Three years of revolutions and turmoil have taken their toll on Egyptians, who are now pinning their hopes on former defense minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is widely expected to handily win the presidential election, scheduled for May 26-27.
Sisi enjoys unprecedented popularity; his picture is everywhere, from huge street posters to T-shirts and gaudy chocolate wrappers. He has been endorsed by the main political parties, and by leading papers.
Egypt wants a strong man, someone to restore stability, deal with the economy and let the country assume anew its traditional role as a regional power.
The country has already gone through socialism, with Gamal Abdel Nasser after the Free Officers coup in 1952; capitalism under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak; and more recently the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood – yet none of these regimes brought democracy or prosperity. Egypt has become poorer and poorer, disillusioned with everything.
But the people have nonetheless kept their faith in the army; they see in Sisi their last hope. Though there is another candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi of the popular Nasserist movement, he has very limited support.
So what kind of president would Sisi be? When former president Mohamed Morsi in 2012 picked Sisi to be the army new chief of staff and defense minister – after getting rid of field marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi – he was head of army intelligence, and one of the spokesmen of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled the country after the fall of Mubarak. He had the reputation of being a devout Muslim, which may have led Morsi to believe he would bring the army under the thumb of the Brotherhood and help it set up an Islamic dictatorship.
Sisi revealed in a televised interview on May 18 that the Brotherhood had offered the army money and prestigious posts in exchange for withdrawing its support for the June 2013 mass demonstrations that resulted in Morsi’s downfall.
Sisi has chosen to use the written press and the media for his campaign, and gives many interviews.
He seems to avoid large electoral rallies, knowing very well that the Brotherhood and other jihadist groups are intent on eliminating him. Should he disappear from the scene at this crucial time, the country would be plunged into chaos.
Though he has no political experience, he is savvy enough not to make empty promises and strives to give ambiguous answers to the questions thrown at him. However, he emphasizes the fact that extraordinary efforts will be needed to extricate Egypt from its catastrophic economic situation. Though there are no miracle solutions, he says, he will do his best to bring in foreign technology and investments to develop the country’s infrastructure and promote modern industries.
Yet it will take time for change to be felt, and the next two years will be difficult; Egyptians will have to make sacrifices and work hard. Sisi insists there is no other way to move ahead. This is a far cry from the bombastic declarations of Morsi, promising to cure most of the country’s ills – from personal security, an unlimited supply of gas and cleaning up Cairo to ushering in prosperity – all within 100 days.
Disillusion set in fast, and was a major contributor to the ouster of the Brotherhood.
Some 85 million people live in Egypt today; another million are born every six months. Due to the high birth rate of past decades, every year some 800,000 youngsters need to find work. Official unemployment is 15 percent, but the real number is far higher – and jobs are scarcer than ever.
Traditional sectors such as energy and tourism have been hit hard. The energy sector has been neglected for years, since the Mubarak era. Egypt has important reserves of natural gas, yet no effort has been made to develop infrastructure needed to enlarge production, and today the country is unable to supply gas for home consumption, let alone export. The two international companies which 10 years ago set up terminals for the export of liquefied natural gas have been unable to honor their contracts in Europe and Asia, due to lack of supply.
They are now negotiating with Nobel Energy, with a view toward purchasing gas from Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan fields. At stake are billions of dollars over a period of 20 to 40 years. The Egyptian government has yet to agree to the deals, and it is not clear if gas imported from Israel would be solely for export, or would reach Egyptian consumers.
Egypt, which is losing billions of dollars because it has not developed its own resources, must also subsidize oil and natural gas supplied to its citizens to the tune of $20b. a year – a major drain on the budget and economy. The new president will have to reduce subsidies by making them available only to the poor, but it will not be easy.
And energy is just one of the many issues he will have to tackle. Stabilizing the security situation is a necessary step to improve the economy. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood and jihadist groups are stepping up their terror operations.
In recent meetings held in Turkey, Qatar and Europe, they launched the so-called 10-point Brussels program, intended to derail the upcoming presidential elections.
Success is unlikely, but these militant groups are also threatening to kill Sisi; moreover, their attacks are hampering efforts to restore stability and deal with the economy. Sisi emphasizes on all occasions that the country’s powerful security forces are doing a great job, and that a special rapid intervention unit has been set up to respond quickly wherever it is needed. The problem is that even a low level of terror can hinder economic progress and deter tourists.
Sisi does not hesitate to express his bitterness toward the US and the EU, which have frozen the delivery of weapons and equipment needed to fight terror. Time and again, he has called upon them to reconsider and help him defeat their common enemy, radical Islam. He is not alone in wondering why US President Barack Obama so stubbornly refuses to budge on that issue.
At the same time, Sisi expresses his thanks to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States – with the exception of Qatar – and compares their help to the famed Marshall Plan, which set Europe on the path to recovery after World War II.
What, if anything, is known about his position on democracy and on Islam? The two are closely linked in a Muslim country.
The second article of the new Egyptian constitution stipulates that Shari’a Law is the main source of legislation.
Sisi has made it clear on several occasions that he believes the current religious discourse in the Muslim world has deprived Islam of its humanity.
Extremism must be discarded, he states, adding that Egyptians do not want to go back to radical Islam after the brief reign of the Brotherhood.
He speaks of the need to educate the coming generations on new developments in science and technology, and would like to see the West welcome thousands of Egyptian students, who would return to their home country upon the completion of their studies to contribute to its renewal. He does not believe the Western type of democracy can be transplanted in Muslim countries, but pledges that human rights and basic liberties will be upheld by law.
So far, he has been remarkably moderate in his references to Israel and the peace treaty.
Here is what he told Reuters on May 15: “Our relationship with Israel and the peace treaty had been stable for more than 30 years, and has faced a lot of challenges – yet it remained stable. We respected it, and we will respect it.
The Israeli people know it...
We need to move on peace [with the Palestinians], which has been frozen for many years. We are ready to play any role that will achieve peace and security in the region.”
Not all applaud Sisi, however.
The former general is accused of planning to set up a new military dictatorship, and for some he is a representative of the old elites of the Mubarak era. Yet for most he is the man of the hour, uniquely qualified to steer Egypt through the harsh reforms necessary for its economic recovery.
But there is still a major hurdle to clear, since the Brotherhood and their jihadist allies will do everything in their power to disrupt the upcoming elections.
This will be the real test of the security forces, and of the man who wants to lead his country towards a better future.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.