In our previous article, we explained how President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi began his journey to power, claiming that his rise was based on two main forces: first, the armed forces, and second, the pro-Al-Sisi mood that has considered him to be the most capable person to provide security and stability after removing the Muslim Brotherhood.
Because of this, Al-Sisi has perhaps begun more powerfully than Gamal Abdel Nasser did, who we can say started building his base of support through the army, and gained popularity through his decisions and actions that began with agrarian reform and ended with the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
Perhaps it was the inability of political parties and other politicians, between the end of the Second World War until 1952, to make decisions that were this radical, that helped Nasser knock them out of the game. In Al-Sisi’s case, he did not build his popularity after he came to power through specific achievements, but achieved popularity mainly before the 30 June revolution, because without the support of the army this revolution would not have resulted in the successful overthrow of the Brotherhood.
We should point out here that for a majority of the people, the overthrow of the Brotherhood was not an expression of rejecting the Brotherhood project in particular, but was an expression of a strong desire for security and stability rising above any other desire. And afterwards, Al-Sisi began ruling based on his sweeping popularity, but the irony which has drawn the attention of many observers is that Al-Sisi is the opposite of Nasser.
He has taken actions and decisions that undermine his popularity rather than enhance and develop it. For example, his economic decision to reduce energy subsidies has negatively affected his popularity, and we have two observations on this: first, that Al-Sisi finds himself compelled – due to various pressures – to make critical decisions regarding subsidy reductions, as a prelude to repealing them completely.
He is forced to make these decisions immediately, given that it may prove impossible for him to navigate making tough choices without the popularity he enjoys now. The crises of the nation will need to be solved in the foreseeable future and Al-Sisi needs to take gradual steps and radical measures at the right moments to keep public opinion at bay.
These crises are not related to the Brotherhood, and it is interesting to note that Al-Sisi is not only compelled to take decisions that will undermine his popularity, but he himself views these decisions as though they will gain him more popularity. These decisions include the new Suez Canal project, the new system for distributing bread and rations, etc. A general observation about these projects is that they were studied extensively and in previous eras. And it is noted that when it comes to bread and rations, and their importance and positive effects, public opinion has not embraced the project. This is because public opinion is formed by the upper middle classes, who are the main consumers of media and politics.
As for the Suez Canal, the new project’s overall image has been tainted by a few gaffes. Al-Sisi has insisted that the project will be completed in one year, while studies and the contracts themselves which have been worked on by researchers and experts, claim that the project timeline is 3 years. This is a statement that claims power over science. It reminds us of the “device” that was invented to treat and cure illnesses including AIDS and hepatitis C within two months, as the head of the army engineering corps has also claimed that the entire canal will be dug out by next April rather than in a year. This is the same person who stated that any “doubt” in the army-invented “device” meant doubting the army itself.
Before we address when and how Al-Sisi will attempt to approach politics and the political process, let us offer some pitfalls and obstacles that hinder his ability join certain forces for his advocacy and support. By this we mean the forces of businessmen and state agencies, which are closely related to political ties and interests.
These forces are affected by two main trends: the first is the trend of the majority, which means a direct majority like that during Mubarak’s era. Here we are talking about a group comprising businessmen, journalists, bureaucrats and politicians that were overwhelmingly affiliated with the National Party, and collected political links that paved the way between them for a common vision on the management and governance of the country with common interests in mind. It seems that this group is now in a defensive position more than ever before. It is hostile, aggressive, and deeply believes that it is the group that overthrew the Brotherhood – not democratic forces or the people. They believe the money they paid to thugs and others to create crowds on 30 June was the reason there were many protestors. Despite the fact that they know they are vulnerable and powerless, they believe that they cannot back down now – it’s a “now or never” fight. They believe they can achieve a powerful position again through joining or creating an alliance with Al-Sisi.
The second trend includes another group which is a mix of some state officials, businessmen, media-makers, and politicians. It is the trend of the minority, which is the closest thing related to a model of reform. In this trend the motives and objectives are all based on accomplishing some political, economic, social, or administrative reforms.
In our understanding, the main obstacle before Al-Sisi lies in attracting three forces: the media, the state apparatus, and businessmen. These forces represent a difficult political obstacle given that they are internally very cohesive and strong, and amongst all these groups there is a particular set of common interests and political visions which are guided by politicians that may be outside of these groups. Al-Sisi is trying very hard to break these forces and turn their loyalties, while certain forces – especially the majority trend of Mubarak-era strongmen – are trying to force Al-Sisi to restore the country to a Mubarak-era system.
Another obstacle for Al-Sisi lies in his relationship with the media. Nasser, for example, gained the support of the media to the extent that it allowed him to impose significant restrictions on its freedom, through his major social achievements and increase popularity. Will Al-Sisi be able to do the same?
On the other hand, we notice that some businessmen are now rushing to donate to the “Long Live Egypt” fund which is managed by Al-Sisi alone. Perhaps they donate out of nationalistic concerns, or perhaps out of opportunistic motives related to their desire to become close to Al-Sisi, in search of greater opportunities for work and investment.
If so, then they are following ancient traditions which place businessmen side by side with political forces, given that whoever is closest to political force will determine the direction of wealth. Observers have noted that this is natural, and that different business circles have formed around various presidents in Egypt’s history, in particular Sadat and Mubarak. But this time around no particular business circle has emerged around Al-Sisi.
Instead, businessmen are demanding specific mechanisms through which their social and political role can be determined, far from the logic of donating money to a fund run by the president. A number of these businessmen own media outlets that are important, and if it was difficult for Al-Sisi (for reasons that require lengthy explanations) to restrict the amount of freedom available to the media, then it is equally if not more difficult for him to direct blows towards business through nationalisation, for example.
Any harassment towards the media, through taxes or insurance, will only push businessmen to respond through their media with the same power. It is ultimately not about who the strongest is, but who can cause the conflict for the longest period of time. Either way, if this keeps on going, the conflict will have a negative impact on the market. This will be detrimental to the country and will take away from Al-Sisi’s power.
Finally, we should not forget that the state apparatus play a big role in the overthrow of the Brotherhood, and this group of civil servants in the first, second, and even third grade is also tightly woven with the National Party and a network of old interests. Penetrating this corrupt and interconnected mechanism will not be an easy task.
Most probably, Al-Sisi will manage the country knowing full well that the media will not stand with him as it did with the lucky Nasser. The media will oppose him for one reason or another. It is also likely that Al-Sisi will manage the country knowing that some businessmen and state officials will not be at his disposal because their interests do not match his, or even because they belong to political groups and networks that are impenetrable and are trying, in fact, to penetrate and break Al-Sisi’s support.
Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party