A European diplomat, meeting with a group of Egyptians, bombarded them with questions: Who is ruling Egypt now? Where the country is heading to? Who is Egypt’s coming president?! The man did not wait for answers though. He answered his own questions briefly, yet with certainty: “I think the answer is HIM”!
The diplomat, whose country is well aware of the Egyptian file and its behind-the-scenes complications, seemed sure that no one else controls the power keys in Egypt and runs its sensitive files. The diplomat seemed certain that the General is Egypt’s coming president.
The European diplomatic gesture, given its context and timing, implied that General Abdul-Fattah El-Sisi was on his way to move from “Kobri El-Qobbah” (HQ of the Ministry of Defense” to “Al-Ittihadiya Palace” (HQ of the Presidency”. El-Sisi seems to be “the man of the moment” in a country worried about its future. Despite the fact that the General holds no executive responsibility other than his role as a Defense Minister, all executive branches of the state are loyal to him and consider him to be the country’s Strong Man and its President to come.
Expectations, however, do not run smoothly in a chain-like course, where one step leads to another. El-Sisi’s running for president is supported by overwhelming majority among many Egyptian sectors, but refraining from running for the post is also supported by other considerations. Running is a problem. Not running is another problem, but bigger!
Complicated events pushed the General to the front line. By deposing ex-president Mohamed Morsi, power fell into the hands of El-Sisi. However, the path to the presidential palace is surrounded by challenges or rather landmines! Prior to July 3, 2013, the General found himself facing difficult choices.
The army’s interference would stamp his moves by the “coup” mark, which is a problem El-Sisi knows more than anyone else how complicated and how risky it is.
He is well aware of the “internal” situation, being the former chief of Military Intelligence. In addition, he is no stranger to the “global” situation, being the Minister of Defense who held repeated meetings with US and European delegations. Internally, the situation was boiling and heading fast to civil fighting. Globally, there has been an alliance with the Brotherhood and the international community was betting on them to control the region. In short, the internal situation made “army interference” a must, where globally it was the other way around!
Deposing Morsi and his Group was a must then. The alternative was a long, deadly civil fighting. Delay in siding with the popular will – demonstrated clearly in the tens of millions who took to the streets in June 30 – would have made the military itself part of and party to the chaos, not a guarantee that protects the country’s future.
The General tried several times to convince Morsi to accept a public referendum in a bid to defuse the stand-off through the people’s will. Morsi did agree at first, then, broke his word after succumbing to pressure by the Guidance Bureau (Brotherhood Ruling Office), especially the Group’s strongman Khairat El-Shattir! The question of power was settled then, in a bid to avoid the civil fighting threat announced by the Brotherhood prior to June 30!
The threat climaxed through the last speech by the deposed president himself. El-Shattir himself implied civil fighting (that could not be controlled) in a meeting with El-Sisi and the former Speaker of the People’s Assembly Saad El-Katatni!
The question of power was posed again differently after the deposing of Morsi and clashing with his Group. The roadmap was declared by El-Sisi in July 3, in the presence of Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Pope of the Egyptian Church and symbols of youth and political movements, including Al-Nour Salafist Party (former strategic ally of the Brotherhood Group). However, the roadmap was not in itself enough to settle the question of power. Clashes in the street and their aftermaths have led to posing the question of “presidency” prematurely, as it was supposed to come after the referendum of the constitutional amendments and the parliamentary elections. Concern about security and stability has given momentum to calls for El-Sisi to run for president.
In the beginning, the General refused the idea altogether and seemed obsessed by the idea of being remembered in history as “the savior of Egypt, not its president”, or the “man who saved his country from civil fighting and his state from the breakdown of its national security”, or even the man who corrected the course and put the country back on track for a modern, democratic state, not even caring to rule it through transparent elections. El-Sisi then rejected mounting pressures to run for president, saying publicly that he values more “the honor to execute the will of the people” to “the honor of ruling the people”.
