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Egypt's Future Hinges on the Al-Sisi Presidency

9 MINS READMay 19, 2014 | 09:15 GMT
An Egyptian man walks under posters of Egypt's former army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on May 12.
An Egyptian man walks under posters of Egypt's former army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on May 12.
(KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Egyptian military chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win the May 26-27 presidential election in Egypt, the first since the July 2013 coup that ousted the country's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi. The Egyptian military is counting on al-Sisi's presidency to bring stability to the world's most populous Arab state, and through that stability, preserve the military's privileged place in Egyptian politics.

However, there are more challenges now than when previous military-backed leaders ran the country. Al-Sisi lacks an established party to rule through and is contending with multiparty politics, rising jihadism, an angry and alienated Muslim Brotherhood and an economy in disarray and dependent on other countries for support. Even if al-Sisi is able to overcome all those obstacles — a doubtful prospect — the military would by that point likely find itself subservient to al-Sisi and not the other way around. The next few years will be most crucial time for Egypt since the founding of the republic.

Since the establishment of the modern Egyptian republic after the 1952 coup, the country's political system has been dominated by the military. The military has ruled through a host of successive civilian vehicles such as the Liberation Rally, National Union, Arab Socialist Union and finally the National Democratic Party, which was disbanded in 2011 after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Since Mubarak's ouster, the military's goal has been to retreat behind the scenes as quickly as possible but in a way that left its privileged status in the political system intact. This, however, proved difficult because the military-backed single-party governing system collapsed during the Arab Spring. The parliamentary and presidential elections that the interim military government organized in 2011 and 2012 brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, including the then-newly founded Salafist party, al-Nour. Through a mix of cooperation and pressure, the military was able to reach an understanding of sorts with the Brotherhood, evidenced by the fact that the Brotherhood enacted a constitution that preserved the military's privileged position.

This arrangement did not last long because opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood within the state and society felt threatened by the loose accord between the military and the Brotherhood. Furthermore, opponents took full advantage of the growing public frustration with a weakening economy and the Brotherhood's efforts to consolidate its nascent power by excluding rival parties from the political process. The result was the millions-strong public uprising in June 2013 that left al-Sisi to forcibly remove President Mohammed Morsi, the man who had appointed him military chief barely a year earlier.

Over the past 10 months, the country has not only seen political unrest but also the rise of jihadist forces that are taking advantage of the fall of the Brotherhood government to expand their presence in mainland Egypt. The coup has created serious problems in the country's relations with its main great power ally, the United States. Furthermore, Egypt's economic situation has gotten far worse than it was immediately after the Arab Spring and the country has become heavily reliant on financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Looking to the Past for Answers

Rather than rely on any existing civilian political force, the military plans to go back to the model of the mid-1950s when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow "Free Officers" hung up their uniforms and assumed top government positions. Like Nasser, al-Sisi is having a new constitution created and is trying to get himself elected as president to lead a new civilian government. Even the time frame is similar; Nasser was elected president after a turbulent four-year period, and al-Sisi will be assuming the office after three years of instability. But unlike the situation during the first decade of Nasser's rule, this time the military is not interested in directly governing the country for the simple reason that the current military leadership does not want to tarnish the institution's reputation if al-Sisi's government runs into problems.

In 1968, Nasser promulgated a law designed to separate the military from the formal government, which was possible because he had a civilian vehicle called the Arab Socialist Union that could be relied upon to shoulder the responsibility of governance. By contrast, al-Sisi has no political party, and it will take him time to create one. Far more important, the political landscape has no shortage of both Islamist and secular parties that can capture a sizable number of seats in the parliamentary elections after presidential elections are held and al-Sisi presumably takes office.

Nasser died in 1970 and never got to finish the process of pulling the military out of the government, a task that his successor, Anwar Sadat, had to complete. Through a complicated process that took a number of years and entailed several purges, Sadat was able to find the right balance between relying on the military and consolidating his own power base. Al-Sisi faces a far more daunting task.

