What vision for the future will El-Sisi bring?

Dina Ezzat, Monday 7 Apr 2014

Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will officially become a presidential candidate this week, but speculation is already high regarding who will be among his presidential staff and what his policies will be

Egypt's Army Former Chief General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (Photo: Reuters)

The debate has already started on what the electoral platform of presidential hopeful and former chief of the army Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will offer and about who is really writing this platform: the nation’s top political commentator, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, former presidential runner and veteran diplomat Amr Moussa, or El-Sisi’s son-in-law, current Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazi, or maybe all three of them.

One thing is clear: all have already contributed, on one way or another, to the "vision" El-Sisi is currently formulating. Also contributing to the process is Kamal El-Ganzouri , a prime minister both before and after the January 25 Revolution.

Moussa has been particularly close to El-Sisi, often described as "ultimate number two to El-Sisi."

“He is very hands-on; he is informed on all the details and his advice is certainly listened to attentively,” said one source in a team that is offering advice to El-Sisi on his "vision for the future."

A meeting that brought El-Sisi and Moussa — who has repeatedly supported the army chief's candidacy — together on 11 February accentuated speculation over Moussa’s possible placement in the second top job in the hierarchy of the Egyptian state according to the constitution approved in January: the premiership.

Late in March, the speculation was fueled further when Moussa used his Facebook page to provide general guidelines for the presidential platform of El-Sisi, essentially to hush spreading speculation about the army chief having cold feet about running for the presidency at all.

Moussa, a veteran diplomat who ran in the 2012 presidential elections, served as Egypt's foreign minister in the 1990s, as well as secretary-general of the Arab League for 10 years. El-Ganzouri, who had kept a lower profile in the works of El-Sisi’s programme compared to that of Moussa, has held the premiership twice already: once in the 1990s under then-president Hosni Mubarak, and again in 2011 during the transitional period following Mubarak's ouster.

Both men are in their 70s, which makes them older than El-Sisi, who turns 60 soon.

Younger and more liberal names from the business community and Egyptian bureaucracy have also been cited. Particularly prominent in this respect is Moustafa Hegazi, the strategic advisor to Interim President Adly Mansour, whose job, according to some highly informed sources, was secured in the first place upon the recommendation of no other than El-Sisi.

According to a source working closely with El-Sisi's preparations for the presidency, the soon to be head of executive and commander in chief of the army is expected to announce the vice and deputy positions, in addition to a team of aides and advisors, a roster that is likely to include current Interim President Adly Mansour, who may remain in government instead of returning to his former position as head of Egypt's High Constitutional Court.

Speaking to Ahram Online on condition of anonymity, the source said that El-Sisi knows "very well" that he won't be able to rely on just his popularity, dedication and resolve. To "deliver" in a country wracked with political turmoil and economic stagnation, he'll need to assemble an exceptional cabinet and team in order to achieve "success."

But surrounding himself with a "dream team" of advisors is far from the most challenging task for the man expected to win the upcoming presidential elections by a margin greater than 80 percent of half of the eligible voters who are likely to join the voting this spring, according to the assessment of state-run polling bodies.

As an informal advisor to El-Sisi put it, "Everybody knows well that the vast majority of people support him." But he's going to need all that support and more to tackle Egypt's problems.

Shades of grey

El-Sisi’s claim to popularity stems from his appearance on television on 3 July 2013, when he publicly announced the removal of president Mohamed Morsi from office. Last week, Egypt’s top political commentator, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, said that the ouster was conducted in line with the advice of Mohamed ElBaradei, who later became vice president. According to Heikal, El-Sisi himself was in favour of a national referendum on the presidency of Morsi.

At the end of the day, in the eyes of the wider public, the ouster of Morsi was inevitably the fulfillment of the public will, which allowed for the rise of El-Sisi's star.

It was Morsi himself who chose El-Sisi as defence minister in August 2012, shortly after taking office as president. The nomination was grounded in the hope that El-Sisi would be sympathetic to the Brotherhood and possibly even make room for a revamp of Egypt's all-powerful military complex.

The fact that El-Sisi sided not with the Brotherhood but with the millions of Egyptians who turned out to the streets on 30 June 2013 to demand an end to Morsi's rule instantly earned him adulation and praise from wide sections of society.

