Modi and El-Sisi’s Leadership Styles Mirror Each Other in More Ways Than One

Diplomacy isn’t always shaped by geopolitical realpolitik, contrary to what many purist foreign policy scholars might argue; it can as much be a function of domestic politics and leadership styles.

In an article published in The Quint on the eve of the state visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to India, political analyst Aditi Bhaduri wrote:

[…] Egypt is home to the Al Azhar University, which is a bastion of Sunni Islamic scholarship, and is possibly the Arab world’s only democracy where a vibrant civil society and women’s movement also thrives.

Nothing could be further from the truth. El-Sisi has gone after Egypt’s civil society in a manner that few other leaders around the world today have. Since he came to power in a post-coup election in 2014, the Egyptian autocrat has systematically used the state security apparatus to force whatever was left of the country’s independent civil society to kneel before him.

Fall in line or perish has been El-Sisi’s less-than-subtle message to independent NGOs in Egypt.

We don’t have to go too far back. Just earlier this month, the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) announced that it was suspending its activities because of arrests and threats against its team members.

Last year October, about a month before Egypt hosted the COP27 climate summit, a group of UN experts expressed grave concern over the “climate of fear” that el-Sisi’s regime had allegedly created amongst civil society members. Two individuals belonging to the LGBTQ+ community also urged the UNFCCC to shift the summit venue, noting how government institutions under him had targeted the community using “vague and discriminatory ‘debauchery’ and ‘prostitution’ laws”.

This onslaught against civil society is hardly new.

In 2019, Egypt, under el-Sisi, adopted a certain “NGO law” that is designed to transform the civil society into a servile community that would solely serve el-Sisi’s interests. Among other things, as an open letter from January 2022 notes, it “empowers the government to deny registration to independent human rights organisations on vague grounds.”

Another such law, adopted in 2017, criminalised independent NGO work. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the el-Sisi regime “has relentlessly been prosecuting scores of staff members of the country’s leading human rights organisations, typically by charging them with “receiving foreign funds”.

Sounds uncannily similar to some other country and some other regime? Go figure.

“This non-stop assault on non-governmental organisations and their staff has severely shrunk public sphere for what was once a vibrant civil society scene, even during the decades of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic presidency,” the HRW notes.

Bhaduri goes on to write in her The Quint piece:

While the administration of President el-Sisi on one hand, deals with terrorism with an iron fist, it is also mindful of people’s religious sensitivities, balancing both adroitly.

That’s a very tall claim to make. It is almost never the case anywhere in the world that a state is able to sustain an aggressive counterterrorism campaign without alienating at least a section of the masses. That is the very nature of militaristic governance. What is an “iron fist” for some, can be a chokehold for others.

Big brain time, but el-Sisi, a former military officer, is no exception to this near-universal trend. In fact, he is widely charged of running a particularly brutal counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai Peninsula, a volatile region in the country’s northeast where a powerful Islamist insurgency continues to challenge Cairo’s rule.

In 2019, an HRW investigation alleged that el-Sisi’s forces were responsible for widespread human rights abuses – some amounting to war crimes – in Sinai. This includes enforced disappearances, mass arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings.

Beyond the kinetic paradigm, el-Sisi, as part of his drive against Islamist radicalism, has gone after the influential Muslim Brotherhood and elements linked to it. He has even used the idea of religious reformation to push back against conservatives. But, he has done it in a way that is so belligerent and arbitrary that it has generated widespread social turbulence, alienation and anger.

In fact, he has used his campaign against the Brotherhood as an excuse to go after the entire independent civil society in Egypt. By doing so, he has arguably hijacked the democratic social contract that is integral to any healthy, inclusive society. As Declan Walsh of the New York Times notes in a 2016 piece:

Sisi, the former head of the armed forces, has also presented himself as a reformer, calling publicly for a “religious revolution” to help combat extremism. But rather than spurring discussion about Islam, his approach — shutting unregistered mosques and banning unauthorized preachers while drawing the religious establishment into an uneasy embrace — has had the effect of constricting the debate here.

As far as combating religious fanaticism is concerned, there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that such muscularity does more harm than good in the longer term. It produces a justificatory cycle of anger and alienation that extremist groups can then utilise to expand their own networks of mobilisation. When a large number of people feel repressed, at least some of them may take refuge in the gun to articulate their discontents.

Ironically, el-Sisi talked about the social aspects of terrorism in an interview with Hindustan Times’ Rezaul H. Laskar, published yesterday:

We believe that the [joint counterterrorism] approach [with India] should be carried out through a comprehensive strategy that does not stop at the borders of military and strategic cooperation, but extends to social and economic dimensions and cultural and intellectual aspects. Providing security and stability must be accompanied by creating a stable environment for economic growth and employment opportunities, as well as the settlement of protracted conflicts, all of which are conditions that terrorist groups exploit in order to attract new elements to their ranks.

But, coming from someone who has gone after Egypt’s civil society and mounted a hyper-militarised response to militancy, this is big talk. Yet, it’s hardly surprising. Most autocrats are masters of moderate rhetoric. They know how to conceal their pugnacity in the language of reconciliation.

In that sense, Sisi and his Indian host, PM Narendra Modi, are not very different. Their leadership styles mirror each other in more ways than one.

Both project themselves as not just muscular nationalists, but also reformers of society and “the system”. Both are populists who have meticulously used social anxieties and discontents to firm up their rules. And of course, both have a visceral hatred for people who criticise them, especially if they are even partly funded by the West.

But most importantly, Modi and Sisi are natural fits because of their shared rhetoric against Islamist terrorism. They come from different political and socio-religious contexts: Modi is a career politician who is a majoritarian Hindu nationalist; Sisi is a retired army officer who is a quasi-secular, anti-Islamist autocrat. Yet, both have adroitly used religion to consolidate their political platforms, partly by fashioning Islamic radicalism as their numero uno enemy.

It is in this ideological-political context that we should see the emerging India-Egypt relationship. Diplomacy isn’t always shaped by geopolitical realpolitik, contrary to what many purist foreign policy scholars might argue; it can as much be a function of domestic politics and leadership styles. Both aspects are, in fact, intertwined. One is used to strategically package the other. And when it comes to muscular populist leaders who grandstand as reformist heroes, this link becomes even more relevant to the study of diplomacy.

This article was originally published in the author’s newsletter, ‘Barbed Wires’. It has been edited lightly for style.