Official and political sources acknowledge that two factors key to the remainder of Egypt's second transitional period, following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi 3 July, remain undecided: whether or not army chief and Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will run for president; and whether presidential elections will come ahead of legislative elections (as originally conceived by the political roadmap announced after the ouster of Morsi) or the other way around.
According to the account offered by most official sources, presidential elections would likely be first in view of two factors: a continued state of confusion on the electoral law by which parliament would be elected; and consensus within the quarters of ruling authorities — primarily the army — that parliamentary elections would open the door to more cracks within the already fragmenting political coalition of the "old state and revolutionary forces" that allowed for mass demonstrations 30 June and the ouster of Morsi, who had alienated many centres of traditional power.
This said, according one highly informed source who confers regularly with key ruling figures, the fate of presidential elections depend on the decision of El-Sisi on whether to run or not. This particular source argues that if the powerful head of the army was to run, then the parliamentary elections would happen first, because “El-Sisi would need time to prepare himself for a political move that is bound to stir much unrest on the side of Islamists, and might also prompt some unfavourable reactions from the outside world that would argue that if El-Sisi runs then the ouster of Morsi was a coup, as they were suggesting earlier."
So far, “The chances are that it is a 52-48 per cent decision that El-Sisi would not run," the same source said. He added: “I am not saying he does not want to run, but I am saying he is a man with a calculating mind and his calculations suggest that it is not necessarily in his interest to run — at least not this time around.”
The calculations of El-Sisi, according to several sources, go beyond concern over the reaction of Islamists and that of an apprehensive — if not outright sceptical — world opinion.
El-Sisi, sources say, is also concerned about being criticised by some revolutionary forces who opposed the style of rule of Morsi and supported and participated in the 30 June demonstrations Some of those forces, however, openly opposed the 3 July roadmap for having bypassed the public demand on 30 June for immediate elections, then criticised El-Sisi following the bloody dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins mid-August and subsequent political and security choices on the part of the interim authorities that even some "revolutionary" members of the government have taken exception to.
The files reviewed carefully by the minister of defence on socio-economic stability have been also worrying and are likely to dissuade the army general from running for the top executive post.
“Let us be clear about one thing here; the economy hit rock-bottom under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and some brutal economic reforms will have to be promptly introduced if the country is not to go totally bankrupt. These measures will have to happen, even if Gulf continues to show their generosity for the next five years, and they would,” said a highly informed member of the business community.
He added that the introduction of these necessary measures, “including a reduction of the subsidy on gas and fuel prices and the elimination of other forms of subsidies on food commodities, and even the expansion of taxes,” would inevitably stir social anger.
“The question is whether El-Sisi, who has earned his popularity by taking very high risks that could have cost him his life when he removed Morsi, would want to be the one who sits in the driving seat when these things happen — and they will happen. There are no two ways about it.”
The issue of popularity is a double-edged sword, according to arguments put forward by some members of security bodies that are keen to see El-Sisi run for president. El-Sisi could lose some popularity over economic reforms when president, but he could also lose popularity while waiting for things to unfold in his favour.
“The popularity of El-Sisi is essentially based on his removal of Morsi. People say he is the one who saved the country from a nightmare called the Muslim Brotherhood. The longer time passes, the people would forget about the Muslim Brotherhood, and El-Sisi's popularity would inevitably suffer,” said one well informed source.
According to government sources, including two cabinet members, the volume of "disasters" that the next president would have to put up with go far beyond the internal economic matters — pressing as they may be.
Egypt, they say, has acute national security worries and harsh foreign relations challenges. The file of a mega dam that Ethiopia is constructing at the source of the Nile River is an example of the two.
“Then there are also the deep scars the nation has suffered due to divisions in society since the second round of the 2012 presidential elections. We cannot go on without some sort of national reconciliation; otherwise it would be either a coercive police state or a weak state faced with endless political hiccups. This is the main task of the next president — indeed, the next president, government and parliament,” suggested one cabinet member.
“And I am sure El-Sisi is not blind to this fact,” he added.
Alternatives to El-Sisi
The big question that most foreign diplomatic missions in Cairo are trying to answer is who will run and win if El-Sisi does not run, with the obvious understanding, according to one senior Western diplomat, that whoever ran and won in such a scenario would be doing so with the approval of the general.
“We only know that nothing happens in this country without the approval of the army. That was the experience of the presidential elections of 2012 and of the ouster of Morsi. So to answer the question on who would run and win, you have to see who would the army approve of,” the senior Western diplomat said.
Initially for many, including from within the revolutionary camp and official quarters, the right candidate for the job was seen to be the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, leader of the Popular Current.
