Egypt’s top general is a shoo-in to win the race for president. Then the hard part begins.
- By Steven A. CookSteven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.
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 strongman-poster-on-every-public-building phenomenon.
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 and explicitly 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 solvency crisis?
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 everyone.
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 important.
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 his predecessors.