As the question kept popping up, the General’s answers expressed boredom: “I will not run for office even if millions took to the streets and blocked them for a whole week!” Highly informed resources quoted El-Sisi as saying. The military spokesman also repeated the same meaning over and over. However, the atmosphere later witnessed some changes and blocked doors were unlocked and seemed open for the first time during the General’s interview with Egyptian daily Al-Masry Alyuom, when he said: “Allah hath full power and control over His affairs”!
Human self has its considerations, facts speak loud and complications stir more questions than answers. Should the General run for office, he will certainly be the president. Expectations reveal he will win the elections in the first round with 70 to 75% of votes. But if he refrains, it will be impossible for any other candidate to win in the first round, not even by 51%!
Right now, El-Sisi seems to be the most popular and strongest person in the Egyptian political scene and other potential candidates – whether former military guys or civil leaders – have made it clear – one by one - that they would not compete against the General. Al-Nour Party leaders imply in their statements that they will support the General for pragmatic considerations; mainly betting on the winner and hoping to inherit the Brotherhood’s role as a leader of Islamists in Egypt. Other Islamist potential candidates are more like a hopeless case under the current circumstances in Egypt.
The map of events has several considerations, as the masses trust and bet on the General as a guarantee for security and stability of a disturbed country, whereas political powers are waiting for the man’s final decision to make up their minds!
There are those willing to give their unconditional support to the General, others are waiting to question his commitments and agenda as president. Others, notably the Brotherhood, consider preventing El-Sisi’s running for office a “matter of life and death”. There are also some who are worried about a military person becoming president, wondering about the future of civil rights and “militarizing the society”.
Some concerns could be traced back to ideological visions that carry buried suspicions about the role of the military institution in political life. Even those who value the national role of the military institution at large and that of the General in particular still prefer El-Sisi to remain as Defense Minister, whereas the president should be a civilian.
The question about El-Sisi and his future reveals the nature of current challenges and the scenarios they may lead to.
In case the General becomes Egypt’s President, three challenges will face him right from the very first moment in office:
- First: Security challenge: How can the man restore security, without losing the civilian nature of the Egyptian state?
Any president will naturally be face by the same challenge\question (security). However, some have their concerns about El-Sisi in particular due to the man’s military nature. They believe President El-Sisi, handling the security issue, may not be committed to the more essential cause of the Egyptian Revolution (Jan. 25, 2011 and June 30, 2013); namely transferring the country to a modern, democratic and civil state!
These concerns are not baseless of course, as security necessitates using exceptional measures to confront violence and terror that put the society’s stability at risk. Politics, on the other hand, requires guarantees to preserve the coalition that stood up against the Brotherhood and defeated them. So, when security considerations collide with political adjustments, the whole game could see changes in balances and alliances.
From a security point of view, war on terror is expected to continue for extended periods of time, especially in Sinai. By nature, that kind of wars is exhausting and tricky, however it is inevitable and one of the key elements to winning it is a solid inner front and the preservation of societal consolidation. But there is a concern that political unrest, coupled with current government failures would represent the start of losing the lower classes of the society and those politically depressed to the other party!
Direct security considerations state that President El-Sisi is a guarantee for stability, but he may lose both justifications (for electing him) and popularity if he fails to mix security and political considerations. The only way to judge on this is to know about the man’s visions, programs and agendas; things he has so far declined to reveal due to the delicacy of his current military position.
- Second: Social Challenge: How committed is he to the social justice cause, which was the main motive behind deposing two presidents so far!
As per trustworthy information, the General was the driving force behind increasing the minimum monthly wage for public sector workers to (1200 Egyptian Pounds), not just (800) as decided by the Economic group within the cabinet days earlier. This position shows a high sense of mixing security and social considerations when a decision is made. Question is: how far is he willing to go as far social choices are concerned? Some of such choices contradict the interests of businessmen who support his running for office!
The General’s position allows him to realize the size and effects of economic difficulties. He knows desperate and surgical measures are required to reform the Egyptian economy and restore its strength. Question here is: Who is to pay the bill? The same social classes that have paid the bill for social reforms during Mubarak era or standards will be different this time and the social justice cause will finally surface in the General’s Presidential agenda?!
