Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hung up his military uniform today,
launching a process that will inevitably end in his election as Egypt's next
president. Following a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces
(SCAF), Sisi declared that he has retired from the army and would enter the
political arena. "I humbly announce
my intention to run for the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt," he said
in colloquial Arabic in a speech aired on state television. "I consider myself --
as I have always been -- a soldier dedicated to serve the nation, in any
position ordered by the people."
For many observers, Sisi's rise to power represents a dangerous return
to the status quo ante of Egyptian politics. Time and again over the last eight
months, for example, the Washington Post's editorial page has hammered
away at the army chief for the government's human rights abuses and denial
of democratic freedoms. The generals, according to the folks on 15th St., are
leading Egypt in reverse -- essentially re-establishing the old political order
at the expense of the high ideals of the 2011 uprising.
It was just three years ago that Hosni Mubarak fell, but reams have
already been written about Egypt's lost revolution. These analyses are accurate
-- Egypt is not going to be a democracy any time soon. However, Cairo is also not
the barren political environment that critics imagine, in which autocrats
enforce their rule solely with tear gas and the truncheons. The country's
trajectory is clearly authoritarian, but its politics are likely to be hotly
contested, even under a President Sisi.
To the casual observer, Sisi must seem like the only political force in
Egypt. A cult of
personality followed closely on the heels of the army chief's
emergence last summer: The military-friendly media framed Sisi as "Egypt's
savior," and stories quickly emerged of Egyptian brides with the field marshal's
visage painted on their fingernails, Sisi chocolates, sandwiches, and pajamas,
as well as the standard Middle Eastern
But Sisi-mania actually revealed the potential fragility of the army
chief's political position. After all, if the field marshal was as broadly
championed as the government would like everyone to believe, there would be no
need for ostentatious professions of faith to him. Even recent popular votes
don't necessarily suggest overwhelming support: Although it is true that 98
percent of voters gave their approval to a new constitution in the January
referendum -- a vote widely seen as a proxy to test support for Sisi -- but
only 38.6 percent of eligible voters actually went to the polls.
The very fact that the interim government has moved aggressively to suppress
dissent suggests that Egyptian leaders are vulnerable to political challenges. This
coercion has not been limited to the Muslim Brotherhood -- which, despite
denials to the contrary, has employed language implicitly
encouraging violent resistance -- but is also being used against
journalists, academics, and activists who have dared challenge the manufactured
consent of the Defense Ministry and its allies. In other words, the Egyptian
government is doing pretty much what it has always done: It is using intimidation
and punishment to clear the field of those who refuse to toe the line.
But what, exactly, are the most serious political challenges to Egypt's
new rulers? The obvious sources are the Muslim Brothers and the faltering
economy, which if not addressed could engender the same sort of demands for
bread and jobs that weakened Mubarak. For the Brotherhood, the best political
strategy is to marshal its resources from Doha, Istanbul, London, and
Washington, while continuing its street protests to delegitimize the
government. The prevailing theory that the field marshal's popularity will give
him the political cushion he needs to make tough decisions about Egypt's future
has it wrong: Rather, President Sisi is likely to immediately confront a
ready-made opposition, reducing his margin for error.
The economy, however, is the biggest worry for Sisi, and an issue that
opponents of the new political order will surely leverage to their advantage.
The 2013 demonstrations against then-President Mohamed Morsi were closely
related to the sharply deteriorating economy, and billions of dollars in Gulf
largesse has done little to mitigate the grievances of regular Egyptians. Sisi
will try mightily to avoid the pitfalls that helped bring down his predecessor,
but while he may cut a dashing figure, there will still be a dearth of foreign
direct investment, scarce tourists, rolling blackouts, high unemployment, and stunning
rates of poverty. Egypt's new ruler may even have to cope with another bread shortage,
as the Ukrainian crisis could
result in a sharp spike in global wheat prices -- a commodity that Egypt
imports more of than any other country.
Figures close to the new regime, however, may prove far more dangerous to
Sisi than the Muslim Brothers. Mubarak-era oligarchs are looking to make a
comeback: Foreign Policy recently reported that the infamous Mubarak crony and
billionaire Hussein Salem is negotiating a return to Egypt, as is former
Minister of Industry and Trade Rachid Mohamed Rachid, both of whom have been living
in exile since Mubarak's fall. Other business figures connected to the old
regime who had decamped to the safety and comfort of Dubai, Beirut, and London
are also believed to be quietly exploring the possibility that Sisi's rise has
made Egypt hospitable for them once again.
There is no doubt about a confluence of interest between Sisi and the
business community -- both want stability, and both believe that dismantling
the Brotherhood is central to that aim. And Sisi can't just ignore these
figures, as they could provide the money and investment that Egypt badly needs.
But in turn, these Mubarak-era businessmen have demands of their own: They would
like to go back to doing business the way they did in the mid-2000s, during the
heyday of Egypt's era of neo-liberal reforms.
