you talk to him, unlike most generals, he listens,” a European diplomat told me recently. “He’s not bombastic.” An American official told me that Sisi reminds her of a certain Washington archetype. “You have the political people who always want to be the loudest voice in the room,” she said. “And then there are people who are creatures of the system, who are just as capable but not necessarily the loudest.” She said of Sisi, “I also think the quiet, reserved posture is a forcing function to make people lean in and really think about what he’s saying. What signal is he trying to send? Is there a deeper meaning?”
Revolutions are often started by the bold and the outspoken, and then coöpted by those who are quiet and careful. A price is paid for early prominence; in many cases, the winners are the ones who wait. In February, 2011, when the Tahrir Square movement forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign, Sisi was the Army’s director of military intelligence, a position that was virtually invisible to the public. Five years earlier, he had completed a course at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but he seems to have hardly crossed the radar of top American officials. “I can’t tell you I recall any kind of special attention in the intelligence summaries with regard to Sisi,” Leon Panetta, who became the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the year of Tahrir, and who previously directed the Central Intelligence Agency, told me. In 2013, Chuck Hagel succeeded Panetta at the Pentagon. “Our military people did not know him well,” Hagel said of Sisi. Another U.S. official told me that biographical information about Sisi had been particularly thin. “People didn’t know a lot about his wife, people didn’t know a lot about his kids,” she said. “I don’t think that’s coincidence. I think it was an intentional aura that he constructed around himself.”
Mubarak held power for nearly thirty years without naming a successor, and he was toppled by a revolution that lacked leadership or organizational structure. Afterward, Egypt was ruled by a council of military officers who were supposed to oversee the transition to a civilian government. Sisi was the youngest member of this council, and reportedly he assumed a leading role in secret talks with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that had been banned in Egypt until the revolution. The Brotherhood had always had tense relations with the military, but during the post-Tahrir period, as the group rose to power through a series of popular elections, there were signs that an arrangement was being worked out. “Sisi was the one negotiating with the Brotherhood,” a senior official in the State Department, who had contact with both the military and the Islamists during this period, told me recently. “His view, I think, was that he was trying to influence, control, and smooth out the political process.” A European diplomat described the arrangement as “a cohabitation.” He said, “As long as the Brothers didn’t interfere too much in the military matters, then the military would allow them to get on with the business of civilian government.”
Brotherhood leaders trusted Sisi in part because he was a devout Muslim. And, at least initially, the military leaders seemed to hold up their end of the bargain. In June, 2012, when Egypt’s first democratic Presidential election was won by Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood, the Army didn’t interfere. Not long after taking office, Morsi forced the retirement of the Minister of Defense, along with the commanders of the Navy, the Air Defense, and the Air Force. This move was praised by young Egyptian revolutionaries, who saw it as a sign that Morsi was determined to reduce the Army’s influence. Many people were also encouraged by his choice of new Minister of Defense: Sisi. At the age of fifty-seven, Sisi replaced a seventy-six-year-old general, and the appointment seemed to reflect a transition to a younger, more enlightened officer corps.
It wasn’t long before Morsi attempted another bold move. In November, he issued a Presidential decree that granted him temporary powers beyond the reach of any court, as a way of preëmpting opposition to a new, Islamist-friendly constitution. This proved to be the turning point for the Brotherhood’s political fortunes. The group lost the support of most revolutionaries, and opposition grew steadily for the next six months, until many state institutions, including the police, essentially refused to work on behalf of Morsi’s government. Sisi made few public statements, but he opened a dialogue with Chuck Hagel, his counterpart at the Pentagon. In March, 2013, as the crisis was building, Hagel visited Cairo, where he met Sisi for the first time. “Our chemistry was very good,” Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, told me. “I think he saw me as someone who understood the military, who understood threats and war.”
