Is Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Egypt’s next president?


The smiling face of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is becoming even more of a common sight around Cairo nowadays. Some of the pictures spell it out in English: "President".

Much of Egypt is waiting expectantly for a presidential run by the country’s mercurial army chief. Speculation that Sisi would run has only grown since the 14-15 January 2014 referendum which saw a resounding ‘yes’ vote for a constitution drafted in the wake of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013.

Last Monday, Sisi was promoted from General to the rank of Field Marshall, prompting speculation this could be a leaving present for a military figure who would, by law, have to resign to become a civilian candidate in elections.

Reuters reported that the country’s army generals had also given Sisi the "green light" to run. Interim President Adly Mansour had earlier announced that presidential elections would precede parliamentary elections – despite the "transitional roadmap" announced by Sisi himself on 3 July 2013 stating otherwise.

"Most political forces demanded presidential elections first," Mansour said in a televised address last week, "and I have amended the roadmap to meet their demands."

"The adjustments to the roadmap may yield a return to one-party rule," claims analyst Eric Trager, Esther K. Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"If Sisi is elected, he’ll likely form a political party that will do well because of his affiliation with him; or, once a parliament is formed, parliamentarians will be inclined to caucus with him."

Like the referendum, this year’s 25 January ‘celebrations’ were seen by many as an endorsement for Sisi to run. Cheering crowds poured into Tahrir Square, a day-long sea of Egyptian flags and Sisi posters.

However, the day also signalled what some analysts predict Egypt could look like under Sisi.

At least 64 revolutionary protesters and Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed, mostly with live ammunition, across Cairo.

"A lot of us will end up in prison, we’ll be tortured and threatened so as to lose hope completely," Revolutionary Socialist activist Tarek Shalaby says.

’The saviour of Egypt’

Sisi has enjoyed a seemingly irresistible rise from relatively unknown career officer to ‘Egypt’s saviour.’ Appointed by Morsi in 2012, the US-trained officer emerged on 3 July 2013 to announce the end of one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Everyone from ordinary Egyptians to glitzy celebrities have declared their love for him, while a Coptic priest recently declared how he "melted out of love" for the army chief.

A cult of personality is forming, built on the appearance of Sisi as a humble, quiet but decisive man totally committed to the Egyptian nation.

It is widely accepted that Sisi would stroll into power if he ran. "I don’t think anyone expects that he won’t run," Trager says. "Everything right now suggests that it will be what we expect."

An army conscript, speaking on condition of anonymity, agrees: "Of course Sisi will run."

The young Egyptian, currently on compulsory military service, believes Sisi will bring in "positive changes" for the first two years, but could falter after that.

The army’s internal arrangement?

A Sisi candidacy would also confirm for many Muslim Brotherhood supporters that 30 June 2013 was a military coup – an accusation regularly levelled against the interim government by the beleaguered Islamist group.

Sally Mahmoud, a Brotherhood supporter, lost her brother in the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in clearance on 14 August 2013.

"I think [Sisi’s] promotion and the steps that followed had nothing to do with the people," she said. "It is an internal arrangement amongst the army."

Shalaby is meanwhile frank about the "catastrophic" risks a Sisi presidency could pose to secular activists.

"If he runs for president that would meant the apparent victory of the counter-revolution and its attempts to destroy the revolutionary movement, as well as the labour movement, completely."

"But it would by no means mean this is the end of the revolution," Shalaby added.

In fact, analysts claim, the narrative is not quite so simple. There are real risks for Sisi and the regime if he decides to run.

"This is the last opportunity for the whole regime," claims Sherif Younis, a historian at Helwan University who has written a number of books on Nasserism and democracy. "If [Sisi] fails, it will mean the end of the regime."

By making promises to combat a jihadi insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, turn around a faltering economy while also fulfilling the demands of the revolution, Sisi is playing a precarious game of everyman politics.

Shalaby claims that by involving so many Egyptians in this do-or-die narrative, the regime has raised the stakes higher than they have ever been. And that could backfire.

"Sisi now represents so many things to so many people…for the old regime he means one thing, for poor people he means something completely different," Younis claims. "Unless he plays his cards very carefully, there is a risk this regime will collapse."

For now, Sisi’s route to becoming president of Egypt seems assured, a gift from the Egyptian people for his "security-first" approach after over six months which have witnessed regime change, street massacres and a motley democratic transition.

"If a man can’t handle one million soldiers, he won’t be able to handle 90 million Egyptians," the army conscript says before packing off to camp once again.

But in Egypt things can change. And success as an army leader does not translate into success as president of a populous, fractured and unstable nation like Egypt.