“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.
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.”
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.