By Hussein Ibish, Now.
Political power, rule, governance, and high office are often considered synonymous. But looks can be deceiving.
No one really doubts that the true power behind the throne in Egypt’s interim government is the newly-promoted Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who has been Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces and Minister of Defence since August 2012. When he led the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, Al-Sisi – although he remained only Defence Minister in deference to the Interim President Adly Mansour – certainly became the most powerful man in the country.
With new presidential elections scheduled for mid-April, the stage is now set for Al-Sisi to make the most crucial decision of his career: run or not. From his vantage point, there are powerful arguments in favor of, and against, both decisions.
The most important reason for him to run is that he would almost certainly win. The emerging field is narrow, with only the neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahy among major Egyptian politicians to have declared his candidacy. By contrast, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, the former Muslim Brother and reputedly now “moderate” Islamist, has refused to run, calling the new Egyptian state – in a not particularly original or apt phrase – a “republic of fear”. And the Salafist Al-Nour Party has said it will neither field nor support a presidential candidate for the next 10 years.
Many other potential rivals, including former Foreign Minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, have urged Al-Sisi to run as a “national saviour”. So has much of the media. The Supreme Council of the armed forces in late January virtually begged Al-Sisi to run for office, as have most of his colleagues in the interim government. So, as things stand, Sabahy seems to be the only real alternative to a potential Al-Sisi candidacy, and not a particularly threatening one at that.
What’s more, a fledgling cult of personality has developed around Al-Sisi that virtually ensures that if he runs, he will be elected regardless of whoever stands against him. Peddling items emblazoned with his image, no matter how crude, has become a quick and easy way to make a pound or two on the streets of Egypt’s major cities.
The adoration appears to be both spontaneous – a genuine outpouring of affection for the man who rid the country of the now-detested Muslim Brotherhood and who is seen as the embodiment of the military which guarantees order and security – and also coordinated. There is a degree of unanimity in the legally-operating popular media and culture that suggests a certain investment in this image. The campaign has stooped to the level of children’s cartoons, and sweets and candies bearing his picture in miniature.
Hero worship, let alone nascent cults of personality, must be a very seductive temptress. Rumoured transcripts and leaked reports only exacerbate fears that Al-Sisi may harbour fantasies of being a national saviour – as he is already perceived by millions, at least for now – and the confluence of popular adoration, political pressure from his exceptionally wide support base, and, perhaps, his own proclivities may make the lure of office irresistible to him.
But the most important reason for him not to run is precisely the same: that he would almost certainly win. There can be no question of how tempting this must be. But neither Al-Sisi nor any of his real allies should fail to recognise the serious dangers involved if he, in effect, leaves his position as head of the military and takes up that of head of state.
The honeymoon for the post-Morsi interim government has been remarkably sustained. It’s been based mainly on generalised popular relief of being rid of a detested Muslim Brotherhood government and a continued sense that the Brotherhood and its allies pose a threat to the Egyptian state. The crackdown on the Brotherhood, its designation as a “terrorist organisation”, and the recent announcement by the government that the Brotherhood has formed a “paramilitary wing”, have all met with general approval by most of the public, as far as anyone can tell.
However, honeymoons cannot last forever. The Egyptian people have been very clear that what they ultimately want is jobs, dignity, and a responsive, accountable government. This is exactly what they didn’t get from the Brotherhood, and if they don’t get it from another government, eventually they will turn on that one as well.
For Al-Sisi to give up his post as head of the military for that of head of state is risky on two counts.
First, it makes both him and, by inevitable and unavoidable extension, the military, responsible, as long as he is in office, for Egypt’s primary national challenges – not just security issues but much more intractable economic and social ones. It is unlikely that any government, no matter how much support and largesse it receives from Gulf states and others, can quickly secure a brighter economic future for a country with the huge population and economic woes of Egypt. Therefore, a backlash against both him and the military as an institution is a plausible medium-term risk, if not an outright likelihood, unless some kind of economic miracle takes place in Egypt.
