Egypt’s new Field Marshal-in-chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, looks ready to seize the presidency. But is it more than he can handle?
- By Gregg CarlstromGregg Carlstrom is a journalist based in Cairo.
CAIRO — The choreographed dance of Egypt’s military-orchestrated politics inched closer to its climax on Monday, Jan. 27, as the country’s popular army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, moved a step closer to announcing his candidacy for president.
On the official level, Sisi’s grasp over Egyptian politics seems stronger than ever. Interim President Adly Mansour promoted the general to field marshal on Monday, a symbolic gesture that could foreshadow his resignation from the army. Meanwhile, Sisi and his fellow officers met in the afternoon, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) subsequently issued a televised statement that praised him for "responding to the call of duty."
"The council looks with reverence and respect at the desire of the masses of the honorable Egyptian people for the candidacy of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the presidency, which it considers a mandate and an obligation," the council said.
The statement stopped short of formally announcing Sisi’s resignation from the military, or his candidacy. But it was hard to interpret the language as anything else, coming as it did just two days after tens of thousands of Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square to mark the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution that overthrew long-time President Hosni Mubarak — and declare their support for another military man turned national leader.
"We gave him a mandate with the constitution, and we believe he will save the country from the Brotherhood," said Hoda Badry, a housewife, referring to the charter drafted by the army-backed interim government that was approved by more than 98 percent of voters earlier this month.
But away from the official politics and the spectacle of mass demonstrations, Egypt is more divided than ever. Outside of Tahrir, the celebrations to mark the Jan. 25 anniversary were a bloody affair: The Health Ministry said 49 people were killed, and local rights groups put the death toll higher. Most of the violence was directed at supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, but security forces also cracked down on liberal activists opposed to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.
If Sisi takes the presidency, he will have his work cut out for him. The newly-minted field marshal will not only have to face deep opposition from Morsi supporters and a growing terrorist threat, he will also inherit a state plagued by much deeper social and economic problems than anything his predecessor faced decades ago.
"Say what you will about [former President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, but he at least appealed to people’s higher instincts, their hope for a better future, for social justice," said Khaled Fahmy, a prominent Egyptian historian. "Sisi is addressing some of the basest instincts not only of Egyptians, but in any people: fear."
Egyptian terrorist organizations, which seem to grow more technologically proficient by the month, seem poised to keep fear as a powerful force in Egyptian political life. A series of four bombs went off across the Egyptian capital on Friday, the day before the anniversary, killing four people and injuring dozens more.
The largest and most spectacular was a car bomb outside the Cairo security directorate that left a deep crater in the street and shattered windows in shops hundreds of feet away. Crowds gathered at the bomb site shortly afterward, calling for the execution of Brotherhood officials.
All four attacks were claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group that has waged an escalating insurgency against the state over the past several months. And its capabilities are expanding: The group struck again on Jan. 25, shooting down a military helicopter over the Sinai Peninsula with a surface-to-air missile, killing five soldiers.
For a populace already traumatized by three years of post-revolutionary turmoil, the unrelenting violence has given the military-backed government a powerful appeal. But if Sisi can’t bring the terrorist attacks under control, he could lose a core pillar of his appeal.
The desire for stability "is why people are giving the government such a free hand," said H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But if there’s no payoff, people are going to wonder what’s going on, and begin to lose patience."
So far, there has been no payoff. Mansour on Sunday promised to assign more courts to prosecute terrorism cases — but five journalists from Al Jazeera languish in jail, and last week the state security agency detained an American translator and his roommate, an Egyptian filmmaker, accusing them of "threatening national stability." Egyptian prosecutors, meanwhile, seem to be focusing on everybody but actual terrorists, opening investigations in recent weeks into Pepsi and Vodafone, both of them charged with inciting violence through their advertisements.
Some Egyptians, meanwhile, are looking for top officials to be held accountable for the persistence of these terrorist attacks.
"Why hasn’t [Interior Minister] Mohamed Ibrahim been fired? Enough," one man shouted at the site of Friday’s bombing.
Adding to the instability is the Brotherhood, which is pursuing a seemingly suicidal strategy of near-daily protests despite mounting casualties and arrests. More than 40 of Saturday’s dead were from just two Cairo neighborhoods, Matariya and Alf Maskan, where hundreds of Morsi’s supporters launched protests.
The Brotherhood-led "Anti-Coup Alliance," an umbrella group of organizations opposed to the new military-backed government, has also hinted that it was losing control over its rank-and-file. "The alliance sees that there is rising anger among the rebellious masses after the crimes of the coup’s militias," the group said in a statement on Saturday night. "They [the anti-government masses] look forward to retaliation."
"[The Brotherhood] seems to have made the calculation that if state collapse happens in response or reaction to their strategy, it’s OK," Hellyer said. "That strategy, though, is entirely counterproductive, because it’s not like if the state collapses people are going to come out from under their rocks and welcome the Brotherhood back."
Even if a President Sisi does manage to get a grip on the security situation, he will have to contend with a stagnant economy that seems increasingly unable to meet citizens’ demand for a better life. The economy grew an anemic 2 percent last year, according to the World Bank — hardly enough to keep up with a country adding 2.6 million people per year. Inflation and unemployment have both climbed to their highest levels in years.
Egypt’s economy has limped along since Morsi’s ouster thanks to an infusion of $12 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. Their aid probably comes with an expiration date, though, and Sisi has few other options to jump-start an ailing economy.
Even at Saturday’s pro-Sisi rally in Tahrir, there were complaints about the economic situation along the fringes of the demonstration. One man, a tourism worker, grumbled about the protests that have crippled his industry. Another, sitting by his parked cab, shooed off a vendor hawking Egyptian flags: "An Egyptian flag? What do I need an Egyptian flag for? I can’t eat it. We need bread, we need money."