As the crisis worsened, Hagel became the only person in the U.S. government with whom Sisi would communicate. Hagel estimates that they had nearly fifty phone conversations. “We were literally talking, like, once a week,” he said. “These would be hour-long conversations, sometimes more.” Many people believe that the military had always planned to overthrow Morsi, but Hagel is convinced that Sisi initially had no intention of taking power. Other diplomats agreed. “He’s not somebody who has spent his life lusting for power, lusting to become President,” a European diplomat who has met Sisi dozens of times told me. Several observers emphasized that motivations tend to be fluid during a period of political instability. “I’ve never been in the position of having millions of people tell me that I can change the country if I act,” a former senior official in the Obama Administration told me. “I don’t know what that would do to my psychology.”
On the last day of June, 2013, an estimated fourteen million people took to the streets in protest against the government. I asked Hagel what Sisi was saying during this time. “ ‘What can I do?’ ” Hagel remembered. “ ‘I mean, I can’t walk away. I can’t fail my country. I have to lead; I have support. I am the one person in Egypt today that can save this country.’ ”
Until the end, Brotherhood leaders seemed to believe that Sisi was on their side. “I think Morsi was pretty much totally taken by surprise when Sisi turned against him,” a senior official in the State Department told me. On July 3rd, soldiers took Morsi into custody, and Sisi appeared on television to announce that an interim government would rule until Egypt could hold elections and approve a new constitution. During the months that followed, Sisi enjoyed immense popularity, but he seemed intent on remaining a cipher. He rarely appeared in public, and he never joined a political party. When he ran for President, in the spring of 2014, he had no real platform. He didn’t attend any of his own campaign rallies. He never bothered to clarify some basic details about his life; his campaign’s official YouTube channel identified two conflicting birthplaces for him. Sisi has four adult children, but he has rarely referred to them in public, and his wife has been all but invisible.
But since becoming President he has unwittingly revealed more about himself and Egypt’s political structures than anybody could have imagined. A string of secretly recorded videos and audiotapes, known as SisiLeaks, have featured the President talking openly about sensitive subjects that range from manipulating the media to extracting cash from the Gulf states. Human-rights violations have become much worse than they were under Mubarak, and the economy is dangerously weak. During the past year and a half, a plane crash in Sinai, the murder of a foreign graduate student in Cairo, and public protests over the sovereignty of two Red Sea islands have illustrated the tragedy of a failed political movement. Everything that it took for a man like Sisi to rise in revolutionary Egypt—secrecy, silence, and commitment to the system—has also made it impossible for him to enact real change.
In October, 2013, in one of the earliest of the leaked videos, Sisi spoke at a closed meeting of military officers. “The whole state has been taken apart and is being rebuilt,” he says to the assembled men. He sighs deeply—in the video, Sisi’s eyes are alert and surprisingly gentle. He’s a small, balding, neckless man, and he wears a camouflage uniform with stars and crossed sabres on the epaulets. He sits in front of a box of tissues, a large display of multicolored flowers, and no fewer than three containers of Wet Ones hand wipes. This strange tableau creates a “Wizard of Oz” effect—pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. “This is a time period that we are going through, and these are its fruits, its symptoms,” Sisi says softly. “But you will not be able to cope fully and go back to where you were. Where nobody mentions your name or talks about you.”
Last November, Sisi embarked on a state visit to the United Kingdom to meet with David Cameron, who was then Prime Minister. Sisi invited a number of prominent Egyptians to join him in London, including Sameh Seif El-Yazal, a retired general of military intelligence, who was leading a coalition of pro-Sisi candidates in the election for Egypt’s new parliament. On the EgyptAir flight, El-Yazal told me that the main goals of the trip were economic. “The U.K. is the largest non-Arab investor in Egypt,” he said. “I know there is a lot of interest, especially in the oil business. And we’ll be talking about the export-import issue as well.”
Four days earlier, a Metrojet airliner carrying Russian tourists had crashed after taking off from the beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, in the Sinai Peninsula, killing all two hundred and twenty-four people aboard. In 2014, a Sinai-based Islamist group had pledged allegiance to ISIS, but initial reports of the crash speculated that it was likely the result of a technical malfunction rather than terrorism. This detail gave the Egyptians hope that the crash wouldn’t further damage the tourism industry, which had been crushed since the start of the Arab Spring. El-Yazal told me that the trip’s agenda wouldn’t be affected by the news.