Second, to become president would probably make it much more difficult for Al-Sisi to retain the control over the military that he has as defence minister and commander-in-chief. Under the new constitution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gets to appoint the defence minister for at least the next decade. So could, as president, Al-Sisi effectively have himself appointed defence minister, and would this be legally upheld? And even if he could, his role as head of state and government in general would inevitably draw him away from the military’s operations on a day-to-day basis. Someone else, either in title or in reality, would become the de facto military chief.
So the real question is: which institution ultimately has more value in terms of power, control, and authority? The enormous apparatus of Egypt’s gigantic bureaucracy and government, or the military with its specialised role, relative autonomy within its sphere of influence, secret budget, and vast but uninventoried and unaudited economic holdings? Might Al-Sisi, by leaving the leadership of the military to take up the main seat of government, be trading a much more secure diadem of real power and authority for a hollow crown of responsibility for irresolvable problems such as Egypt’s profound economic woes?
Of course, Egypt is unique, as is Al-Sisi’s immediate conundrum. But it might be worth recalling a situation with some vague similarities, long ago and far away: the experience of Juan Perón. There isn’t an iota of Peronismo in either Al-Sisi’s personality or political rhetoric, and the differences between the two are vast. But both men arose from the military at a time of profound economic and political crisis and turmoil in their countries. Neither had a coherent ideology, but each was able to attract huge and incongruous coalitions around their individual personae and iconic imagery.
Perón never had the total control of Argentina’s military that Al-Sisi seems to command now in Egypt. And Al-Sisi lacks Perón’s personal charisma (although, after having been bellowed at by Morsi and his allies for so long, many Egyptians may be profoundly drawn to Al-Sisi’s quiet dignity and low-key style).
For all of the differences of time, place, personality, and political style, both men seemed to emerge from the military as wildly popular political leaders through authoritarian populism, hero worship, and nationalist fervour. Both were essentially blank screens onto which huge ranges of popular forces could project their own fantasies. That can’t last when combined with direct political responsibility.
By becoming president, Perón lost two key things over time: the ability to balance his unwieldy coalition of ideologically incompatible supporters, and his control of Argentina’s military.
One can imagine a similar process happening over time to Al-Sisi, should he be elected president. He, too, presides over a crazy quilt of political factions that are currently backing him, but which will, sooner or later, undoubtedly turn on each other. And, unless Al-Sisi tries to preside over both the military and the government simultaneously as a kind of all-powerful caudillo – a phenomenon common in Latin America and the Arab world, but now highly unpopular in both – the great likelihood is that the armed forces will eventually drift away from him. Perón, after all, was eventually overthrown by a military coup.
The analogy is undoubtedly badly flawed, and the differences between the two are clearly greater than the similarities. Yet there may be a real echo with some significant lessons.
Al-Sisi and his allies might look at the examples of how the Arab monarchies have dealt with growing public demands on their governments. Some Arab royals have so far successfully managed to rise “above the fray”, blaming popular grievances on the failings of executive authorities with direct responsibility, and frequently replacing a rotating group of cabinet ministers to demonstrate their responsiveness to public discontent.
The Egyptian military could potentially play a similar role: maintaining power and authority over its widely accepted sphere of influence, while avoiding the burden and dangers of direct political responsibility for the entire apparatus of governance. And, ideally, it could use this position to not only underscore social and political stability, but also to press for evolutionary change in Egypt over time, while leaving the details of daily governance to others.
A wise advisor might, at this crucial stage, be whispering in the Field Marshal’s ear that perhaps the burden of the highest office in the land ought be better left to someone like Mansour, his Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, or any number of other plausible civilians, while it is in the best interests of both Al-Sisi personally and the military as a whole – for which he has become an icon and a synecdoche – and its current enviable position in Egyptian society, that he be content to remain defence minister and commander in chief.
But such wisdom in Egypt, and much of the rest of the Arab world these days, is often in disturbingly short supply.
Hussein Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
This article was originally published on Now.