“He is the man who spared this country from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, which acted like a gang and not a political party," said Adel, a medical doctor in his late 40s. "[The Brotherhood] wanted to [turn] this country into a wider unknown Islamic entity. El-Sisi saved Egypt and my vote goes to him for sure.”

Yet at the same time, El-Sisi's replacing Morsi as president will rekindle debate over the legal and political qualification of the ouster.

Most Western diplomats and commentators say that the demonstrations on 30 June, even if they came at the end of great political turmoil, were still not enough to qualify as a revolution — not in the academic sense anyway. Also, they say, despite backing from state bodies, religious institutions and key figures from the anti-Morsi movement, the fact remains that Morsi was held hostage in an unknown location while the head of the army announced his ouster.

For many Western diplomats the qualification of political developments in Egypt since 30 June 2013 is in a generally grey area, given the mixed influences of both the people and the armed forces leadership.

Meanwhile, a Western ambassador in Cairo told Ahram Online that the problem of legitimacy comes from the flexible nature of the interim government's post-Morsi transitional roadmap. For instance, it was first stated that parliamentary elections would be held before presidential polls. But then, last month, Interim President Mansour announced that presidential elections would be held first.

The decision was "never subject to a referendum, despite demands made to this effect," the ambassador said. Shortly after the announcement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) declared its support for El-Sisi's presidential candidacy.

According to this ambassador, this sequence is not what would be qualified in Western democracies as a straightforward revolution against an otherwise elected president.

The advisor to El-Sisi who spoke with Ahram Online rebuffed such doubts, describing El-Sisi as "the perfect answer" to Egypt's most pressing concerns, someone who is "committed to work with all political forces."

However, the advisor said that he wasn't sure that El-Sisi would be able to reconcile with the Brotherhood, especially considering the group's defiant post-Morsi stance of "chaos and havoc."

In the televised statement he made on Wednesday evening, El-Sisi made no reference to reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood or to the implicit proposals for negotiations that have come from within their quarters.

Actually, on the eve of the much anticipated announcement a court issued a death sentence for over 500 Muslim Brotherhood members, while hours later the prosecutor general referred over 900 members of the utlawed group to criminal court where they, too, could face the death penality.

The Brotherhood's absence from the presidential voting would challenge any claim to an inclusive democracy, at least in the international community, including the African Union that suspended Egypt's membership following Morsi's ouster.

The US State Department had this winter announced that financial aid, currently on hold, would not be released without proof that an "inclusive transition" was taking place.

US diplomats say that Washington has gone the extra mile to accommodate changes in Egypt, but that there are limits as to how far it can go in "bending" the regulations that prohibit US administrations from providing aid to authorities that ascend to power following the ouster of a democratically elected head of state.

Neither the US nor the EU at any moment qualified political developments in Egypt as a "coup" and both have shown willingness to cooperate "should Egypt pursue the path of inclusive democracy and refrain from human rights violations."

US President Barack Obama "has avoided qualifying what happened as a coup,” a diplomat said, but he cannot be expected to turn a blind eye to a presidential race that would likely be uncontested and won by the head of the army, while Brotherhood leaders languish in jail with no clear charges, and human rights "violations" are being committed "almost on a daily basis."

Human rights versus security

Human rights violations have been on the rise in Egypt since the bloody dispersal of two Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo last August, with international human rights organisations blaming security forces for excessive use of force in the absence of an effective and transparent judiciary.

Dozens also died across Egypt on 25 January, in demonstrations to mark the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising. Several European ambassadors that spoke to Ahram Online compared the day to another bloody holiday — last year's 40th anniversary of the 6 October War against Israel — in which 51 people died in clashes between pro-Morsi and pro-military supporters.

“And in-between the two days we have seen a clampdown on activists — seculars who had been opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and not just Islamists,” a diplomat said.

European diplomats say that their capitals have tried hard not to publicly criticise Egypt's “deteriorating human rights conditions,” in light of the fact that the country is “also facing a serious security threat.” However, as one diplomat specified, the death of the April 6 Youth Movement's Sayed Wizza, who died from bullet wounds sustained when security forces dispersed an anti-Sisi protest in Downtown Cairo on 25 January, "cannot really be qualified as part of the so-called ‘war on terror’.”

