The Candidate in His Labyrinth

Egypt’s president-in-waiting says he’s widely loved, so why does he sleep in an undisclosed location and fear for his life?

CAIRO — In the remote, well-to-do Cairo suburb of Fifth Settlement, the headquarters of former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidential campaign are heavily fortified. Checkpoints cordon off the streets leading up to the four-story villa, and half a dozen armed guards, one of whom holds a semiautomatic weapon in his hands at all times, surround the entrance.

To get into the facility, you must present your ID, pass through a metal detector, don a color-coded visitor's badge, and then be escorted by a campaign staff member through the building. It is a far cry from the campaign atmosphere of 2012, when leading presidential campaign headquarters were guarded -- at most -- by an unarmed desk clerk. But the winner of that election now sits in prison, and though the man who ousted him is a leading presidential contender, he is also a leading target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters eager for vengeance.

Make no mistake: Many Muslim Brothers want Sisi dead. Young Muslim Brothers are especially blunt in this regard. "He should be executed when the coup falls," one 18-year-old Brotherhood activist at Cairo University told me. The Brotherhood's typically cautious leaders are only slightly more circumspect. One top Brotherhood official proposed that, as a first step toward national reconciliation, an "independent committee" would investigate the deadly violence that followed President Mohamed Morsi's ouster, "and the results will be compulsory for everyone, with the killings ... considered murders" -- implying that Sisi would be convicted of mass murder and thus put to death.

Muslim Brotherhood officials also speculate on other ways that Sisi's demise could come about. Brotherhood leader Gamal Heshmat, whom I interviewed in Turkey, where he fled post-coup, suggested that Sisi's demise might come from a different source: "Those who are around him" -- meaning other Egyptian officials -- "might kill him in order to find an end the crisis."

The Brotherhood's blood lust -- as well as rising violence against police and military targets -- has compelled many Egyptians to support a strongman like Sisi ever more ardently. But despite the ubiquity of Sisi posters and occasional sightings of Sisi-branded cookies and underwear, "Sisi-mania" is a myth.

Instead, Egyptian politics are dominated by a sense of resignation -- a feeling, even among Sisi's backers, that there is simply nobody else. So though many Egyptians view Sisi as their last hope and fully intend to support him, they aren't particularly hopeful. They know that electing a president who is squarely in the cross-hairs of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brothers is an extremely risky gambit, and they are also leery of handing political power back to the military. But they view Sisi's presidency as far preferable to the total leadership vacuum that they fear would emerge without him.

Of course, the Sisi campaign is most mindful of the significant risk to the candidate's life. When I asked Sisi campaign manager Mahmoud Karem about the security concerns, he was blunt: "I'd advise him against traveling around the country," he said.

According to retired Gen. Sameh Seif Elyazal, who has been among Sisi's most outspoken supporters in the Egyptian media, at least "2 to 3 million" Egyptians actively "hate" the former defense minister. "Everybody knows that he is a target."

As a result, Sisi now sleeps in an undisclosed location. He will also send emissaries into the countryside to stump on his behalf, rather than making campaign appearances.

Whether Sisi can effectively govern Egypt without being able to leave the capital remains to be seen. But his confinement will not prevent him from winning the upcoming presidential election, which is scheduled for May 26 and 27. After all, Sisi's most critical support will come from the big clans and tribes that dominate Egyptian political and social life outside the major cities -- groups that can mobilize a critical mass of voters. Although these familial networks are often referred to as felool -- meaning "remnants" of the old regime, due to their support for former President Hosni Mubarak -- they are not primarily ideological. Their key aim is reinforcing their local power, and their main objection to the Brotherhood is that it sought to exclude them from politics under Article 232 of the Brotherhood's 2012 constitution, which banned members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) from entering politics for a decade.

"We spoke with our Islamist counterparts and said, 'If you find that I've been corrupt, take me to court,'" Atef Helal, a family leader in the Nile Delta governorate of Menoufiya, who served in parliament as an NDP member told me. "But saying that all [NDP members] were corrupt is wrong.... This was the Brotherhood's biggest mistake."