John Casson, the British Ambassador to Egypt, was on the same flight. When I stopped by his seat, he didn’t seem to be thinking about the economic goals of Sisi’s visit. Casson was studying a Carnegie Endowment brief entitled “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency,” and he referred to the number of Egyptian soldiers who had been killed in Sinai during the past two years. “It’s more than seven hundred, which is more than we lost in all of Afghanistan,” he said. (Some four hundred and fifty British soldiers died in the Afghan war.)
The night before, Casson had learned that British analysts believed that the plane had probably been brought down by a bomb planted by agents of ISIS. This information remained secret, although Cameron had telephoned Sisi to tell him. Months later, Casson told me that the crisis had unfolded “in real time.” As we were flying to London, a plane with British experts was headed in the opposite direction, to conduct an emergency evaluation of security procedures at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
Not long after we touched down in London, all flights between Sharm and the U.K. were grounded. It was unclear when and how the nearly seventeen thousand British tourists in southern Sinai would be repatriated. For the state visit, the timing couldn’t have been worse; on the first morning of Sisi’s trip, a headline in the Independent read “This Could Well Destroy the Confidence of Tourists.” Sisi was staying at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, near Hyde Park, and, when I stopped by at eight o’clock on the evening of his arrival, the front entrance had been cordoned off by the police, because several dozen Egyptian protesters stood in front, chanting Tahrir slogans: Yasqut, yasqut, hukm al-askar! (Down, down with military rule!)
Inside, Sisi’s delegation had taken over the elegant Rosebery Lounge. Heavyset security officials were stationed beside the high bay windows, and businessmen sat at the tables, chatting in Arabic. Members of the Egyptian Presidential press corps were waiting for the evening’s briefing. I sat with Fathya Eldakhakhny, a reporter for Al-Masry Al-Youm, a privately owned newspaper. She doubted that members of the press would have an opportunity to ask many questions about the Sinai crash. “We are here for decoration, nothing else,” she said.
Eldakhakhny, a dark-haired, energetic woman in her late thirties, had served in the Presidential press corps for most of the post-Tahrir period. She said that in the days of Morsi it had been common to interact with the President’s spokesman. But since Sisi took office he had held only one press conference in Egypt, at which questions were scripted. “They chose three Egyptian journalists and told them that these are the questions you will ask,” Eldakhakhny said. The three journalists had confirmed to her that the questions had been planted. “I wrote an article about it,” she said, and then laughed. “They didn’t allow me to enter the Presidential palace for three months!”
After the coup, Sisi counted on the support of the Egyptian media. Most journalists had distrusted and feared the Brotherhood, and they were relieved when Morsi was removed. In a leaked video from this period, Sisi listens while a uniformed officer advises him on relations with the press. “In my opinion, I think that the entire media in Egypt is controlled by twenty or twenty-five people,” the officer says. “These people, sir, can be contacted or engaged with in a manner that is not announced.”
In fact, the meetings with the press weren’t kept very quiet. During the first couple of years after the coup, televised recordings of Sisi’s roundtables with prominent editors and talk-show hosts were often posted on YouTube. In one meeting, Sisi asks a group of journalists to pass sensitive information on to the authorities rather than publish it. “If you have any information on a subject, why not whisper it rather than expose it?” he says.
In Egypt, a President’s control over the media has always depended largely on individual negotiation. There’s no ministry of information or formal censorship apparatus, and the Internet is unrestricted. Under the Mubarak regime, boundaries weren’t formally defined, and the press was managed through a combination of subtle threats and rewards. After the revolution, this system collapsed, and there were two and a half years of virtually total freedom of the press, followed by the period of almost unanimous support of Sisi. At the time of the London visit, though, the press corps was showing signs of dissent. Recently, the media had reported on a series of floods and mismanaged public services in Alexandria.
