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Sisi’s presidential bid doesn’t unravel the mystery

or months, observers of Egypt’s political arena have been waiting for Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to announce he was running for president

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

It was not a surprise. For months, observers of Egypt’s political arena have been waiting for general, then Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to announce he was running for president. Nevertheless, the speech Sisi gave on the March 26, in which he announced he would be running for the presidency, was not devoid of meaning – even though it still left a number of crucial questions unanswered.

Egypt has to live with the consequences of Sisi’s change from a typical member of the infamous Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to a presidential candidate who is all but certain to become the official head of state. But just as few seemed to understand the mechanics of how that divergence occurred, few now comprehend how a presidential Sisi will seek to proceed.

It is clear he is opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, but his own notions of how religion and state ought to engage with eachother are ambiguous. He recognises a security threat, but the international community invariably characterises that approach as deeply repressive, unseen since the time of Gamal Abdul Nasser. Domestically, human rights groups are, appropriately, ringing alarm bells like never before.

Sisi’s approach

Some may implore Sisi, once he becomes president, to take a more inclusive and rights-based approach. But given the record of the past nine months, where more civilians have died at the hands of state forces than any other time in Egyptian history, with little accountability imposed by the authorities, and a crackdown against dissent from various quarters, there are few who appear optimistic at present. His opponents are unlikely to view him as legitimate – for the long-term – and his speech will not have swayed them in that regard.

But that does not mean Sisi’s speech was not a success last week. He wouldn’t have drawn new support from his critics – but then, it is hard to see what he could possibly do in order to get that after so much blood has been split. On the other hand, his supporters would have been deeply satisfied by the speech, as well as that small section of the population still sitting on the fence about a presidential run by the military officer. The speech delivery was effective – on a superficial level; it was humble, if determined, particularly against “foreign interference.” The tone was soft, but it left no room for doubt in that Sisi would continue to “confront terrorism” – including, somewhat disconcertingly, beyond Egypt in the region.

Sisi’s presidential campaign will get underway very shortly – and when his full team is unveiled, we may begin to see more specifics of his platform

H.A. Hellyer

If one examines the substantial components of the speech, there are a few key points to be extracted. The first is that Sisi seems to have sent a message to the sprawling bureaucracy – an establishment infested with corruption, composed of bodies that have become more akin to cliquey silos than actual state institutions. When Sisi says state institutions are “suffering from feebleness,” which “require firm handling” so that they can “recover, unify and be in tune,” he may be signalling that the attempt of these institutions to operate as increasingly uncontrollable will be put down. However, given the “war on terror” narrative that seems to animate so much of the state at present, will Sisi try, for example, to reform the security sector, or the judiciary? That seems unlikely – but if he doesn’t, what sort of “recovery” does he have in mind that will be better than what Egypt has seen, with the excesses that have already taken place?

Vague speech

The second major point is related to the economy – but here Sisi was equally vague about what he intended to do. All Egyptian economists are aware of the problems – and there is widespread agreement on at least the broad framework of a fiscal solution – but hitherto, there has been little political will to implement such a solution. What little has been made public about Sisi’s thinking in this area was reinforced in this speech – that there would need to be some austerity measures designed, which would be painful. That pain is likely to be disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable of Egyptians. Given that around 40 percent of the population live around the poverty line, that is a potential power keg waiting to erupt.

Sisi’s presidential campaign will get underway very shortly – and when his full team is unveiled, we may begin to see more specifics of his platform. Of course, given that there are no real challengers to him, given his significant support base on the ground and the overwhelming endorsement of Egypt’s political and media elite, things may remain vague until he actually takes office. There are already signals, in his speech as well as from some of his supporters, that he will not pursue a “traditional” campaign, with no “extravagance” including in “words.”

With all of that said, there are many in Egypt that will celebrate Sisi’s declaration for the presidency. But this is Egypt, after all – and they may easily rue their decision tomorrow. After the last three years, Egypt has not found success in placing her hopes on one man, or one party: Egypt’s best hope remains to be the construction of a new Egyptian republic. That requires a consensus-based approach that the January 25 revolutionaries may have wanted – but so far, too few Egyptians seem interested and are likely to continue to pay the price for any other solution.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.