Helal said the Brotherhood's refusal to work with the big families added to Egypt's post-Mubarak instability. As he put it, "400,000 [Muslim Brothers] can't rule 90 million [Egyptians]."

And though he remains pessimistic about the future -- he says he won't run again for parliament anytime soon, because the country is still too unstable -- he views Sisi as the only person with a remote chance of restoring security.

"There are huge problems in the last three years, so progress declined and there was chaos," he said. "So you need someone from the military to rule the country. Normally, though, I would oppose this."

Cairo-based former leaders of Mubarak's ruling party voiced similarly reluctant support for Sisi. "We never wanted military leaders," a former NDP official told me. "But the two civilian forces are now in prison. The NDP is in a mental prison and the Brotherhood is in real prison, so the military is all we have."

To be sure, many Egyptians respect Sisi. They tout his ouster of Morsi in the wake of mass anti-Brotherhood protests and appreciate his calm, empathetic manner of speaking, which contrasts sharply with Morsi's often laborious bombast. "Sisi comes from a [military] intelligence background, so he has a global vision," Abdel Azim Farid, who chaired the local council in the Nile Delta village of Bagour for 17 years, told me. "I think his [presidential candidacy] announcement was very clear, and people will be happy to work with him."

But time and again, Sisi's supporters admit that they would have preferred a different candidate. "I wish he would stay as defense minister," Farid said, before adding, "It doesn't mean I'm not happy. I'm not against him."

The non-Islamist business community, which strongly supported Morsi's ouster in July, is equally lukewarm on Sisi. "The amount of cheer that he's received can blow up his mind," said one businessman, who feared that the former defense minister could become a new dictator. "And he's a military guy, so he thinks he knows better." 

Despite their misgivings, however, practically every non-Islamist businessman with whom I spoke vowed to contribute to Sisi's campaign. "I don't want him to think that I'm against him," one said. And besides, he worried, what if Sisi fails? "It will be the end of Egypt."

Indeed, the fear of what might come after Sisi permeates every discussion about Egypt's future. His close identification with the Egyptian Army means that Egyptians fear that a blow to one will be a blow to the other -- and this effectively paralyzes even those non-Muslim Brothers who are least enthusiastic about Sisi's presidential ambitions. "If we see demonstrations against Sisi, it will be a disaster," said one Alexandria-based leftist activist who campaigned for Morsi's ouster but now opposes the current regime's repressiveness. "People view Sisi as the military, and if they lose faith in Sisi they will lose faith in the Army, and it's our only institution."

A similarly uneasy leader of the Salafi al-Nour Party in the western Matrouh governorate warned that imprisoning thousands of Islamists has enabled the spread of violent radicalism within the prisons and is thus creating an even more explosive situation. Despite his misgivings, however, he saw no alternative to supporting Sisi. "[We] believe that the Egyptian Army is the only remaining Arab army and must be protected," he said. "Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen -- they've all been destroyed. We support the Army although it made some mistakes, to keep the Egyptian state."

The shallowness of Sisi's support may become even more apparent after he becomes president. Foremost among the challenges he will face will be a natural gas shortage, which is already leading to frequent power outages nationwide, since the fuel is used for generating 70 percent of Egypt's electricity. According to an official in Egypt's Ministry of Petroleum, the country's summer electricity needs amount to 125,000 cubic meters of gas per hour, but it can currently provide only 70,000, and the government's expensive plan to import liquefied natural gas will still leave it 20,000 cubic meters per hour short of what it needs. Some estimates predict that power outages will be extended from two to six hours per day, and the worst outages will hit in the summer, coinciding with Sisi's first months in office.

In all likelihood, these outages will not spark immediate mass protests against Sisi. Egyptians are largely exhausted from the rough-and-tumble of the past three years and are thus willing to give Sisi some leeway. Yet there are two big reasons Egyptian politics will likely remain fluid in the long term.