In the Rosebery Lounge, Sisi’s spokesman finally appeared and met privately with Eldakhakhny and the other Egyptian journalists for twenty minutes. Afterward, Eldakhakhny told me that she had been the only one to ask about the plane crash. “The spokesman didn’t want to answer,” she said. “He said, ‘We don’t want to focus on this issue. We want to focus on the visit. What I can say is that, in Egypt, we don’t want to make decisions until the end of the investigation.’ ”
Eldakhakhny told me that it was possible to push some boundaries under Sisi. “Like this thing right now,” she said. “The other journalists didn’t follow up on the question, but they took down what was said. And maybe after a while they will start to ask these questions, too.” After the meeting, the reporters from state-owned organizations had debated whether they would print the spokesman’s denial. Eldakhakhny said that she was going to publish it, so they decided that they would publish, too.
I asked if she would write about the protests at the hotel, and she laughed and buried her face in her hands, as if helpless. She told me that editors at the paper had decided that it was too risky to cover the demonstrations. Later, they adjusted: the newspaper ran a piece under a different byline, and the story emphasized the presence of pro-Sisi demonstrators in London, while claiming that all opponents were connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Eldakhakhny told me that such calculations are common. “Sometimes if we publish something we get a call from the President’s office: ‘Remove the story!’ ”
For the rest of the visit, the Egyptian government held its line. In Sinai, Russian investigators reported evidence of an explosion on the plane, and the Sinai affiliate of ISIS claimed responsibility. It had organized the attack in response to Russia’s air strikes in Syria. But Sisi and his administration refused to accept this possibility. The day after flights were grounded, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an aggrieved statement claiming that the British had made their decision “unilaterally, without consulting with Egypt,” despite all the direct high-level communication that had taken place.
The day that Sisi left London, I saw El-Yazal again, and he said that members of the delegation were angry about the British decision to ground the flights. “They should have waited until the visit was completed,” he said. His response seemed irrational—as a former intelligence officer, he must have known that any Western government would respond immediately to information that its citizens might be at risk from terrorism. When I spoke with one of the Egyptian journalists from the state press who had covered the visit, he told me that the British and the Americans had conspired in order to shame Egypt and destroy the tourist economy. “This is an insult,” he said. “Why would you want to embarrass the President?”
Egyptian pride sometimes drives policy, and officials have a reputation for being hot-tempered. “I’ve certainly been yelled at and sort of aggressively confronted by many Egyptians in the government,” one U.S. official told me. “But Sisi—I’ve never seen him lose his cool.” In London, when Sisi appeared with Cameron before the press, he was gracious toward his host. Casson told me that during the closed-door meetings Sisi showed no sign of anger or resentment. “In the meeting with the Prime Minister, he was statesmanlike, very candid,” he said.
When Westerners analyze the actions of an authoritarian figure, they tend to focus on his mind-set—the frequently petulant behavior of a man with unlimited power. But often the institution matters more than the individual, and a leader channels the psychology and the dysfunction of the state. For Sisi, who rose as a creature of the system, the response to the Metrojet crisis was essentially to step back and allow the government to follow its instinctive course of defensiveness, denial, and inflexibility. It made no strategic sense: since taking office, Sisi had sought to justify his crackdown on civil liberties by declaring that Egypt was in an existential battle against radical Islamists. The Metrojet bombing supported this narrative, but it also hurt Egyptian pride, which trumped terrorism. Sisi didn’t change his line until three months later, when, in a televised speech, he made a passing reference to the fact that terrorists had brought down the plane. After that, he never referred to the event in public.
Not long after the London visit, Eldakhakhny left the Presidential press corps. “This is not a job,” she said, when I saw her again. “You’re a postman. Just take the press release and deliver it to the newspaper.” She was now the editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s Web site, and I asked about her conclusions after nearly two years of covering Sisi. “He doesn’t choose good people to work for him, his advisers, his ministers,” she said. “If you work alone, then you will lose. I think that he doesn’t trust anybody except the Army.” She continued, “He needs a party.”
