It is a week since former military chief of staff Sami Anan announced his intention to stand in the presidential election. The news should have qualified as a bombshell: Anan, who until 2012 was the second most senior military figure in Egypt, has a 45-year history of military service, including 16 years in the upper echelons of the Air Force and seven years as army chief of staff. As such he would be a serious rival against President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who has yet to officially announce he will be a candidate in the March poll.
But the ripples caused by the surprise announcement were quickly subdued. The 70-year-old retired field marshal didn’t break the news himself but instead chose to make the announcement through his little-known party Masr Al-Orouba (Arabism Egypt), formed less than three years ago. While acknowledging the elephant in the room mainstream and pro-government media responded nonchalantly, cautiously glossing the news.
Anan’s and the media’s silence opened the space for widespread speculation over his intentions. Is Anan seriously standing in opposition to Al-Sisi or is his candidacy an attempt to window dress an election the outcome of which is all but known? And more importantly, will he really proceed with his quest?
The announcement Anan intended to stand came after Ahmed Shafik, another former general, withdrew his own putative bid. Shafik, a former commander of the Air Force who served briefly as prime minister during the 2011 uprising and who lost to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 presidential election is believed to enjoy considerable political clout. He first announced his presidential bid from self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates before being deported to Egypt where he eventually reversed his decision amid rumours — which he vehemently denies — that he was pressured into backtracking.
Had he pursued his bid for president, Shafik would have created an unwelcome precedent in which two former gererals were opposing each other publicly.
This is not the first time Anan has eyed the presidency. In 2014 he briefly expressed interest in standing in the presidential elections. But it was Al-Sisi who took credit for Morsi’s ouster, and after coming under intense media attack — one TV anchor threatened on air to physically attack him —Anan reversed his decision.
“Things have changed since 2014,” says Sami Balah, secretary-general of Masr Al-Orouba. “He changed his mind back then because it was important to have a united front, no divisions.”
El-Sisi overwhelmenigly won the 2014 elections with 96.9 percent of the vote.
For now Masr Al-Orouba is racing against time to collect the 25,000 legal endorsements — a minimum of 1,000 each from 15 governorates — required by the constitution to qualify as a candidate. Alternatively, Anan could seek 20 endorsements from MPs but with over 516 already having declared their backing for Al-Sisi the mathematics look bleak.
According to Balah, collecting the 25,000 signatures required is proving difficult. Some public notaries are refusing to certify legal endorsements for Anan —“this happened to me personally in Damietta,” says Balah — on the grounds Anan’s name is not listed as a potential candidate.
“We call on the High Elections Committee to address this matter and to remove all hurdles placed before candidates who should be receiving equal treatment by public notaries,” says Balah, adding that the party will file complaints.
According to Balah, once Anan has collected the required number of endorsements he will hold an international press conference.
“A man with his long career in the military will not make a public appearance before that. What if he doesn’t collect the endorsements?” asks Balah, before conceding “there is the view that if he makes the announcement himself now it could speed up the process.”
The deadline for candidates to present endorsements is 29 January.
Since it was formed in 2015 Masr Al-Orouba has been largely dormant, though its secretary-general insists it has been busy building cadres in branches across the nation. “Political activism is a struggle these days for everyone, not just for our small party,” says Balah, a lawyer and one time member of the Wafd Party.
Although other possible candidates have complained of harassment and obstacles placed in their way by public notaries, especially in the provinces, observers say this might not be the full story as far as Anan is concerned. The possible candidate’s silence over the past week certainly appears to invite scepticism over the seriousness of his bid.
“Anan has a constituency within the 30 June public [those who rallied for military intervention to remove Morsi] and is an important figure in the elections even if he doesn’t continue in the race. We really don’t know much about what is going on,” says political analyst Amr El-Chobaki.
Balah says Anan isn’t facing any pressure and “would have told me if that was the case”.
Like the vast majority of senior military figures Anan kept a low profile throughout his career. He made news for the first time by cutting short a visit to the United States and flying back to Cairo when the 25 January 2011 uprising broke out.
By February, following 18 days of nationwide protests, Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) emerged as Egypt’s de facto ruler, with defence minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his deputy, Anan, at the helm.
Less than two months after his election in June 2013 Morsi retired both Tantawi and Anan. While Tantawi has remained firmly out of the public eye, occasional statements criticising Al-Sisi over national security have been attributed to Anan though none have been concerned.
Regardless of the future of his bid Anan’s public interest in the presidency is symptomatic of the changes that have affected the military since it took centre stage in political life following the 2011 uprising.
El-Chobaki notes that while SCAF’s time in power from February 2011 to June 2012 was “not a choice” given the constitutional void caused by Mubarak’s departure, by 2013 the military’s disappointment at the turbulence of Morsi’s first year in power saw them opt to intervene.
That two former military generals like Shafik and now Anan see themselves as qualified presidential candidates is part and parcel of this new culture, says El-Chobaki.
The military-political overlap, however, remains highly sensitive. In December 2017 Ahmed Konsowa, a previously unknown colonel, announced his intention to stand in the presidential elections while wearing his military uniform. He was sentenced to six years in prison for violating military regulations banning active duty officers from engaging in politics.
Comparisons might not be in Anan’s favour, says El-Chobaki, for while Al-Sisi is viewed as the military figure who saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, Anan as SCAF leader is accused of assisting their rise to power.
Balah believes the former general will appeal to many. “He’s a very decent man who believes in democracy and freedom.”
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper