March 26, 2014
Egyptian military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has resigned from the military and announced he will run for president. With few viable opponents to challenge the field marshal, his official status as the nation's leader seems all but assured.
Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi appears poised to become Egypt's next president, following in the steps of Mohamed Morsi, the man he helped overthrow.
Sissi has the explicit backing of Egypt's all-powerful military. Commanders say “the people” have ordered him to run. And, indeed, the throngs that come out on the streets to support him insist he is the country's sole savior.
Sissi campaigner and childhood friend Aly Hossan said, “There's no substitute ... at this moment. Anyone else would take us back to square one.”
That's exactly where his critics say Sissi will take them, however, returning the country to the kind of leadership Egyptians overthrew in 2011.
Activist and revolutionary socialist Tarek Shalaby said, “This goes against all that we stood for: against the militarization of the state, against having a brutal dictator from the army rule with an iron fist.”
Yet, when Morsi chose him to be his defense minister and chief of the armed forces in 2012, many saw Sissi as representing a break from the older generation of the military officers who had worked so closely with the old regime. His reputation as a devout Muslim made his loyalties unclear.
The next year, any doubt vanished. Mass protests broke out against Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president who in his one year in office alienated wide swathes of the populace with actions perceived as autocratic and too focused on Islamist policies.
Sissi moved swiftly, first against Morsi, then against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood base.
While the crackdown further fueled Sissi's support base, some who initially supported Morsi's ouster were appalled. Critics, including secular activists and academics, found themselves facing arrest. Some went into exile abroad.
Any but overtly pro-government journalists became suspect, in particular those from Al-Jazeera. Twenty people with the Qatar-based network have been charged with links to terrorism and damaging the country's international reputation - a move rights advocates say has itself damaged the country's reputation.
But with Al Jazeera, and Qatar, popularly seen as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the government's actions also have added to Sissi's appeal. So, too, has the growing threat of a jihadist insurgency, which has claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Cairo and elsewhere.
Some of his supporters compare Sissi to his childhood hero, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who helped overthrow Egypt's monarchy. Some find him, like Nasser, charming.
Constitutional lawyer and scholar Ahmed Kamal Abu el Magd said, “He is a nice guy. He is tender and he is compassionate and he has a good sense of humor. And he has experience with the secret agents of the country. But how this is going to work out, I don't know.”
There also is another risk. Egyptian discontent is broad, fueled by chronic poverty, unemployment and a breakdown of social services. Even a massive infusion of Gulf Arab money after Morsi's fall has done little to improve daily life.
Cairo resident Mamoud al-Bottar said people love Sissi now, but he predicted that after six months of a Sissi presidency, “they will curse him,” adding, “because we are in a state that has fallen apart.”
Reviving Egypt's familiar dynamic of repression in the name of security has its own perils. Failing to address the basic concerns of protest-ready Egyptians may prove even riskier.