from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Do Not Run, al-Sisi…Do Not Run

January 14, 2014

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Elections and Voting

Gamal Mubarak or Omar Suleiman?  Omar Suleiman or Gamal Mubarak?  Not too long ago this was what many Egyptians and virtually any westerner  who had an interest in Egypt  were asking.   Everyone had an answer based on the Cairo rumor mill, multiple dodgy sources like a neighbor who revealed Hosni Mubarak’s inner most thoughts based on what he had heard from his wife’s uncle who was friends with a journalist with close ties to the presidency, and sheer creativity.  We are back at it again, but this time is obviously not about Omar Pasha who died suddenly in the summer of 2012 nor Gamal who continues to languish in Tora prison, waiting for appeals to be heard in various corruption cases.  No, now everyone is asking “Will he or won’t he?”  The “he” is, of course, Major-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man behind the July 3 coup d’état and apparently the object of much adoration among various segments of the Egyptian population and the question is whether he will run for president.  It seems that every day there is some new indication—imagined or otherwise—that the general will run.

There is a case to be made for al-Sisi’s candidacy—he has captured the imaginations of many Egyptians, he represents the (momentary) consensus, he looks the part, and a distressingly large numbers of Egyptians seem to want a “firm hand” (also known as a “strong man,” as in, not necessarily democratic) guiding their country.  The calls from Egyptian notables such as Alaa al Aswany, Naguib Sawiris, and a variety of columnists, combined with huge al-Sisi posters that now adorn public spaces, the al-Sisi cupcakes, the al-Sisi sandwiches, and the al-Sisi pajamas, the man may begin to think that he has no choice but to step forward, albeit reluctantly, for “the good of Egypt.” These are superficial reasons for the Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to enter the political arena, of course.

I have no idea what is in al-Sisi’s head.  No one has told me.  I am not good at reading body language.  I do not know him.  I do not know what to believe when people tell me that he will definitely run and others tell me that he will not. I do know this, however, if al-Sisi decides to run and wins it would be bad for Egypt, bad for the Egyptian armed forces, and bad for al-Sisi himself.

  • Bad for Egypt. Egyptians understandably seem at their collective wit’s end given everything that has happened over the last three years.  Things were supposed to get better after Mubarak, there  were supposed to be brighter days after Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s SCAF ceded control in June 2012 to an elected president, there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel when the military intervened on July 3 and set things straight.  Instead of a positive trajectory, political disappointment, enormous economic challenges, and a low-level insurgency are Egypt’s reality. Consequently, large numbers of Egyptians—with the encouragement of elites associated with the old order and important parts of the media—seem inclined toward an al-Sisi presidency. People are convincing themselves that Egypt needs a strong personality, if only temporarily, to put the country back on track.  They are comforted by the fact that the new constitution, which is up for referendum today and Wednesday, sets term-limits for the president to two, four-year terms.  This is an improvement in a country that has had problems with the overwhelming power of the executive, but observers should know that  1) presidential political systems are prone to the accumulation of power in the office of the presidency, and 2) there are reasons to doubt the durability of the term limits   After all, Anwar Sadat did away with them in 1980 when they became inconvenient.  The July 3 coup set a precedent that the political institutions of the state could be ignored, if powerful people and their allies agree that it is convenient to do so. One can easily imagine a scenario in which authorities override term limits in some way—security conditions, for example—to allow al-Sisi to remain in office. Another president for life is clearly not what Egypt needs.

It is important to note that this is an al-Sisi-specific scenario.  It seems unlikely that Egyptians would demand that other less charismatic figures—Adly Mansour, if the “interim” label was removed from his current title or Amr Moussa, for example—stay on.  Al-Sisi is  bigger than them, though.  There is too much vested in him and his presidency before it even happens.  For his supporters, he is the man on  horseback who is going to make sure that everyone has cooking gas, the lights stay on, and the tourists come back. In ways, al-Sisi also represents for the millions who benefited from the system under Hosni Mubarak, a return to the natural order of things.

  • Bad for the Egyptian Armed Forces. Even if Major-General al-Sisi retires from the armed forces, the fact that he will no longer be wearing epaulets on his shoulders means very little in a practical sense.  By dint of the way he rose to prominence—a coup—an al-Sisi presidency thrusts the military directly back into politics.  The military’s relationship to the political arena will be different  from the 1950s and 1960s, but at the same time the armed forces will not be able to revert to its exclusive enclaves separated from the rest of Egypt that were its hallmark in the 1990s and 2000s.  To be sure,  Mubarak came from the military and was decked out in his dress uniform when assassins’ bullets made him president and it is conventional wisdom that  the military  took a low-profile during his long presidency.  It did and it did not, lest anyone forget the prominence of Field Marshal Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala during the 1980s or the fact that military units—under Sami Enan—took over large swathes of Upper Egypt in the battle against terrorists after the Luxor massacre in 1997.  Still, that was a different time, before the stresses of the last three years when Egypt has come close to collapse. Even if an al-Sisi presidency would make the officers prominent politically more in perception than in fact, they would find themselves drawn into affairs they prefer to avoid.   A greater role in managing and governing the country is bad for the armed forces and runs counter to everything the officers have held dear in the almost 47 years since the 1967 defeat about the importance of avoiding the vicissitudes of politics and how the responsibilities that go with governing can be the literal death-knell for the coherence and capabilities of a modern army.

  • Bad for al-Sisi. Great historical figures give up much for the greater good.  No doubt this is what some people are whispering in the major-general’s ear.  The multi-layered and complex problems that have engulfed Egypt, however, will likely persist despite al-Sisi’s apparent talent and charisma.  In fact, they will consume him.  As a result,  he should ignore  his current courtiers and look not to Nasser—to whom his enthusiasts have compared him—but to Hosni Mubarak.  After taking the oath of office on October 14, 1981, Mubarak gathered members of the opposition, many of whom Sadat had jailed, and promised them change and reform.  The seemingly reluctant president struck a humble tone, promising to use the Emergency Law less and allowing greater political freedoms.  It was not to be, of course, and thirty years later, General Mubarak, who was a well-liked and accomplished air force officer, languishes in ignominy in the Ma’adi military hospital.  His name will  forever be associated with authoritarian excess and Egypt’s decline. This outcome is not preordained, of course, but it is within the realm of the possible, even if al-Sisi and his supporters cannot fathom it now.

For the good of Egypt, the armed forces, and himself, Major-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should not run for president.