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In Cairo, a Political Choice Becomes a Test of Character for Egypt’s New Military Leader

Gen. Sisi holds de facto power but with elections looming must now decide whether to legitimize his rule with a presidential run

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A street vendor in Cairo sell portraits of Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Nov. 19, 2013. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)
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The seat lures him, of this there is no doubt. With the presidency, he would gain absolute control of the country in reality and in name. The country is in grave danger, he truly believes. Like the rest of the country, he is a firm believer in conspiracies against the homeland. The country needs a strong hand to guide it through these turbulent waters. So, if not him, who? The despicable politicians can’t get their act together, he reasons. None of them has shown the slightest potential of being a serious contender for the role. Only he can make “the mother of the world as big as the world,” as he famously promised. More important, becoming president, and there is no doubt that it is his if he chooses to run, will allow him to shape the system and ensure that the Brotherhood never returns to power.

But the seat does not come without a price. Being Egypt’s president is not that much fun anymore, as the last two men to hold the job can attest. With the seat, Sisi would inherit the mess that is Egypt today. No one in his right mind would enjoy the responsibility of managing a catastrophic political, security, and economic situation. With the people insistent on blaming their misery solely on former presidents, there are mounting expectations for a transformation. Saving Egypt from the Brotherhood may be a catchy phrase that unites the non-Islamist masses today, but it doesn’t feed them. Instead of a popular hero fighting the American and Israeli conspiracy against Egypt, as he is currently portrayed, he would be forced to deal with sewage problems and gas shortages.

His ascent to the presidency would also make it impossible for anyone to claim that his actions on July 3 were anything but a coup. Perceptions matter both at home and abroad. He would be portrayed as a power-hungry officer who removed the elected president to sit in his place. Worse for the savvy general, it would mean he would be cut off from the real base of power; the army. He would remain commander in chief, but that did not help Morsi very much, nor even the war hero and former air force commander Mubarak. Younger officers will inevitably emerge, and they may have minds of their own. Better quell the temptation. No matter how much pressure the masses and the political class may exert on the general, he is better off remaining as minister of defense, the conventional wisdom goes. He maintains his hold on the army, continues to wield the real power behind the throne—a kingmaker who can crown whomever he likes. He will retain his popularity and will not be blamed for the assured failures of the next president. If only he would quell his ambitions, he can gain everything and lose nothing.

But by remaining as minister of defense, Sisi risks being sidestepped by a newly elected president. True, the military will remain the real backbone of the regime, but Sisi is not the military. The new president can build bridges with other officers in the army and in due course get rid of his minister. Such was the fate of his predecessor Tantawi and how he himself became minister. This is especially likely if the new president is himself a former officer. Given the security situation and the military’s overwhelming popularity among non-Islamists, a decision by Sisi not to run will create an opening for another officer. Of those there are plenty. First is Ahmed Shafik, the runner up in last year’s election, who commands an impressive electoral machine. Lurking in the corner are Gen. Sami Anan, the military’s previous chief of staff, and Gen. Mourad Mowafy, the previous head of the general intelligence. Each of these men would have enough access and friends within the military establishment to sideline Sisi and ultimately remove him if they occupy the presidential seat. Power in Egypt is not a sharable, and the country has no room for two masters. If the new president is able to control the country and modestly deliver, Sisi might end up forgotten.

To run or not to run: Both options are filled with dangers. Soon the General will be forced to make his move. The vacuum cannot remain unfilled forever. His best option may be the obvious one: the puppet president Mansour. He can become the perfect candidate for Sisi, totally unimpressive as to pose no threat, while equally totally controllable, allowing Sisi to rule in all but name. Time will tell, but one thing is certain: The worship of the masses is enough to corrupt the minds of even the greatest men, and Sisi hardly even meets that category.

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In Cairo, a Political Choice Becomes a Test of Character for Egypt’s New Military Leader

Gen. Sisi holds de facto power but with elections looming must now decide whether to legitimize his rule with a presidential run

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