First, while practically every national leader faces death threats, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brothers -- and perhaps a few million of their supporters -- want Sisi dead means that the threat of a game-changing assassination is real and constant, no matter how well Egypt's next president is guarded. Moreover, the kill-or-be-killed dynamic that has defined Egyptian politics since Morsi's ouster in July 2013 is constantly broadening: Pro-Brotherhood forces recently threatened Sisi campaign officials' lives by posting their personal information online.

Second, the threat to Sisi's life means that the autocratic politics that catalyzed uprisings against both Mubarak and Morsi are here to stay. Fearing that the Brotherhood might exploit political openings to return to power and seek vengeance, the current regime is already imposing strict limits on dissent that affect everyone. In recent months, it even arrested those working as oppositionists within the current transition process, detaining supporters of Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi and sentencing activists who campaigned against the recently passed constitution to three years in prison.

Indeed, on the eve of Egypt's second presidential election in two years, Egyptian politics are already disastrous -- and also a bigger disaster waiting to happen. Given the existential stakes for every political player, Washington's well-intentioned push for greater political inclusiveness has no shot of success right now. The current regime views efforts to encourage democracy as an underhanded conspiracy to hasten Sisi's demise. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters believe that Washington conspired to remove Morsi and thus view American human rights concerns as disingenuous.

For this reason, Washington won't get the progressive post-Arab Spring Egypt that it rightly wants. Even sadder, neither will Egyptians.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


A Fair Stake in the Ground

Why keeping women away from Congo’s mines -- which are rife with exploitation and sexual violence -- could do more harm than good.

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Bembeleza Mungo Akonkwa, 41, cradles her infant son and hunches slightly. "I have so much back pain," she says, sitting in the backroom of a hotel restaurant in Congo's South Kivu province. "I have pain in my uterus. So much pain. I'm unable to walk or to carry big things."

It's worse when she menstruates; her periods last for two weeks and leave her barely able to stand. There's no money for a doctor.

"I don't know what's wrong," she says. "It just hurts." 

Akonkwa's old job, hauling minerals and supplies up and down the hills of the Marok mine in the eastern Congo, left her physically debilitated. The pain also means she can no longer easily work. That's a big problem: With 11 children and no husband (he ran away), the $2 a day she earned from carrying 100 lbs. packs kept her family afloat. The infant, she says, is almost two -- but he's so malnourished and small that he looks like he's closer to nine months old.

A few years ago, Akonkwa had a particularly unproductive day hauling supplies, and she was on her way home when a miner spotted her and offered her $2 for sex. Unsure of how she was going to feed her children that night, she agreed.

"And that's where I got pregnant with this child I have in front of me," she says.

Akonkwa is one of hundreds of thousands of women who work in and around Congo's mines, sometimes extracting minerals directly but more often cleaning, hauling, panning, and processing materials or engaging in secondary economic activities like cooking or selling food to miners, almost always under tremendously exploitative conditions. These same mines have helped sustain eastern Congo's 20-year-long conflict -- they're a source of political power and economic support for whoever controls them. For smaller-scale artisanal mines, that control is usually asserted by one of the many militia groups (even though large, multinational corporations technically own the title to many of them) who operate with impunity.

Although violence against and exploitation of civilians is rife in Congo's conflict -- most notoriously, the rape of women -- it is particularly atrocious around mining sites. In addition to being treated as packhorses, women who need access to the mining sites to sell food or other goods have to negotiate permission from site owners, who routinely demand sex as part of the cost of entry. Men who work in and around the mines also frequently rape women and girls. Child marriage, which is uncommon throughout most of Congo, happens with regularity in mining areas.

If you talk to Washington policymakers or Congo's increasing number of celebrity advocates, the solution to the endemic violence that women like Akonkwa face is regulation of conflict minerals, including gold and the "3Ts" (tin, tantalum, and tungsten) that are used in consumer electronics like laptops and smartphones. Groups such as the Enough Project, a human rights organization focused on Sudan and Congo, emphasize that non-transparent mineral supply chains in Congo mean that "American consumers have no way to ensure that their purchases are not financing armed groups that regularly commit atrocities, including mass rape." They push for corporate due diligence. "There is good news," the Enough Project's Raise Hope for Congo website states. "Because we as electronics consumers are tied so directly to the problem, we can actually play a role in ending the violence."

