Despite personal convictions about holding presidential elections first, the nomination of two military candidates, defence minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and former Chief of Staff Sami Anan, has become a foregone conclusion. (At least at the time of writing.)
While some candidates may already have garnered sweeping public support, emotional and passionate slogans are no longer believable since the obstacles awaiting the next president are complex. It would seem that this has become more apparent to Egypt’s neighboring Gulf countries than it has within Egypt itself.
The clearest international signs of support for the possible presidential nomination of El-Sisi, recently promoted to the highest military rank of field marshal, have come from Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s stance is significant as one of the first and biggest supporters of Egypt's current interim government. It would appear, however, that Saudi Arabia has started to harbour concerns related to El-Sisi’s ability to succeed when faced with unreasonable expectations from his supporters in Egypt. The sweeping enthusiasm supporting the new president will not last long. It is very likely that from the very first obstacle that El-Sisi faces, the Brotherhood will lead a new wave of protests, attempting to disrupt any political stability. Additionally, revolutionary movements will also likely join these protests, if a candidate with a military background does in fact win the elections.
Hampering progress has become an easy and repetitive game in Egypt. El-Sisi’s opponents will not find it difficult to use this against him, attempting to humiliate him from day one, as others did to Morsi in the early days of his presidency.
Perhaps this is what has driven the Gulf states to reexamine their support for El-Sisi’s candidacy. The Gulf has remained heavily invested in Egypt’s future and is thus fully aware that if El-Sisi’s presidency is unsuccessful, the image of the military will be shaken, which will negatively impact the Gulf regimes.
Certain voices in influential circles in the Gulf prefer that El-Sisi remains in charge of security issues, both domestic and foreign, and all that comes with that mandate, rather than taking on other complicated issues such as the economy, institutional reform and more.
The majority of Egyptian media outlets which laud El-Sisi’s possible candidacy do so entirely within a security framework. The truth is that this specific requirement, a secure and stable Egypt, represents the desire of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians – but the question that begs asking is what can El-Sisi add to this issue as president? Practically speaking, he is already the most powerful man in Egypt and all security issues are his responsibility – as they were prior to the 3 July ouster of Morsi.
UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Mohamed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum clearly expressed this sentiment when he indicated his hope that El-Sisi would maintain his role as head of the Egyptian military and steer clear of the presidency. Prominent Saudi writer Abdul-Rahman Al-Rashed, who is close to the kingdom's decision-making circles, elaborated further, saying that El-Sisi is the guardian of the constitution and patron of the regime, but that in deciding to run as a candidate, his attention will shift from protecting the presidency to the presidency itself. This will place him at the heart of all the problems that are expected to unfold in the coming four years. The Brotherhood is not the only group that will stand against the next president. Other opposition groups, with different economic and social demands that result from Egypt’s precarious situation, are bound to join in. They will take to the streets, seeking the fulfillment of their demands.
El-Sisi has allowed people to raise his picture alongside Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s and has stood by as Nasserist writers painted flattering yet exaggerated depictions of him and his abilities, comparing him to Nasser in all facets, even in a recent shift in Egypt’s relations with Russia, in response to the Obama administration’s policies. El-Sisi – the intelligence man – has benefited from this, all the more so by not taking a clear public stance either in approval or disapproval of the behaviour. As a result, El-Sisi’s rise is warily viewed in western circles as a return of a Nasserist or socialist era in Egypt. To me, this assessment does not ring true.
Despite my reservations on leaked conversations – whether they come from phone calls or private meetings, I'm opposed to them for religious and ethical reasons – in order to understand the full picture I am compelled to rely on leaks from El-Sisi's meeting with Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Yasser Rizk and prior clips from a meeting with army leaders last December. These leaks reveal certain features of El-Sisi the politician, in contrast with the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding his public persona. None of these revelations point in the direction of a new Nasserist project, as much as they hint more at a project closer to Sadat’s economic and international policies implemented in Egypt.
Nader Bakkar is the chairman’s assistant for media affairs of the Salafist Nour Party. This article was published in EgyptSource on 5 February.