At the time of writing, it appears almost certain that Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will become the next president of Egypt. Ever since he shot to prominence, he has been subjected to study and scrutiny by a multitude of observers and analysts, all eager to put their finger on him. One camp believes he will be the last of the pharaohs to rule Egypt; another contends his presidency will be the first in a long line of those leading Egypt’s “Third Republic”—expected to be democratic this time. The First Republic was ushered in by the 1952 Revolution that overthrew the Muhammad Ali dynasty. It was ruled by presidents Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The Second Republic was inaugurated with the electoral victory of Mohamed Mursi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, who was sworn into office on July 3, 2012. This Third Republic remains in its formative phase, now that presidential elections are set to be held within the next few months.
Although other figures have been touted as possible presidential candidates— former army chief-of-staff Lieut. Gen. Sami Anan, Popular Current leader Hamdeen Sabahy, Strong Egypt Party leader Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, and others like former presidential candidate Khaled Ali—Sisi outshines them all. In terms of popularity, he is miles ahead of the pack. So who is this man now likely to lead the largest and most populous Arab country? From what little we know about him, what can we predict regarding his presidency and its impact on the Egyptian people?
Four images of the man have surfaced during a short period spanning only a year. The first followed his appointment as minister of defense after a decree issued on August 12, 2012 by Mursi, who had not served as a president for the Egyptian people but rather for those he fondly referred to as his “family and tribe”: the Muslim Brotherhood and the extreme fundamentalist groups it gave rise to. At the time, it was known that Sisi and his family were very religious and, among liberals and revolutionaries in particular, this triggered suspicions that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the army.
The second image was that of the professional soldier, an image that gradually coalesced as Sisi, in his capacity as defense minister, worked hard to revive the armed forces after they were embroiled for the previous two years on the streets and squares of post-January 25 Egypt. The Field Marshal’s personal record of service helped sustain this image. The epitome of an Egyptian military career officer, Sisi rose through the ranks from Brigade Commander, to infantry division chief of staff, to chief of staff of a military zone, to deputy director of military intelligence. With the latter position he became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed power in Egypt following the overthrow of Mubarak. Sisi’s military education, both in Egypt and abroad—in the US and the UK—gave him a thorough grounding in military command.
A year later, and the dreams and nostalgia of Egypt’s Nasserists began to give rise to the third image. The then-General seemed endowed with a charisma that gave him an aura similar to Nasser’s. A recent litany of Sisi songs and chocolates are a phenomenon unseen since Nasser’s days, and Sisi’s speeches, with their Egyptian patriotic tenor and Arab nationalist flavor, certainly also fit the bill, at least according to the Nasserists.
The fourth image differs markedly from the above three. It requires that we give some closer attention to statements made by Sisi, and perhaps also that meeting one morning in April last year, when he hosted a large group of Egyptian writers, intellectuals, artists and civil society leaders at a military base. It had by then become crystal clear that the Muslim Brotherhood was bent on transforming Egypt into a version of the Iranian theocracy in all but name, using violence and a stealthy consolidation of Muslim Brotherhood control over all state institutions to achieve that goal. At that time, many appealed to Sisi, now head of the armed forces, to step in to rescue Egypt from this fate, reminding him this was his “national duty.” It was a desperate cry for help in the face of a monster tightening its grip on the country. The general’s reaction merits contemplation. He said the armed forces was simply performing its duties and would of course continue to do so. But also at the time, we began to hear statements and comments that were unusual and new to Egypt’s political arena: Sisi began to say that if he were to become president he would not allow Egyptians to sleep at night, for they would have to work continuously to live up to Egypt’s expectations. If Egypt truly was the “mother of the world,” he said, then the country would have to meet the standards of the world its people claim it gave birth to. He did not promise miracles, but instead he spoke of the work that must be done, and of sweat and toil and selflessness. While this fourth image of a “politician” establishing himself by forging a new paradigm is still vague, its initial contours compel us to contemplate what a Sisi presidency might be like.
The coming weeks and months will allow us to read Sisi from beginning to end as though we were reading a book from cover to cover. It may well be that the first chapter of this book will debunk images of the man that are inaccurate or no longer relevant. However, he will also be required to de-emphasize the image of the “professional soldier,” bringing that of the “politician” to the fore. After all, a president’s legitimacy following an electoral victory is grounded in his being a civilian president of a civil state.
If comparisons with George Washington, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower are correct, we must remember that those leaders derived their legitimacy not from their military backgrounds, but from the institution of government. As for the comparisons with Nasser, these may well be the most dangerous for Sisi. Not just because of the irresistible pull this image has among certain political groups, parties and “revolutionaries,” but also because it belongs to a different era, one long gone, that has left only painful memories behind. “The Third Republic” may well be a mere slogan, but it carries a power that cannot be denied. The waters of the Nile have long passed under Egypt’s bridges, perhaps that land now awaits yet another era in its long history.