- Third: Political Challenge: How can a new popular political block be built as a base for a new power, without being an extension, of any form, to the former power or without contradicting – in targets and means – with the Jan.\June Revolutions?! The same question, in different formations, will challenge any other presidential candidate.
The popular pressure on El-Sisi to run for office is an outright expression of a political vacuum that is taking place in the Egyptian scene. Both Islamist and civil political powers have fallen apart simultaneously; the Brotherhood failed because of their own mistakes that led to hatred by the society, whereas the Salvation Front (Coalition of Egyptian civil parties) failed to secure an alternative.
In such atmosphere, public bet on men not agendas, on personal traits not political considerations, on the symbolism of the military, not the conflicts of politicians!
The dilemma here is that men – in the absence of agendas and programs - do not fill the political space on their own forever!
The Army is at the center of challenges and scenarios of Egypt’s coming president:
The current Defense Minister, General El-Sisi, believes that the best achievement by his predecessor – Lieutenant General Hussein Tantawi, is his ability to preserve the unity and coherence of the army and keeping it away from the risks at such stormy times, bearing in mind the mismanagement of the first transitional period.
As per trustworthy information, El-Sisi – in his July 3, 2013 speech – had added a saluting gesture to Tantawi and the then military council, but he removed it in fear of mixing things up.
The General preserved the same military oath when he became Defense Minister under Morsi’s rule. He tried as hard as he could to restore the Army’s original duties and keep it away from the political conflicts, but he could not help preventing the return of military units to Egyptian squares in July 3, 2013!
The General is worried about the army after he leaves his current post. The post-General era requires strictness necessary for restoring military discipline, coupled with the ability to make amends at the same time. Yet his remaining as Defense Minister once a new president is elected is not a smooth case. Sensitivities between the presidency and Defense Ministry may lead to the General’s ousting in one of the scenarios. Even if the constitutional amendments state the approval of the Higher Council of Military Forces upon appointing a new Defense Minister, this will not be applicable to the current Defense Minister.
With the General’s current overwhelming popularity and his image as “the savior”, it is not unlikely that the new president himself be ousted under the pressure of public demonstrations and with the support of military and parliament should the elected president opt for firing El-Sisi. Such a scenario will be too much for a country that has taken too many blows to its infrastructure, economy and security.
Some call for the General to remain as Defense Minister, in a bid to be a deterrent to any new president not to ignore people’s will. This idea, in itself, carries time bombs for the project of establishing a modern institutionalized state. It also carries the shadows of a colliding course with the new president. On the other hand, not running for president leads to double loyalties in the structure of the new regime between the presidency and the army leadership; in other words we will have two heads of state, which is an additional fuel for collision.
The current constitutional draft removes most presidential authorities, except for security and foreign affairs and even treats the president as a potential suspect, following two tragic presidencies. The draft, however, is not final and should the final version give the presidency back what has been taken away so far, it will be an indication that the General has decided to run for president. The general atmosphere with the committee amending the constitution tends to favor the General’s candidacy for president, so the final version of the constitutional amends will be a near-certain indication of the General’s next move, whether to remain Defense Minister or run for office.
Anyway, the question of whether the General will or will not run for president will be answered once referendum of constitutional amendments is done, as there are necessary measures he must take before running, such as resigning as Defense Minister and registering his name in the electoral database. Complicated calculations show that the General should be president, in a bid to make sure the army is kept away from politics and its affairs. However, variable considerations are yet to settle down and reveal the final call.
The General’s experiences with three major changes in two and a half years make it necessary for us to read the text within its various contexts; some of these support his candidacy while others prevent it.
He was the one to suggest to Tantawi to prepare precautionary plans to face expected popular uprising once power transfer from former President Mubarak to his son “Gamal” started.
There were strong speculations that Mubarak senior might declare not running for president to make way for his son (Gamal) – in May 2011 – to declare running for president in the fall of that year, in a bid to inherit his father’s “Republican Post”! Events, however, were faster and a public revolution erupted in January that year. The General’s plan was then implemented, with some changes to cope with unfolding events. The General then found himself amidst the whirlpools of ousting Tantawi, where he was torn apart between considerations of preserving the army’s unity and pumping fresh blood among its ranks on one hand, and his own loyalty to a man (Tantawi) who has always treaded the General as a trustworthy son.