That message has also reached Congress. The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, requires any company that does business in the United States or trades on its stock exchanges to disclose the origins of the conflict minerals they use; if the company sources those minerals from Congo, it has to submit an annual due diligence report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There's no question that the Congolese mineral trade abets sexual violence and other human rights violations, and that the Congolese people would greatly benefit from regulation and transparency of mining (as well justice for survivors of rape and other crimes). But the political narrative about women and mines is a narrow and sometimes manipulative one: Stories of abuse draw attention to a pressing problem, but there is little subsequent discussion of how to empower women as economic and political actors in the development of Congo's mining sector.   

"Some advocacy groups have largely used the sexual violence phenomena as a hook to bring people into the larger conflict mineral issue," says Joanne Lebert, director of the Great Lakes Program for Partnership for Africa Canada. "They're drawing on emotive responses to something absolutely horrific, but there is little follow through. Everything having to do with gender outside of sexual violence is just dropped."

If there is follow-through, at a local level, it is often guided by long-standing and limited assumptions about the sort of work women should be doing. "I think that the fight should be to enable or to empower women in what they are able to do," says Justin Kabanga, the national coordinator of Congo's Centre d'Assistance Médico-Psychosociale ("Center for Medical-Psychosocial Assistance," or CAMPS) who also works closely with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Women would be better off doing the traditional female labor of small-scale farming, he says, so his organization focuses on helping women to leave the mines by purchasing and cultivating farmland. 

"The idea that women should be out of the mine sites is a widespread and widely supported view in the DRC," Lebert explains.

Ensuring that gender issues aren't so divorced from discussions about how to improve Congo's mines is critical. These mines will continue to be drivers of the country's economy, even after conflict, and Congolese women deserve a fair stake in their country's future.

* * *

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that Congo has some $26 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources, with some of the world's greatest reserves of gold, diamonds, copper -- and the aforementioned 3Ts. Very little of the economic benefits currently culled from the mines trickles down to the Congolese population, 80 percent of whom live on less than $2 per day; most of it goes to militias, international corporations, and the government in Kinshasa. The country remains one of the five poorest in the world, and women in particular bear the brunt of Congo's poverty.

International regulations, including provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act and the OECD's Due Diligence Guidance, attempt to clean up mineral supply chains and pressure demand-side companies into purchasing minerals through transparent processes. These regulations are important initial steps toward stability and violence reduction; cleaning up supply chains will certainly help to curtail bribery and some forms of labor exploitation. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. For mining reform to be truly beneficial for the Congolese population, gender dynamics in mining communities must be addressed -- dynamics that many lawmakers and other international actors do not understand well.

Women make up 30 to 50 percent of the mining sector's work force, concentrated in lower-status roles: illegal trading, carrying minerals downhill for washing, dragging tools and goods for miners' use, panning for gold, sex work, laundering clothes, and selling food. In some cases, women aren't even allowed to take on even these exhausting roles: Donatien Nakalonge, a community leader from Walungu, South Kivu, says that some local leaders have banned women from mining sites entirely because of superstitions about women bringing bad luck and concerns about distracting a mostly male work force. (He agreed that women are better off on traditional farms.) The government has also limited women's access to mines. "In response to the great attention about sexual violence, Congo passed a law stating that no pregnant women could be in the mines at all, and no women could be in the mines after a certain hour," Lebert says. "The local interpretation of that has often been that there should be no women in the mine site. Some artisanal claim holders now have rules."

Some women, however, do participate in extractive work alongside men, and they appear to fare better than women banned from mines. When Lebert's organization conducted a gender analysis of one artisanal gold mine where the claim-holder barred women from the site and compared it to another where women were engaged in the extraction of artisanal gold, they found that the women living around the exclusionary mine were more vulnerable than the group of women actually working in the other mine. The women who were excluded had to depend on their male partners for access to cash. And in order to perform secondary economic activities, like cooking or selling goods, they had to get special permission from the claim holders -- which could include sexual favors. Other women banned from mining sites have to negotiate with the Congolese military or militia groups for access.

