A question mark was raised this week over whether military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will run in the upcoming presidential elections.
An official announcement on his candidacy has been expected to be imminent for weeks, with elections slated for late spring.
This week, a presidential decree reconstituted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), making the defence minister the head of the body, rather than the president.
By the account of veteran military affairs experts, this is a first. SCAF has been traditionally headed by the head of state, the president.
SCAF is seen by experts as the most important body within the executive.
So why deny the head of the state the established right to head it, especially if the next head of the executive is expected to be no other the current chair of the army?
The 2014 constitution left the details of SCAF’s formulation up to the law, and a new law is expected to be issued soon.
El-Sisi has been said to be apprehensive to move from the ministry of defence to the presidential palace for fear of being removed by SCAF should his current popularity fade in the light of growing economic problems.
“If El-Sisi was actually going to run as we have been told privately and publicly he would not want to see anyone other than himself at the head of SCAF – not even Sobhi Sedki, the speculated next minister of defence,” said one political source who had been detecting what he qualifies as “a permanent streak of hesitation on the side of the man [El-Sisi] regarding this presidency matter.”
“I would be really surprised if he decided to run now; this law effectively separates the army from the executive almost fully, along line with the relevant constitutional references.”
Adopted despite considerable criticism over the independence it grants the coutnry’s military, the 2014 constitution kept in place the guarantees of the 2012 constitution that it replaced with regard to military privileges.
The 2014 text prohibits the discussion of the army budget beyond the confines of the national security council, and allows military courts to try civilians charged with offences against military targets – although the formulation of the section on military trials was changed slightly to make it less harsh than in the previous charter.
Moreover, the new text granted SCAF the right to be a partner with the president in selecting the minister of defence.
Now, if the president is stripped of the traditionally established right to head SCAF, sources acknowledge, the army will effectively be independent from the powers of the president.
“This is designed to protect the army from the dangers of a future president who might be like Morsi -- this is not designed for this coming president,” said a high-level source who spoke to Ahram Online after the reformulation of SCAF was announced.
“I would be really surprised if El-Sisi decided not to run now that his electoral programme and his electoral team is all but done.”
SCAF and the cabinet
Four days after he was appointed, new Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb has still not said who he will appoint to the position of defence minister, currently held by El-Sisi.
According to earlier accounts by informed, including military sources, El-Sisi was going to resign his post and become a civilian, to enrol in the voters lists and thus be ready to run for president as soon as the presidential elections law is passed by the president – slated for this week.
After the decree about SCAF’s formation – which was signed by Mansour two days before being made public – the same sources, including one member of SCAF, said that El-Sisi is set to keep his job as minister of defence and senior deputy prime minister with the Mehleb government “for a few more weeks, until the presidential elections law is issued and he is set to join the civilian list of voters.”
“The man has still a few things to do before he departs from the army to make sure that he is set to rule effectively and without too many problems.”
One of the key things that El-Sisi has been doing with the army – as with the ministry of interior and intelligence – is to “put the right people in the right place” and to send those who “are not fit to the next phase” to an early retirement.
Accounts vary significantly but they all suggest that scores of military, police and intelligence men have been offered “generous retirement packages” during the past few weeks.
Moreover, according to the new SCAF formation presidential law, the members of SCAF have been expanded beyond the current number -- even if so insignificantly to allow for the inclusion of some that ElSisi is said to think of as “loyal” and “efficient.”
Gulf decision-makers mull options
Paving the way towards his nomination, El-Sisi is also eyeing several foreign issues. The first has to do with the close ties with the two Gulf countries that have been generously offering support for Egypt during and beyond the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood rule: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE has been indicating that it prefers El-Sisi to stay as head of the armed forces, rather than to run for office.
Saudi Arabia seems to have been in two minds -- partially supporting El-Sisi and partially wanting to accommodate a US request to convince El-Sisi that his nomination would only exacerbate the agitation of the toppled Islamists who consider him their number one enemy.
Some parties in the UAE have expressed support for a presidential run by Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the runner-up in the 2012 presidential election which was won by Morsi.
In Saudi, however, there are some who have been offering support for the nomination of Mubarak’s former chief of staff who was removed by Morsi, Sami Anan.
Recently, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh -- some suggest also Kuwait – have been sending clear messages to El-Sisi that his country and the Arab world at large need him exactly where he is and that he can choose some politician to run instead, to grant him the support of the army and the state.
El-Sisi is said to be busy with intensive consultations with these two capitals over the matter. According to one source, “he will not run before fixing things with them” and according to another “he will not run if he does not agree with them because without their financial support at least at the first year, it will be very difficult to attend to the many internal problems that result from the bad economic management of the country since Mubarak was ousted -- not to mention those before the 25 January Revolution.”
Early in February, SCAF made an unusual televised statement where it stated that it would leave it to the “national conscience” of El-Sisi to decide whether he should “bow to the public demand which is the highest in order” for him to run for president.
The statement, according to several sources, was supposed to be followed “shortly” by a statement from El-Sisi announcing his candidacy.
However, the statement prompted considerable criticism as it seemed to present El-Sisi as the candidate of the military.
The delay in the expected announcement leaves room for wide speculation about whether the military leader, coasting on a wave of popularity based on his strongman image and his role in Morsi’s ouster, will in fact stand for the highest office.
Some, including those who are working on the political programme that he plans to offer to the nation along with his candidacy, insist vehemently that it is far too late in the day for him to back out.
Some -- a small minority -- argue however that El-Sisi may not run, and may instead choose to remain in place of head of the armed forces and minister of defence. These positions are now protected from executive interference by the constitution and by the recent decree.