THE table was round, suggesting there might be a discussion. But Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, had no intention of letting his guests speak. For nearly two hours on April 13th he defended his policies before a group of officials and journalists on state television. When he finally stopped, there was applause, then silence. One politician tried to ask a question, but Mr Sisi cut him off: “I did not give permission for anyone to speak.”
The president must dream of controlling the public in such a way—and oh, how he’s tried, cracking down on civil society and banning protests. But criticism of Mr Sisi has grown louder of late, culminating in a burst of outrage over his decision to cede two uninhabited islands in the Red Sea, called Sanafir and Tiran, to Saudi Arabia. As pressure has mounted, Mr Sisi has looked unsteady. The once-beloved former general appears shocked and angered by the public’s lack of obedience.
Take the islands, which Mr Sisi claims to be returning to their rightful owner. He is probably right: Saudi Arabia transferred them to Egypt in 1950 for fear that Israel might grab them. But few Egyptians know that. And their return, after months of secret talks, was announced while the Saudi king was in Cairo approving billions of dollars worth of investments in Egypt. So many saw it as a dodgy swap of land for cash, and therefore as an affront to Egyptian national pride.
The backlash seems to have surprised the president, whose supporters quickly scrambled to justify his actions. Did people not realise that Mr Sisi was their protector, the man who would “remove from the face of the earth” anyone who challenged the state, as he had earlier said?
All this patronising has not gone over well. On April 15th over 1,000 people gathered in downtown Cairo, in defiance of a ban on protests and in the face of the police. It was the largest demonstration since Mr Sisi took office nearly two years ago. While the islands provided the spark, the protesters aired pent-up grievances ranging from economic mismanagement to abuses by the security services. “I was protesting for too many reasons,” says Shady, a young protester. But the aim was clear: “The people demand the fall of the regime,” went one chant.
For now, though, Mr Sisi’s behaviour is more likely to result in ridicule than revolution. He has, for example, come up with unorthodox solutions to Egypt’s economic problems, such as suggesting that citizens text the government one Egyptian pound (about 11 cents) each day. The “remedy” for Egypt’s problems is simple, says Mr Sisi: “Don’t listen to anyone but me.” Some observers are drawing parallels with Anwar Sadat, the thin-skinned former president who tolerated the “loyal opposition”, while denouncing the “agitators, traitors and haters who deliberately distort Egypt’s image.” Mr Sisi has condemned “people of evil among us working on sabotaging our achievements by promoting lies”.
The institution that Mr Sisi trusts most is the army, from which he came. Since taking office, the president has given it control of large projects, such as the expansion of the Suez Canal, and enabled it to crowd out the private sector. He seems to expect the same loyalty from average Egyptians. “But we’re not soldiers,” says Khaled Dawoud, the spokesman for a coalition of opposition political parties.
Another big protest is planned for April 25th in Cairo. Egypt’s activists, long dormant, appear somewhat renewed. “The spark of the January 25th revolution is still there,” says Mr Dawoud, referring to the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011. “That is something that [Mr Sisi] needs to remember.” But the lesson learned by the president may be that any flicker of opposition must be swiftly snuffed out.