The military establishment wants al-Sisi to become its civilian face, but it may not be able to fully control him and in time al-Sisi could turn into a political power in his own right. He will certainly try to remain close to the armed forces but he will also have to deal with the civilian political class and steer the country out of its current economic morass, which entails reforms that will inevitably place him in the uncomfortable position of having the generals loosen their grip over the national economy.

Here again, the past is instructive. In 1974, Sadat initiated an open door economic policy, which steered the country away from the Nasserite vision of a socialist economy and led to the creation of a new economic elite loyal to him. Sadat also implemented a law in 1979 that gave the armed forces financial and economic independence from the state.

Finding a Balance

Al-Sisi will not undertake such a drastic move but he still has to find his own balance between the military maintaining its economic assets and enacting reforms that will lead to the growth of a civilian private sector. In doing this, there is a good chance he may find himself in the same position as Mubarak in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. In fact, al-Sisi is quite conscious of the potential problems he can run into, which would explain his statement aired May 11 by Sky News Arabia that he has plans to improve living conditions within two years, but will step down if the people rise up against him without waiting for the army to remove him. To an extent, this is also election rhetoric designed to show that he is not going to be a dictator, and realistically it is unlikely that he will resign at the first sign of trouble.

Well aware of the risks of failure, al-Sisi is trying to avoid the fate of his two predecessors — and military rulers in general who suffer from the dilemma that they have no exit strategy when things go awry.

Al-Sisi's job is made more complicated by the fact that he is operating in a multiparty era, which Sadat did not have to do; in fact, under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak the Brotherhood was banned from politics. (It was briefly permitted between the ouster of Mubarak and Morsi, and it is now banned again.) Al-Sisi will need some backing from all corners of Egyptian society, even the Islamists, and already the Salafist al-Nour party has expressed its support. However, being associated with a hard-line Islamist party could alienate as many people as it brings in, and in any case al-Nour is not particularly trustworthy, as it backed Morsi until turning on him when the protests grew.

Just as Sadat created the National Democratic Party out of the ashes of Nasser's Arab Socialist Union, al-Sisi will also likely form his own party at some point. Sadat was able to forge a new civilian elite consisting largely of ex-military officers, which al-Sisi will try to replicate but may find more difficult. Under Sadat and later Mubarak, retired officers were able to join the civilian government without having to worry about a coup, and these links contributed to government stability. In the current circumstances, a great many issues could upset the relationship between the presidency and the military. That said, the military will do whatever it takes to protect its interests, and even al-Sisi himself is not indispensible, should politics turn against him.

Al-Sisi's Objectives

Relatively speaking, the military's position is more secure with al-Sisi on the way to the presidency than at any point since Mubarak's ouster. For one, it has better external support, especially in the form of massive financial aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council. The armed forces are also trying to extract as much support as they can from Washington, which wants to see Egypt stabilize. That said, the situation remains extremely fraught and everything depends upon al-Sisi's ability to counter the political turmoil, fight militancy and turn the economy around.

On the political front, he has been able to jail the top leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and thus limit its ability to create public unrest. Likewise, on the militancy front, he will be able to contain the jihadist resurgence in the mainland. More difficult to accomplish will be improving living conditions for the Egyptian public — largely due to an ossified political-economic structure that benefits the military at the expense of the masses. It will be extremely difficult for him to simultaneously appease both his military backers and the public, which is why he acknowledged in the Sky News Arabia interview that he cannot fix widening poverty, rising internal and external debt, and an energy crunch on his own. No one assumed he alone could do anything, but it is significant that he is reaching out for support from all possible quarters.

Al-Sisi has given himself two years and if he is unable to achieve his goals, it will undermine the credibility of the military as the one effective national institution in Egypt. Therefore, the generals cannot be seen as too closely tied to him if they want to engage in yet another course correction — even if it is not a full-blown intervention as was the case with Morsi. If al-Sisi fails, Egypt — the most populous Arab country in the world — could become even more ungovernable and chaotic than it already is. The next two years will likely be the most crucial since the modern republic was founding.

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