Sabbahi, according to several sources, had already made a deal with the army upon the launch of Rebel (Tamarod) campaign, which collected support for the ouster of Morsi, that he would secure public support for the ouster executed by the army and that Mohamed ElBaradei would be in charge of the transition and that Sabbahi would run for president with the support of the National Salvation Front (NSF).
That deal seems to have cracked almost completely, not just because ElBaradei was rejected by many political quarters — Islamist and official — as a possible interim prime minister, but also because the reservations expressed against Sabbahi have been more explicit from within the army post-3 July than before.
A leak from an off-the-record part of an interview that El-Sisi gave in October to a leading independent daily revealed that he hardly has any personal respect for Sabbahi. And statements made this week from leaders of the NSF, who already offered support for the candidature of El-Sisi, leave the leader of the Popular Current standing largely alone.
This said, Sabbahi told a daily talk show on one independent satellite channel that he will run for president — a statement that prompted hardly any support from within the heart of the revolutionary camp that has been angered twice by Sabbahi: once before the 30 June demonstrations when he said that he is willing to work with the remnants of the Hosni Mubarak regime to remove Morsi; and then when he expressed support for a draft constitution decried by revolutionary forces for granting immunity to El-Sisi as minister of defence for eight years and that allows for civilians to still be tried before military courts.
Interim President Adly Mansour is said by many sources, including some who spoke with El-Sisi, to be the favourite choice of the head of the army.
“Yes, there was an attempt to include in the constitution a transitional provision that could have allowed for Mansour to keep his job for another two years upon a referendum, but the idea was eliminated for fear of international concern over political stability in Egypt,” said a source close to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that is headed by El-Sisi.
Mansour himself is said to be of two minds about the matter. “Originally he did not like the idea, but one could say that now he is more open about it than before. But he is also apprehensive about the challenges that come [with the position],” said a presidential source.
Meanwhile, several sources have been in agreement that any other former military figure, including former presidential runner Ahmed Shafiq, former Chief of Staff Sami Anan, and former intelligence head Mourad Mawafi, is out. The clear statement is that if it is not El-Sisi, it is no other military candidate.
The rationale is twofold. A former military man at the head of the executive body means, from the perspective of El-Sisi, that the next president could secure the support of the army, being top brass himself, should he decide to remove the current head of military who is already charged by opponents as being responsible for grave rights violations committed against Islamists since the removal of Morsi.
Then there is the crucial factor that El-Sisi, unlike any other military man and more than any other political candidate, does have genuine popularity that could make him electable in a fair and clean and internationally observed race.
The search continues
According to government and independent political sources, the search continues for a solid civilian alternative to head the executive — one able to secure considerable public support and work in a cohesive troika with the army (which stands more like a ruling partner than a part of the executive), parliament (that would inevitably have some Islamist representation) and the remainder of the executive to help the country skirt around a looming phase of political, social and economic havoc.
During the past few days the name of former presidential runner Amr Moussa has been cautiously proposed by some in private meetings and in some semi-formal gatherings. The credentials of Moussa, an all established statesman and a former presidential runner, have long been lauded by his supporters.
This time, however, they are also recognised by his some of his opponents in the revolutionary camp, who had once discredited him for having served as foreign minister under Mubarak, despite the two's dramatic fallout that started with Mubarak’s jealousy of Moussa’s popularity and ended with the removal of Moussa from the foreign ministry.
Moussa’s credentials are also recognised this time by some of his opponents inside the "old state" who had disliked the man for his personal pride that put him on a collision course with former army chief Hussein Tantawi and prompted the old state, including some leading military figures in today’s political scene, to propose Shafiq and work against Moussa in the 2012 presidential elections.
According to one leading military source, “Maybe we were wrong to have disqualified Moussa and rallied behind Shafiq. Maybe we should have known that Shafiq, with his close ties with Hosni Mubarak, was unelectable and maybe it was not a bad idea to have a president who had state service in his history and who is a civilian and with considerable popularity.”
This said, the leading military source noted that Tantawi and Mubarak — two men with considerable behind-the-scenes influence on the political arena, including via leading Gulf capitals — still have a veto on Moussa.
“Moussa is a man who knows how to make compromises, but he makes compromises to get what he wants, and if he is an elected president he would not necessarily be sufficiently compromising. In this sense someone like Sabbahi would be a better choice, but we cannot have Sabbahi because he is irresponsible. It would be a disaster worse than that of Morsi,” the same source said.
The military source added: “It is a hard matter and we have to make sure that the country is put on the right track, because we cannot take any more setbacks. The country is already very frail. If [El-Sisi] does not run, then we have to be sure that the country would be in relatively safe hands. It is our responsibility by virtue of the constitution.”