Egypt’s Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al Sisi is seen during a news conference in Cairo (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).
I wrote this piece as a guest post for Steven Cook, Council on Foreign Relations
Who will be Egypt’s next president? Egypt has a notorious record of being ruled by the most unexpected candidate. In 1952, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Naguib was the most senior of the Free Officers, but he didn’t survive for long. Anwar Sadat was the least prominent of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vice presidents, yet he managed to outmaneuver the others and rule. Hosni Mubarak was uncharismatic, but he survived for thirty years. Mohammed Morsi was his group’s second choice. He won in a free and fair election, only to lose his popularity after one year in power. Even the current interim president, Adly Mansour, was relatively unknown before the coup. If we are serious about planning for the future, it’s about time we take a closer look at the dynamics of Egyptian leadership.
For decades, Egypt has been a consented autocracy, in which leaders have managed to extract some sort of agreement from the public in order to continue to rule the country.
Initially, two rival forces have always competed to win the public: the leader and his loyalists, and the agents of political Islam (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood). As a basic rule, one of them must align with the public in order to alienate its rival. In 1954, Nasser managed to achieve this critical alignment, alienating the Muslim Brotherhood. The dynamics have slowly changed in favor of the Islamists following the January 2011 revolution, but only just so. The leaderless revolution has failed to sideline the old guards; instead, it has shifted the balance ever so slightly in favor of the Islamists. The last presidential election reflected this reality. Despite the availability of good and passable contenders, the winners of the first phase (Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq) were from the old groups: the former, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the latter being a Mubarak loyalist. Their ability to advance to the run-off phase was due to the powerful election machines behind each of them. In the second round, many Egyptians reluctantly aligned themselves with the Islamists, and voted for Morsi in order to defeat the ex-regime camp.
There is another dimension to Egypt’s complex political dynamics: the military forces. During the Nasser and Sadat years, the Egyptian armed forces were a clear part of the ruling establishment, but its role began to shift during Mubarak’s tenure, when it became distinguishable from Mubarak’s civilian elite: the two had closely interwoven interests, but occasionally had a very tense relationship.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is an enigmatic group that is often misread by many observers. Its leaders can be pious, but are not necessarily Islamists. They can be populists, but are not exactly secular. They can be non-democrats, but aren’t manic tyrants. In short, they change ideology, outlook, and vocabulary to serve their own interests.
The Egyptian public is the only group that the military’s generals always care to win over in terms of loyalty. Throughout its history, the military has not been able to afford a hostile public. They fought in 1973 to win the public back after the defeat at the hands of Israeli forces in the Six-Day War. In 2012 they handed power to Morsi to improve their plummeting popularity during the post-Mubarak transition; however, the Muslim Brotherhood was always under the surveillance of the generals, who allowed the Brothers to rule, but only gave them enough rope to hang themselves.
Later, the SCAF successfully reinvented itself, thanks to Morsi’s failed leadership, and to the rise of the army’s “new star,” General Abdel Fattah al Sisi.
How will these complex dynamics among Egypt’s principal political actors impact the next presidential election?
Interestingly, hours after al Sisi called for a mandate from the Egyptian public to fight “terrorism,” ex-presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq appeared in a video, appealing to Egyptians to take notice of al Sisi’s message. His intriguing video appearance has reignited the debate about his future, and whether or not he will run in the next election. An unexpected comeback is not far-fetched for Shafiq. He definitely knows how to reinvent himself. In the last election, he presented himself as an experienced man who could provide stability. The same logic can successfully be applied again, as Egyptians become more and more weary of chaos and uncertainty.
However, for Shafiq to win he must not only be acquitted of the many legal cases that have piled up against him, but he must also have weaker and unpopular opponents. Those who voted for him in 2012 did so because they either supported the ex-regime, or felt a deep mistrust for the Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, or both. Therefore, the political future of Shafiq will depend on many factors – the presence of an Islamist candidate, a strong showing from Mubarak-regime supporters, and also a possible nod from General al Sisi.
While a candidate like Shafiq might very well benefit from having a member of the Muslim Brotherhood on the ballot, other Islamists like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fetouh, himself a former member of the Brotherhood, will stand a better chance at electoral victory if the legal witch-hunt against the Muslim Brotherhood continues and ruins their chances in the next election. Aboul Fetouh’s semi-neutral stance, which swings between the army and the Brotherhood, coupled with the absence of another Muslim Brotherhood candidate, could make his victory a real possibility, as the Islamist crowd may rally behind him. However, he is often criticized for being indecisive and weak, accusations that could cost him dearly.
Perhaps the remnants of the Mubarak regime, or “felool,” may seek a better candidate than Shafiq this time to try and secure a decisive victory, and who would be better to rule the country than the “sexy guy” in black sunglasses? Despite a firm denial, there are no legal obstacles that would prevent General al Sisi from retiring from the army and running for election. Already, his supporters are painting him as “a nice mix of Nasser and Sadat,” and they are also citing other examples of successful military servicemen who turned to politics like U.S. Senator John McCain.
It is rather ironic that after two recent uprisings, the future of Egypt could be determined by one man, General al Sisi; everyone wonders if he is secular or Islamist; democrat or autocrat. He is now holding many keys, and he may decide to run the show openly, or subcontract it to a loyal civilian like Shafiq, or another new name that may crawl out from the woodwork in the next few months or so.
However, it does not have to be this way. The future of an entire country should not depend on one man, regardless of how good he is; the general public is the true holder of power in Egypt, and all parties need its support for their political survival.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who will be Egypt’s next president, but rather who will back him and at what cost. The future of Egypt involves more than just the actual voting process – it depends on if the public will continue to be satisfied with being swayed and seduced by the old guards, or will instead put serious effort into breaking the nexus of power that has persisted for decades. The next few months will be decisive, and can shape the country for years to come, and the new boss could be a surprising name that no one possibly could have predicted.
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