Here is where it gets complicated. The military commanders, whom Sisi
represents first and foremost, are statists who have walled off a large portion
of the military's business interests from the rest of the economy. These
generals have reaped the profits of a state-run economy: Military industries
enjoy subsidized labor -- in the form of conscripts -- and raw materials, which
allow them to undercut any challenges from the private sector.
The Egyptian military establishment therefore takes a dim view of
anything that could threaten its economic prerogatives. That includes the
economic policies of the late Mubarak period, which top military officers directly
associate with crony capitalism, corruption, and widespread poverty -- forces
that were and continue to be threats to social cohesion.
Sisi, whose only
comment on the economic situation has been to refer to it as "very
difficult," is therefore not likely to allow Egypt's business barons the same
kind of free rein that they enjoyed under Mubarak. Whatever accommodation
between the generals and the private sector currently exists, it may very well be
short-lived. No one dares openly challenge the field marshal today -- but what
if six months after taking up residence at the Ittihadiya Palace, Sisi is
unable to arrest Egypt's economic decline, or some exogenous shock produces a
No one expects Egypt's CEOs to take to Tahrir Square, but large numbers
of Egyptians might -- and that would give big business an opening to press its
own demands on Sisi. If some viable alternative to the field marshal were to
emerge, the private sector could also shift or split its support. Members of
the business community have not been shy about getting involved in politics:
After the 2011 uprising, billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris bankrolled the
Free Egyptians Party, while other elements of the Egyptian private sector
seemed willing to accommodate themselves to Muslim Brotherhood rule during the
early part of Morsi's rule, only to back away once the tide began to turn
against him in November 2012.
Egypt's fractious "security establishment," however, may be the force
that presents Sisi with his greatest political challenge. Journalists and
pundits often use that term to refer collectively to the Defense Ministry,
Interior Ministry, and the General Intelligence Service (GIS) -- but just as there
is no single worldview among the military's senior commanders, there is
certainly no single "security establishment," given the competing missions and
objectives of the big three.
The world looks different for each of these organizations, and their
leaders have regularly engaged in struggles for primacy. The military command
tends to view the senior police generals of the Interior Ministry as
knuckle-draggers whose job is beneath its own noble work of defending the
country. Meanwhile, it is no secret that the Interior Ministry has been working
hard for decades to supplant the armed forces as the pillar of the political
order, while the GIS is interested in running intelligence operations on
These rivalries have long helped shape the course of Egyptian politics.
When President Anwar Sadat needed to drum up support for his "Corrective
Revolution," he promised
police commanders that a policeman, not a military officer, would lead the Interior
Ministry. More recently, Morsi retired
Egypt's entire senior military command in one fell swoop in a bid to secure his
authority over the military. To do
so, he turned to a commander he believed he could trust -- Sisi himself.
The late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who served as vice president
during the last throes of the Mubarak era, perhaps best exemplifies these
political fissures. Despite the fact that he was a military officer, he was
never the military's guy at the GIS. Suleiman had not served in uniform for
some time, had a competitive relationship with then-Defense Minister Mohamed
Hussein Tantawi, and was regarded within army ranks as being tainted by the
dirty business of politics. Thus Suleiman was not a member of the Supreme
Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled Egypt following Mubarak's fall
-- a sign of the military's distrust of his influence. However, likely because
he had files on every member of the junta, Suleiman did not end up behind bars
with Mubarak, his sons, and the other leading figures of the era.
Sisi no doubt enjoys broad support across the Defense Ministry, within
the police force, and in Egypt's intelligence organs. For them, the prospect of
his rule promises the restoration of a more stable -- and Brotherhood-free -- political
order. The insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula may also help to hold the
soldiers, cops, and spooks together under Sisi's banner.
However, if the conflict against Islamist terrorism grinds on
inconclusively or the economy collapses, the latent rivalries between these
different institutions could reemerge. Sisi must also be wary of the very
dynamics that he helped set in motion: There have been two military coups in the last three years, and Morsi's
ouster set a precedent for Egyptians to seek redress for their grievances outside
the institutions of the state. While Sisi is a senior military commander, which
might stay the hands of potential opponents within the security services, he
could still fall victim to Mubarak and Morsi's fate.
Egypt has always been ideologically richer than it is portrayed. In some
ways, politics in Sisi's Egypt will look familiar to those who have followed
the news since Morsi's ouster, particularly as it concerns the confrontation
between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state. But it is the coming struggle among
those within the ambit of the regime that is most interesting and most
After all, it was neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the revolutionaries
of Tahrir Square who actually brought down Mubarak. And it was not the
demonstrations last summer that brought the Morsi interregnum to an end.
Rather, in both cases, it was the machinations of the men in uniform who
brought political change to Egypt. When Sisi trades in his military fatigues
for pin stripes, he will immediately be vulnerable to all the forces that befell
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