On the desk of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s military chief and de facto leader, sit the daily newspapers, full of adoration from the masses and the political class alike, all telegraphing the same message: Run for president; the nation needs you. There is even a lawsuit that would force him to run. Next to the papers is a book, given to Sisi by his American counterpart, Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel. The book is Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, in which Hagel highlighted the part about Washington giving up power after his second term: a message, wrapped as a gift.
That Sisi is considering a run when elections are held sometime next year is certain. His answers in interviews have left the door open for his candidacy, and he has done nothing to stop the mass hysteria surrounding the possibility. Leaked excerpts of his interview with Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s leading daily newspaper, show a man worried about his future and uncertain about which path to take. He understands better than anyone else that no matter his official title he needs to shape the country’s future—and, specifically, to make sure the Muslim Brotherhood never returns to power. For him it’s a personal issue as much as a political one: Today, tomorrow, or 20 years from now, a return of the Brotherhood to power could cost him his head. He needs to move forward carefully. To run or not to run? Either choice is potentially risky.
Chuck Hagel’s gift highlights the thinking in Washington: Sisi’s decision is monumental and will have grave implications on the future direction of the country and its imagined transition to democracy. In reality, the decision’s consequences are minimal. Even if Sisi takes Hagel’s advice and decides not to run, he will still be the man President Barack Obama has to deal with when it comes to Egypt. The country is not transitioning to democracy, and it hasn’t been at any point since the Jan. 25 revolution. Anti-Americanism, conspiracy theories, and xenophobic nationalism are still the mode of politics in Egypt and will in time, just as they have done before, lead to grave consequences. Yet Sisi’s choice will yield a lesson for those whose job it is to watch what happens in Cairo about what sort of man this newly powerful stranger really is.
Looking back, Sisi’s rise to the status of his nation’s savior is nothing less than astonishing. Three years ago, few in the country, and no one outside of it, had heard his name—a family name that’s as diminutive in Arabic as it is in English. Soft-spoken, Sisi had a presence that hardly elicited the awe people felt when they met, say, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sisi’s rise in the military was that of a competent officer, with a final promotion to director of the military intelligence just in time to be the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which inherited control of the country from President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, after the uprising now known as the 25th of January revolution.
Even under SCAF’s rule, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, Sisi was unimpressive. Since he was head of military intelligence, and Tantawi’s personal protégé, the failures and mismanagement by SCAF were his. If anything, he made a notorious name for himself when he admitted virginity tests had been administered to female protesters. But he was SCAF’s point man to the Muslim Brotherhood, and his religiosity impressed the man who became Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, after elections last year. In August 2012, after little more than a month in office, Morsi fired Tantawi and appointed Sisi his minister of defense. Little did he know that he was replacing a petty bureaucrat carrying the rank of field marshal with an officer who turned out to be much more ambitious and politically savvy.
Morsi paid a heavy price for his mistake: On July 3, his still-fresh presidency was overthrown, and Sisi became Egypt’s ruler. True, a figurehead—Adly Mansour—was appointed president, but hardly anyone in the country pays him any attention. The civilian politicians who serve in the Cabinet are equally unimpressive. The one man who today commands the people’s worship is Gen. Sisi—or, as one popular poster fondly called him, the “Field Marshal of the People.” His picture and name are everywhere, from chocolate to jewelry. He has been declared the savior of the nation—ironically not only from imagined international conspiracies, but from the nation’s own democratic choice of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government a year earlier.
Few leaders in Egypt’s history have ever enjoyed the adoration of the masses Sisi commands today. In 1919, amid the revolt against British rule, the laurel wreath was placed on the head of an unlikely hero: an old politician by the name of Saad Zaghloul, who became the idol of the masses seeking independence despite being a protégé of Lord Cromer. Some 30 years later, Nasser—a young officer fascinated by Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author—believed his country and himself destined to play a role. Both episodes ended with disasters. The politician and his comrades failed to achieve independence and sowed the seeds for the end of Egypt’s liberal experiment, and the young officer’s spectacular adventure brought Egypt its worst military humiliation.
For a while, the masses were tired of heroes and adventures. Dreams of glory had brought nothing but pain. Anwar Sadat changed the country’s direction from East to West, and for decades the country lived under the wings of Pax Americana. Hosni Mubarak embodied the sentiment best. A technocrat at heart, he inspired no one and was content in managing the country’s decline. But temptation always lingered in the background. The country’s view of itself was always larger than its capabilities. The revolution ignited the fervor once again. The international bureaucrat Mohamed ElBaradei, who came from the IAEA, inspired a few, but he could never connect to the land and its people. The fate of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was no different. “The spare tire,” as the people named him, was only a replacement for the original Brotherhood candidate, Khairat el-Shater. He became a source of ridicule instead of worship. The country has still been waiting for Godot. In Gen. Sisi it has finally found him.
The pundits declared it the second coming of Nasser. The love of the masses is enormous, but it comes with a price. The pressure mounts on the anointed hero to start leading. For now, the seat of the pharaohs remains empty, its puppet occupant only a temporary passerby. It awaits the General, but the General remains hesitant.
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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Samuel Tadros is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a contributor to the Hoover Institution’s Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. He is the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity and most recently Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt, both edited by Fouad Ajami.
Samuel Tadros is a Middle East scholar.