Will 2014 see Sisi as Egypt’s next president?

As Egypt enters a new, uncertain year, the country’s de facto ruler looks stronger than ever

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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Just six months ago, the army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was almost unheard of outside Egypt.

Now, however, as Egypt enters a new, uncertain year, the general who ousted the country’s first democratically elected president seems to be going from strength to strength.

On July 1, as demonstrators lined Egypt’s streets, Sisi - representing the armed forces - gave Mohammad Mursi’s crisis-stricken government and opposition parties a 48-hour deadline to deal with the apparent uprising.

When the deadline inevitably passed, Sisi announced that he had removed Mursi from power and suspended the constitution.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar figure emerged from the wreckage of the Muslim Brotherhood-run administration to become Egypt’s de facto ruler.

For supporters of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood his ouster marked a military coup.

However, Sisi continues to carve out support from Egyptians who back the previous military leadership, which held the reins of power for six decades before strongman Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011.

After Mubarak’s seemingly endless tenure, how did so many Egyptians so quickly accept another army-sourced leader?

Sisi’s emergence as the country’s most powerful man stems from economic and ideological issues during Mursi’s presidency, and the relatively high popularity enjoyed by the military, said Aaron Rock-Singer, a scholar at the Near Eastern Studies department at Princeton University who studies Islam in 20th-century Egypt.

“With Sisi’s emergence as a figure who could potentially bring some unity to the political system - however forced and authoritarian - many of the potential criticisms of him have been silenced,” said Rock-Singer.

Sisi appeals to both adherents to the revolution that toppled Mubarak, and people against the Brotherhood, said Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Sisi is “the savior” of the revolution that toppled Mubarak, Anani told Al Arabiya News. “That’s how he can benefit from both sides and employ them in order to get support.”

Sisi’s rise to power began in 2012, when Mursi replaced veteran Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who had served as head of the armed forces for over two decades.

This elevated Sisi, who at 57 had been the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to one of the most prominent positions in the country.

However, Sisi kept a low profile during his tenure as defense minister under Mursi’s rule, and had been described by Egyptian daily al-Ahram upon his appointment as “media shy.”

Mursi’s replacement of Tantawi just months into his presidency was a tactic aimed at halting a possible military response against Brotherhood rule, by appointing someone who was thought to “straddle the boundaries” between the Islamist elements in the Egyptian army and the ‘top brass.’

While Mursi’s power seemed to crumble amid mass protests, Sisi unleashed a full display of military might.

“He seized an opportune moment to bring the Egyptian military back to the forefront of Egyptian politics,” said Max Reibman, a scholar in modern Middle East history at Cambridge’s Pembroke College.

While on paper Sisi’s position in the government is below that of interim President Adly Mansour, the army chief controls the most important offices of power: foreign policy and defense.

“Key decisions that will allow for a political process to unfold... are still largely coming from the military administration,” Reibman said.

Sisi has so far been cagey about a possible run for the presidency, in elections to be held in summer 2014.

However, comments purportedly made by Sisi in December on the sidelines of a recent interview to an Egyptian newspaper include his description of a dream in which he was speaking to slain former President Anwar al-Sadat, who tells him that he had known he would be president, with Sisi replying: “I will be president of the republic.”

Although Sisi has not made any public declaration, experts believe that there is a high chance he will run.

“He’s certainly popular enough and, just as importantly, the opposition is both in disarray practically and divided ideologically,” said Rock-Singer.

“There isn’t a consensus opposition candidate at this point who could challenge Sisi, whereas the ‘pro-military’ camp would largely be united around Sisi,” he added.

The lack of a real challenger to Sisi would likely result in a landslide, said Emil Amin, analyst and director of the Cairo-based Truth Institution for Political Studies.

“If he runs, he’ll win with a huge percentage. At least 70 – 75 percent of Egyptians will choose him,” said Amin. “He’s the man that most Egyptians have confidence in.”

Sisi has cultivated his image as a spiritual successor to former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, said Rock-Singer.
Amin said many Egyptians believe that Sisi represents a “new, 21st-century” version of the popular president.

Further boosting Sisi’s credentials is an endorsement from one of Nasser’s sons.

If Sisi decides to run for the presidency, “the whole Nasserite current in Egypt will endorse him because they have found the spirit of my father Gamal Abdel Nasser in him,” said Abdel-Hakim Abdel Nasser, Egyptian daily al-Ahram reported.

However, despite Sisi’s appeal and populist inclinations, his apparent lack of ideology - like Nasser’s ambitious pan-Arab vision - separates him from the former Egyptian leader.

“Sisi has charisma, and he can influence people. Of course he has a populist tendency,” said Anani. “However, he doesn’t have a coherent ideology, or a coherent political project.”

While his Nasser-esque image and popularity may elevate Sisi to Egypt’s highest formal office, would he be able to solve nationwide problems such as a stagnant economy and political polarization?

So far, Sisi’s de facto rule has not brought any real changes, said Rock-Singer.

“The basic set of challenges - particularly the economic suffering of Egypt’s urban poor, the absence of real opportunities for socioeconomic mobility, and a bloated subsidies program -haven’t changed,” he said.

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