"It amplified their vulnerabilities," Lebert says. "They didn't have access to cash, and they had to negotiate their way into certain areas in order to have access to any form of entrepreneurship."

Unfortunately, the international actors engaged in development work, advocacy, and legal reform around mining and minerals in Congo do not always grasp these realities. When asked whether international actors are identifying economic opportunities for women, empowering women financially, or bringing women to the table in efforts to clean up the supply chain, Lebert says "the answer would be no, no and no."

"There are opportunities for a meaningful inclusion of gender with the multiple audits being carried out, with the formation of monitoring committees, and with other governance tools in development," Lebert added. "Women should be enabled to participate more fully. And men, too, should be able to bring a gender lens to governance work."

Doing that requires evaluating women's roles and building their capacity to work safely in a sector with enormous growth potential. Practically, that means targeting women for education and training programs so that, for example, they could gain the skills to work as auditors along a supply chain, which, thanks to Dodd-Frank, is already seeing an enormous demand for trained inspectors. Auditors could also be taught to flag exploitation and to promote integration of women into various parts of the supply chain. Better access to credit would allow women to start small businesses outside of the mines. And women working in and around mines could (and should) also be party to conversations around how to make the mines more humane places.

Of course, a push for gender equality also means focusing on providing more basic necessities, from education to family planning. It also means bringing in gender specialists at various levels of development and across sectors to influence policies. More broadly, too, it requires a shift of perspective: Advocates and decision-makers from Washington to Kinshasa often see men as the economic actors in mining, and women as victims of violence, in particular rape. That has to change, to reflect the real nuances of what is happening on the ground.

"There may be well intentioned programs, laws, and policies, but none of it is being evaluated, certainly not from a gender perspective," Lebert says. "Their impacts are unclear, and they are often based on anecdotal and incorrect information.... We need to really be able to understand the gender and power dynamics and where women are in the supply chain and what renders them vulnerable and what creates opportunities."

"It's valuable to draw attention to the pervasive and horrific exploitation of women in the Great Lakes region," Lebert added. "But what we risk doing is not actually understanding that this is a larger issue of insecurity -- pervasive, systematic insecurity."

Minerals, of course, are not the only potential source of wealth in Congo. Another is land, and farming in Congo is traditionally women's work. But the problem with insisting that women "stay on the farm" -- beyond the troubling assumptions about gender roles -- is that there are reasons that many women are forced or seek to decamp to mines in the first place.

Some are displaced by war and crisis (as are Congolese men). Others are abandoned by their husbands and ostracized in their communities after being raped, requiring them to leave their family farms. What's more, farmers mostly exist at a subsistence level, eking out just enough to survive -- not make a serious profit. Making the move to farming as a business involves many obstacles: For instance, grain farmers are unlikely to have consistent electricity, so there is no way to run a mill regularly. That means their grains are sent across the border to be milled, then imported back into the country and sold at a higher price. But even if electricity were available, women would need credit to buy the seeds and tools that would allow them to grow enough crops to mill and sell. And here, once again, gender biases come into play.

"There's a lot that can be done in terms of livelihoods and areas where women are already strong and already working, but where they have absolutely no support," says Adrienne Stork, a project advisor working with the UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch. "But nothing ever gets off the ground in terms of people being able to improve the way they work and what they do, and improving opportunities to market what they produce."

In other words, ensuring Congolese women's economic futures means better understanding and developing sectors like farming, where women have traditionally worked, while also accounting for women's interests in the country's lucrative mines.

* * *

Bembeleza Mungo Akonkwa says she would like to start a small business selling petrol. But to do that, she needs start-up capital or credit she does not have and cannot easily get. These days, she barely has enough money to get by day to day.

She tries to stay away from the mines, yet sometimes, when there is no food left, she drags herself back to Marok to carry packs up and down the mountain again. She gave up on trying to send her children to school a long time ago; she can't afford the fees. Now, she is focused purely on survival.

"I don't see a future for my children," she says. "Thinking about it gives me so much pain. I try not to, but I think about it all night." 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images