In Sisi, Egyptians see an iron fist and a silver bullet

Three years out from the revolution that toppled dictator Mubarak, the country is set to elect another strongman

A woman shows her support for Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is expected to announce his candidacy for president soon. His backers have been distributing campaign material for weeks, even though he has not yet announced a run.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced it had approved a run for president by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and cleared the way for the acting defense minister to be discharged from the military, a requirement to run for president. 

In a country where 60 years of dictatorship stunted any political development and where many promises of the 2011 revolution remain unfulfilled, the only viable candidate in elections slated for late April will be a military strongman many view in the mold of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

While a resounding victory, should he run, is all but certain, the 59-year-old U.S.-trained Sissi will look to buck the trend that saw Egypt’s last two presidents, Mubarak and his successor, Mohamed Morsi, overthrown in a span of less than three years.

In a statement, the SCAF referred to Sissi’s as yet unannounced candidacy as “an onus and an obligation.” Interim president Adly Mansour, whom Sissi installed as president in July, promoted him to the army’s highest rank of field marshal the same day.

It has been a meteoric rise for Sissi, who arrived on the political scene six months ago when the military wrested control of Egypt from Morsi after one year of democratic rule. Since the controversial military takeover, spurred by weeks of mass protest, Sissi has become widely popular.

In the past few months, he has overseen a ruthless crackdown on countrywide protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters of Morsi, who on Tuesday made his latest appearance in a Cairo court, where he faces charges of inciting violence after being deposed.

Under Sissi, security forces have killed hundreds and detained thousands of protesters, both Brotherhood members and supporters of other Islamist groups, who condemn the military takeover as a coup. Egypt’s interim rulers have declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and made unregistered protest a crime punishable by life in prison.

And Sissi has not hesitated to dole out similar punishments to civil activists, many of whom supported the overthrow of Morsi but now object to heavy-handed SCAF rule.

In a January ballot, however, 90 percent of Egyptians who voted opted in favor of a new constitution in what was seen as a referendum on the military’s rule and as an endorsement of Sissi’s run for president.

The popularity of a military strongman like Sissi may seem counterintuitive in a country that just three years ago threw off the reins of the oppressive Mubarak, the most recent in a string of military-backed authoritarians who ruled Egypt since the fall of the monarchy in the 1950s.

The parallels between the two are striking — and to some disturbing: Mubarak, like Sissi, rose to power through the ranks of the military and was long propped up by Egypt’s security apparatus. Mubarak, too, quashed the Brotherhood into submission, though he failed to wipe it out.

But a critical mass of Egyptians have grown weary of the rumbling unrest that has plagued Egypt since 2012, not to mention the economic turbulence that has persisted. The assassination on Tuesday of an aide to the interior minister, Gen. Mohamed al-Said, by unidentified gunmen is just the latest killing to validate Sissi’s approach.

In Sissi, a reserved public figure who came up through military intelligence, Egyptians see an iron fist and a silver bullet, said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

“It’s tied up with the dislocation that many have experienced in the past three years and the generalized and wistful hope for the simple restoration of stability and normalcy,” Hanna told Al Jazeera. “People are looking for a silver bullet; they’re hoping for the impossible.”

Though they are not able to present a viable alternative, activists are uneasy about Sissi. Fearing an imminent return to Mubarak-era oppression, critics say that by installing a strongman in the presidency, even by democratic mandate, Egypt could license the security apparatus to expand its crackdown.

“2014’s instability could force President Sisi to submit to full, direct, ruthless military control,” wrote Nervana Mahmoud, a critic of Sisi, in an op-ed for Daily News Egypt, an independent, English-language daily based in Giza. “Currently, the army is an empire within the state. Later, the army may expand to control the state.”

Not going back to square one

Sissi has long maintained that he does not aspire to authority, but in a rare interview, with The Washington Post in August, he refused to rule out a run for president. “When the people love you, this is the most important thing,” he responded when asked about his future in Cairo.

The military framed overthrowing Morsi, who appointed Sissi as defense minister, as necessary to stave off a civil war. The Brotherhood — along with many in the West who praised democratic elections in Egypt, despite misgivings about the Brotherhood — called it a coup, but the military insisted it would cede power once elections could be held.

The explosive popularity of a man with no political experience — which many suspect caught the military establishment off guard — has apparently derailed that plan. Sissi is being pressured to run for president from within that establishment, and is perhaps besotted with the idea, but analysts otherwise struggle to explain why he would abandon his current post in the SCAF, which already pulls the strings in Cairo.

Outside the protective shell of his military-appointed authority, Sissi will find himself subject to the fickle political climate that pervades post-Mubarak Egypt.

“Sissi will be very afraid of joining Mubarak and Morsi. The question is, will he respond to this vulnerability by initiating reforms or further repression?” Eric Trager, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said to Al Jazeera.

Sissi’s expected victory at the polls is also viewed as a sign that political development remains stagnant in Egypt, to the dismay of activists who risked their lives in Tahrir Square

In the aftermath of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood’s unlikely rise to power was facilitated, in part, by the Mubarak legacy of repressing dissidence and political mobilization. The Brotherhood, which survived underground despite decades of authoritarian rule, was the only group with the capacity to effectively mobilize its supporters when elections came around in 2012.

Little seems to have changed in that regard, analysts say.

“The Egyptian revolution began with calls for ‘bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity,’” wrote Ghada Chehade, a political analyst and activist, in Daily News Egypt. “Yet today we find a battle being waged in Egypt between religious extremism and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and repressive, Mubarak-era military and state forces on the other.”

In lofting up Sissi, Egyptians have made it clear they prefer the latter. But that doesn’t mean the country has reverted to its state before the revolution, said Hanna.

Supplanting Mubarak with another military leader “isn’t what people aspired to three years ago,” he said. “But the country is not simply going back to square one. Ascending to leadership in Egypt is a much more fraught affair nowadays.”

Egyptians erupted in protest against Morsi after a year in office, and there is little indication they will be more patient with the next president. Support for Sissi has amassed only since the July takeover and could dissipate just as quickly.

A poll by the Cairo-based Baseera Institute found that just 3 percent of Egyptians supported a military leader like Sissi for president as of April 2013. A few months later, he had begun to emerge as the heavy favorite.

“We should remember how quickly Sissi’s star has risen and how quickly it could fall if he doesn’t respond to the very reason Egyptians have taken to the streets repeatedly over the past three years — lack of economic opportunity, high youth unemployment and exclusivist politics,” said Trager. “Sissi is a strongman but also a vulnerable man at the moment.”

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