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Lessons from Egypt’s Cult of Leadership - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A tourist buys a poster of Egypt's army chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also pictured on a shirt, at a vendor in Tahrir square in Cairo February 22, 2014. (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

A tourist buys a poster of Egypt’s army chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also pictured on a shirt, at a vendor in Tahrir square in Cairo February 22, 2014. (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

Egypt’s presidential election, set to be held before the end of April, is fast approaching. The man expected to win is Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Commander-in-Chief of the army, Minister of Defense, and clearly the real power behind the ouster of Mohamed Mursi and the interim government that replaced its Muslim Brotherhood-led counterpart last July. That said, he has yet to announce whether or not he will run.

It seems clear he would win if he did put himself forward. The referendum on the constitution in January was seen by many as a vote of approval for Sisi as much as for the draft constitution itself. You can already purchase almost anything with Sisi’s smiling picture emblazoned on it, and the slogan “El-Sisi Ra’isi” (Sisi is my president) has become ubiquitous.

Two incidents, however, seem to suggest Sisi will stand for election: The endorsement of his potential campaign by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in late January, and his visit to Russia (when he made a rare appearance in civilian clothing for the flight there) to meet President Putin earlier this month. Sisi returned from Russia with an initial agreement on an arms deal and Putin’s public backing for his presidential bid.

But while Russia has come out in support, relations with the US are still strained. And even though the Arab Gulf states have given Egypt massive financial support since Mursi’s ouster and are clearly delighted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s demise, Dubai’s leader, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, told the BBC in an interview in January that Sisi should stay in the army.

Indeed if he swaps head of the army for head of state, Sisi would no longer have the advantage of detachment from the day-to-day problems that continue to press down hard on ordinary Egyptians. As president, Sisi could no longer stand apart as an objective observer or act as a guardian. He would also have to resign from his military roles, creating distance between him and the institution. It has been his role in the military as a stabilizing force for the country that helped create his image as Egypt’s guardian angel.

Certainly, many Egyptians see Sisi as a national savior; the danger lies in his also thinking of himself in this way. Egypt’s social and economic challenges will not be quickly overcome, and the high expectations people have of Sisi could lead to even greater disillusionment than Mursi’s government engendered.

Egypt has a tendency to rely on personalities rather than political agendas. Egyptians realize this but there is a broad fear and lack of faith in Egyptian institutions and in society itself. Voters question whether the country can make progress without a strong (read: autocratic) leader.

Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt’s intelligence services under Mubarak, famously asserted that Egyptians are not ready for democracy. But where does democracy start? Some argue that Egypt needs to move away from the cult of leadership first if democracy is ever to take hold. Meanwhile those who support a Sisi presidency believe he is the only figure who can keep Egypt’s transition together.

Indeed, another factor that seems to be pushing for a Sisi presidency is that there is no alternative who inspires confidence among the Egyptian public. Who else has the strength and support to get Egypt through this transitional phase? Two other candidates for the presidency have come forward, Hamdeen Sabahy the neo-Nasserist former presidential candidate and leader of Al-Tayar Al-Sha’aby party, and Sami Anan, who was a leading figure in the SCAF and head of the Armed Forces until 2012.

Sabahy has already released a 166-page manifesto based on three “pillars”: freedom enshrined by the democratic system, social justice achieved by complete development, and dignity preserved by national independence. But although he did unexpectedly well in the 2012 presidential election, coming third, neither Sabahy nor Anan would be considered serious contenders if they were to come up against Sisi.

Islamist figures have clearly been burned by the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood and seem unlikely to contest the election. Previous presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh has refused to run, and there are suggestions that the Salafist Nour Party will neither field nor support a presidential candidate during the next ten years.

There is a possibility that Islamist support could swing behind Sabahy in an effort, if not to defeat Sisi, then at least to reduce the margin of his win, undermine his claim to broad support, and to restore some of the Islamists’ lost political influence.

It could well be this that finally draws Sisi into the race. Without another serious contender Sabahy could take the presidency, and if he accepts Islamist support in the election—even behind closed doors—it could begin to reverse Sisi’s campaign to remove Islamism from Egypt’s political scene.

Thus article was originally published in The Majalla

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Elizabeth Monier

Elizabeth Monier

Dr Elizabeth Iskander Monier is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick where her work focuses broadly on democracy, human security and citizenship in the Middle East. She specializes in Egyptian affairs, sectarian conflict and identity politics. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has held fellowships at LSE and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

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