Of the four military men who have ruled Egypt during the past sixty years, Sisi stands out for his lack of interest in formal politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat were activists as young men, and both flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood before rejecting political Islam. As President, each worked to build a political organization, which under Sadat became known as the National Democratic Party, or N.D.P. Mubarak, Sadat’s chosen successor, used the N.D.P. to rule what was in effect a one-party state.
In some respects, Sisi is a natural politician, and his speeches, delivered in colloquial Arabic, often impress average Egyptians as sincere and sympathetic. But his political instincts are personal, not institutional, and the subject of politics does not seem to have interested him while he was growing up. Sisi’s immediate family includes thirteen siblings and half siblings; his father was polygamous, although little is known about the woman who in the Egyptian press is referred to as simply “the second wife.” The only family member whom Sisi speaks about with any frequency is his mother. She died during his second year in office, and he has described her as “an authentically Egyptian woman, in all the meaning of authenticity.” In 2013, an Egyptian journalist asked Sisi what he had done after announcing the removal of Morsi on television. Sisi responded, “I read the statement, and then I went to my mother.” (Her reaction: “May God protect you from all evil!”)
Sisi’s grandfather began a business making arabesques, wooden objects that are intricately patterned with inlaid mother-of-pearl. The Sisi clan came to dominate the arabesque trade in Khan al-Khalili, the premier tourist market in Cairo, and the family still owns nearly ten shops there. One afternoon last summer, I stopped at a store that was being tended by Mossad Ali Hamama, the thirty-two-year-old son of one of Sisi’s cousins. The shop’s back wall is decorated with a photograph of Sisi’s grandfather. In the black-and-white picture, he sits imperiously in a galabiya, a cane in one hand and a tarboosh on his head.
Hamama said that during summer vacation all teen-age male family members are apprenticed into some aspect of the business. Sisi trained as a sadafgi—he used a long-handled knife to carve out tiny pieces of mother-of-pearl. “We don’t have a situation where we say, ‘This is the son of a business owner, and this is the son of a President,’ ” Hamama said. “The only rule is about the way the elders and the youngers interact. If we’re talking about my father’s cousin, if he’s older than me, then I obey him.” He continued, “If an elder comes into the shop, even if he’s not in the business, he’ll sit down here as if he owned the shop. Our family is not from Upper Egypt, but you can say we have this tradition of the Upper Egyptians.”
Upper Egypt is known for conservatism, and I asked Hamama if he is sometimes bothered by this tradition. “No, it’s the opposite,” he replied. “Because, just as I respect my elders, one day I will be old and somebody will respect me.”
When Sisi was in his mid-teens, he entered a military high school. The combination of Army discipline, a rigid family structure, and sincere religious conviction has created a person who by all accounts is deeply traditional. He married his first cousin, which is common for conservative Egyptians, and his wife and daughter are homemakers. I could find no evidence in the Egyptian press of any Sisi women having careers. Fathy El-Sisi, one of the President’s cousins, told the newspaper El Watan that Sisi had twice turned down an assignment to serve as a military representative in the United States, because the Egyptian authorities requested that his wife remove her hijab while in the West.
For Sisi, the Mubarak regime has served as a cautionary tale. Mubarak openly groomed his son Gamal for political power, and the extended family profited from corruption on a staggering scale. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, was also highly involved in politics, especially on behalf of women’s rights, and her role often offended Islamists and other conservatives. After the revolution, Mubarak and his sons were imprisoned, and their fate is undoubtedly one reason that Sisi has kept his family out of the public eye. Eldakhakhny told me that the Bahraini press once reported that Sisi’s wife had accompanied him on a state visit, so Al-Masry Al-Youm mentioned it in a story. The President’s press office immediately called the paper and demanded that the article be removed.
Sisi seems to have taken similar lessons from the N.D.P., which over time became dominated by corrupt businessmen. A number of American officials told me that during the first post-Tahrir Presidential election Sisi and other military leaders were wary of Ahmed Shafiq, Morsi’s opponent, a retired Air Force general who had been Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. For Sisi and other military men, Shafiq may have been even more threatening than Morsi. They seemed to believe that the Brotherhood could be easily controlled, whereas Shafiq might resurrect a party with real power. Even after the defeat of the Brotherhood, the authorities have made sure that Shafiq remains in exile—he’s currently in the Gulf, with the threat of legal cases in Egypt preventing his return.