“The day following the General’s appointment as Defense Minister, he told me a story that happened with around (1200) officer in Al-Galaa (Liberation) Theater, where he spotted tears in their eyes and sensed doubts and suspicions regarding his (the General’s) intentions and loyalties. That was a decisive moment in his own history that pushed him, later, to retaliate for his military pride against any doubts or suspicions that he was the Brotherhood’s man within the army!
He then reached the third turn, but this time he was the man of the whole game. He is a man of strategy by default (thinking and studying). The seeming emotional touch in his speeches does not reflect his true personality or the way he thinks. Changes are not going to slow down, let alone to stop. Political considerations, economic and security problems are hard to overcome in the near future, so unless the General rises up to the level of his popularity, he may find himself in troubles that will eat away his balance of popularity.
Scenario of the General refraining from running for office:
If he does not run for president, three former military leaders are hoping to run; General Ahmed Ahafiq, former Air Forces Chief, General Sami Anan, former Chief of Staff and General Murad Mowafi, former Military Intelligence Chief.
Shafiq: The former presidential candidate who was defeated by Morsi. He was forced to flee over criminal charges that are yet to be settled. His candidacy is sure to stir internal unrest and to spread unrest and conflict among political powers in a way that is sure to lead to a fast-paced change in power. This is definitely the last thing exhausted Egyptians need.
Anan: A recipe of unrest from a different nature that will open the files of the military council and its responsibility in turning Egypt over to the Brotherhood and the fatal mistakes committed during the first transitional period. Opening such files the wrong way is sure to hurt the army’s image; the last thing the army requires at the peak of its popularity among Egyptians.
Mowafi: Personal ambition, but not supported by a history of achievements that could be appealing to the public.
With the full acknowledgement of their right to run for office, the three generals believe that Egypt needs a president with a military background, if not El-Sisi, he has to be another former military person. This is a baseless assumption. People are calling for a certain candidate over characteristics they believe he enjoys.
It is not a must that other “military persons” possess the same. El-Sisi himself will not support a military candidate for the post and the complications of his relationship with the three former generals do not indicate anything else. In addition, the rise of another general to the presidency will push him to directly interfere with military affairs and collision, in such case, will be swift and inevitable.
Most probably, Egypt’s coming president will not be a military one unless it is El-Sisi himself. Necessities of the current situation may lead to choosing an honorary president while the cabinet runs the country, like the case with the current president Adly Mansour. It could even be a valid scenario for Mansour himself to be the coming president despite the fact that constitutional traditions forbid acting presidents from running for office.
Scenarios may lead to a character out of the current political scene. Someone who enjoys public acceptance, yet do not compete with El-Sisi’s position and popularity. Some names have been called to the scene, and then faded quickly. In general, it is now clear that it is highly unlikely for a new face to erupt suddenly and settle the presidential race.
Any such face will not be able to compete against presidential candidates with big political presence such as the former candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, who is expected to score well among youth and among the ranks of the Salvation Front. Sabbahi, however, does not want to run for elections unless he is sure to win. Sabbahi’s dilemma is that his role in the preparations for June 30, revolution is much bigger than his role in Jan. 25 revolution. However, he was a popular politician after Jan. revolution, but his stocks declined after June 30.
The situation has changed and security issues shadowed the rise of Sabbahi’s popularity and forced him to refuse running for office against El-Sisi, without declaring his final decision. Sabbahi says he has a partnership project with the General, calling it “Partnership of known programs and agendas! Partnership of a vision, not of positions”!
The two courses of presidential elections are; one with El-Sisi as a candidate, the other with other strong candidates. In the first scenario, the electoral battle will sure be dominated security considerations at the expense of political situations and is sure to be settled by the “Strongest” among candidates! The second scenario will see a heated competition where visions and agendas have the upper hand.
Both scenarios will witness the same challenges and probabilities remain wide open for a future trying hard to find its way in a country whose people have ousted two presidents in roughly 2 and a half years!