In the second week of February, the EU Council of Ministers issued a statement calling on the Egyptian government to properly investigate allegations of increasing human rights violations.

The statement came as EU Special Representative for Human Rights Starvos Lambrinids was in Cairo reminding his interlocutors of Egyptian commitments to human rights standards as specified in the newly-amended constitution, and as stipulated in the Neighbourhood Agreement that allows Egypt to benefit from European aid and support.

And this week, less than 48 hours before the announced nomination of El-Sisi, the UN asked Egyptian authorities to reverse the death sentence passed against over 500 Muslim Brotherhood members. The appeal was made as several world capitals were expressing deep concern over the significance of the sentence that was already qualified by Amnesty International, among other rights groups, as “grotesque.”

Insiders from El-Sisi's political team say that "irrespective of the international position" on Egypt's human rights situation, El-Sisi as president will be "categorically opposed" to violations and will work towards their full "eradication."

No explanation has been given, though, as to why El-Sisi never used his position as deputy prime minister for security affairs to keep alleged violations in check, much less acted simply from a moral standpoint.

A government official maintains that El-Sisi's tolerance of the ongoing violations is necessary to maintain a "very firm security policy" that will curb terrorism, an approach that the public supports, "for the most part."

"Once the security situation improves, there will be a different attitude," the official said.

However, in the statement he made to the nation on Wednesday evening, El-Sisi, who had been leading an "anti-terror war" since last July, did not speak of an improved security situation but rather of security challenges and terror threats.

According to one political figure who has been conferring with El-Sisi frequently during the last few weeks, El-Sisi would nonetheless act to improve the quality of human rights practices once elected president, and once he there is a parliament that could effectively transfer human rights and freedoms principles stipulated in the new constitution into operative laws.

“This is [El-Sisi's] mind-set," one of the political figures told Ahram Online. "He wants clear rules and regulations … to be firmly implemented. It is quite compatible with his military background. He does want to [be] a president who observes the constitution and acts to implement its guidelines.”

Angry young men

In addition to assuaging international apprehension over his perceived legitimacy, a precondition for much-needed economic aid, El-Sisi will at the same time have to deal with pressing matters on the home front.

Sources say that El-Sisi worked with top state, political and intellectual figures to draft a presidential platform offering detailed plans for reforming and improving the quality of state services, particularly heath, education and public transport.

A member of the campaign team told Ahram Online that the finalised scheme is a part of El-Sisi's major goal "to deliver to the people and make them satisfied."

"This is the best certificate of accreditation that any president could wish to have: a high approval rate at home," the source said.

He added that after the objectives are realised, which will happen because of support not just from the military but also the business community, which is "sick and tired" of continued economic instability, it will only be a matter of time before the rest of the world comes around and gets behind El-Sisi as well.

Of course, it won't be easy. El-Sisi's associates do not deny that even with enormous backing, and the belief that all of Egypt's problems can be tackled, El-Sisi is still apprehensive about the sheer weight of responsibility the position of president will entail, especially amid a ruined economy that needs support from a sceptical international audience.

The sources say that El-Sisi remains unsure as to how to deal with an increasingly disenfranchised and apprehensive youth population, who showed very small interest in voting in January’s constitutional referendum and have continually remained defiant against the last three years' worth of leaders.

According to a source close to El-Sisi, he has admitted that even if he had the majority of votes on his side, he would still not want to be president if thousands of angry youth were demonstrating against him.

Many of the key figures of youth groups declined invitations to join the head of army or the interim head of state for a candid talk on "political developments," with some — as they told Ahram Online — insisting that they would only join the suggested meetings upon the release of activists held by the police with no compelling evidence against them, or on any charges.

El-Sisi has promised, according to close advisors, to reach out to this key constituency, the source said, but acknowledges that this might be the most daunting of the tasks that he will face as he transitions from army chief to head of state.

The release of January 25 revolutionary figure Alaa Abdel-Fattah from imprisonment over criminal charges a few days ago pending appeal is certainly an attempt to accommodate the youth. But whether it will work or not is one of the many questions that the now presidential runner El-Sisi will have to answer.

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