“The biggest question about Sisi is whether he can grow from a commander-in-chief into a politician,” a European diplomat told me. “He gives the impression of seeing politics, as an activity, as a corrosive thing. It divides the nation.” A senior official in the U.S. State Department said that Sisi perceives only the risks and none of the benefits of a party. “Politicians actually need parties for more reasons than to get elected,” he said. “You need to hear from your people around the country.” Another European diplomat described visiting Sisi’s central campaign headquarters during the 2014 Presidential election, in which, after a number of his opponent’s supporters were arrested, Sisi won ninety-six per cent of the vote. The headquarters were in the remote outskirts of Cairo, and, when the European diplomat visited, she passed through heavy security and then found the place empty except for two retired government officials. “If you visit a campaign headquarters at the end of the election, it should be bustling with young people,” she said. “He chose not to campaign. But that could have been an opportunity to build a connection with young people.”
Without real parties, real political institutions, and real professional politicians, there are few ways for young Egyptians to get involved in politics, other than protesting in the streets. The existing parties are too weak and disorganized to enlist aides or volunteers on a regular basis, and laws aimed at limiting foreign influence have dismantled nongovernmental organizations. Sisi’s approval rating remains generally high, because citizens believe that he has brought security to the country, but polls show that the youth are much more skeptical of him than older Egyptians are. Roughly sixty per cent of the population is under the age of thirty, and young people dominated the original protests in Tahrir Square. They are also a major presence in the field of journalism. Most important, the young represent the sector that is most affected by Sisi’s greatest weakness: his economic policies.
One of Sisi’s first state visits was to China, in 2014, and he returned the following year. In the press, there was talk of following the example of the Chinese. The implication was that Egypt could use authoritarianism to make decisive economic policy, but few outsiders take this seriously. The Chinese certainly don’t. One Chinese diplomat in Cairo told me bluntly that Egypt is going in the opposite direction from China. “It’s a reverse image,” he said. Ashraf El-Sherif, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said, “I can understand a social contract that is authoritarianism in exchange for development. But in Egypt you have authoritarianism in exchange for non-development.”
In January, President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Arab League Headquarters, in Cairo, in which he said, “Turmoil in the Middle East stems from the lack of development.” Xi referred to “currency swaps,” “genetic engineering,” and “production-capacity coöperation,” and he used the word “development” twenty-three times. He said “religious” twice. He never mentioned “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “the Islamic State.” For the Chinese, the devoutness of the Egyptians and their commitment to traditional family and gender roles are so deeply entrenched that to comment on them publicly would be as pointless as complaining about the weather. But the cultural differences between the countries, and the ways in which they affect economic and social outcomes, are immense. (It’s impossible, for example, to imagine an ambitious Chinese turning down an overseas promotion so that his wife can wear more conservative clothing.)
In China, manufacturing has averaged more than thirty per cent of gross domestic product for the past three decades. In Egypt—a populous, young country, with cheap labor and great access to shipping lanes—manufacturing is only sixteen per cent of a weak G.D.P. Sisi’s speeches almost never focus on manufacturing, and his policies have done nothing to boost it. Egypt’s industrial sector is largely based on energy extraction and production, which employs relatively few people and fluctuates with oil prices. Tourism once contributed more than a tenth of the economy, but, with the turmoil of the Middle East, it has no immediate hope of recovery. In the World Economic Forum’s rankings of women’s economic participation and opportunity, Egypt is a hundred and thirty-second out of a hundred and forty-four countries, behind Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. This is even worse than Egypt’s ranking before the revolution, in part because the security climate has led families to further restrict the activities of wives and daughters. One result has been a spike in pregnancies: in 2012, Egypt recorded its highest birth rate in two decades.
The bloated civil service is one of the few sectors that employ many Egyptians. Not counting the police and the Army, the government has an estimated six million workers, more than twice as many as the United States and the United Kingdom combined. More than a quarter of the Egyptian budget is spent on government salaries. Another quarter is spent on interest payments for loans. Thirty per cent more is spent on subsidies, largely for energy.
If this sounds like a shell game, that’s because it is. For decades, Egypt has been propped up by foreign aid; since the coup, Gulf countries, which rely on Sunni Egypt to help counterbalance Iran and the Shiites, have provided more than thirty billion dollars. The question of whether this money bought the respect and gratitude of the Egyptians was effectively answered by SisiLeaks. In a series of secretly recorded conversations that were released to a Turkish television station starting in 2014, Sisi and his associates discuss Gulf money in the bluntest terms imaginable. In one conversation, Sisi and Abbas Kamel, the chief of staff, talk about making another request of Gulf leaders:
Sisi: Listen, you tell him that we need ten [billion] to be put in the account of the Army. Those ten, when God makes us successful, will work for the state. And we need from the U.A.E. another ten, and from Kuwait another ten, and a couple of pennies to be put in the central bank, and that would complete the 2014 budget.
Sisi: Why are you laughing?
Kamel: He will faint, he will faint . . .
Sisi: They have money like rice, man.
Sisi and Kamel make casual calculations, with every number representing a billion dollars. The dialogue reads like a screenplay about Arab leaders on the make—“Glengarry Gulf State”:
Sisi: The Emirates put in four.
Kamel: That makes it nine.
Sisi: And Saudi Arabia put in four.
Kamel: That makes it thirteen. And three more—that makes it sixteen.
Sisi: And four from Kuwait.
Kamel: That makes it twenty.
Sisi: And then?
Kamel: That makes it twenty-five. Like I was saying to you, sir, and the oil.
Sisi: Did I count the oil?
Kamel: Yes, sir, you did.
Nobody in Cairo seems to know who is directing economic policy. After taking office, Sisi reduced some subsidies for fuel and electricity, which economists cheered as a first step toward a more sustainable system. But few other proactive measures were taken. Instead, Sisi mostly focussed on grandiose mega-projects, like the expansion of the Suez Canal, which cost more than eight billion dollars and, in the opinion of most economists, is unlikely to provide much benefit in the near future. A relatively weak attempt to reform the civil service was finally passed by parliament in October.
“Sisi thinks, like all military men, that the economy is a collection of projects that the military runs,” Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University, told me. “He hasn’t got a clue.” The military mind-set is also deeply defensive. Unlike the Chinese, who for many years kept their currency undervalued, as a way of attracting investment and manufacturing, the Egyptians have expended a large amount of the country’s financial resources on propping up the pound. In the past year, the black-market rate for U.S. dollars rose steeply, and the government responded by making it all but impossible to exchange at the official rate. Manufacturers like General Motors and L.G. temporarily halted production, because they couldn’t convert local income into dollars to pay for imported parts.
In August, Sisi’s government finally agreed to a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Egypt considered such an action in 2011 and 2012, but support from the Gulf, the United States, and elsewhere allowed the government to postpone hard economic decisions. The delay has proved costly. By the time Sisi’s government accepted I.M.F. support, the terms had become much more stringent than before. A new law has effectively frozen government salaries, and the I.M.F. insisted that Egypt devalue the pound, reduce energy subsidies, and introduce a value-added tax—a brutal combination in an economy that already has an inflation rate of more than fifteen per cent.
In the beginning of November, the government allowed the pound to float, and the currency has lost more than half its value. During the coming months, life will become much harder for the average Egyptian. More than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and yet the country as a whole has enjoyed a kind of economic fantasy. “Compared with other countries in Africa, Egypt has quite a high standard of living, even though it’s a dysfunctional economy,” a foreign businessman in Cairo told me. “Have they been living beyond their means?” He continued, “When you have a lot of imports, a large workforce, and wages that are quite low, and yet you’re not exporting—it doesn’t add up.”