Egypt's next president

Now that campaigning for Egypt’s presidential election is well underway and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi has made several media appearances, some observations can be made about the man who is expected to be Egypt’s next president. 

The former military commander is running a very controlled campaign, one in which he does not open himself up to any impertinent back-and-forth. In his media coming-out a few weeks back, he immediately bristled when would-be interviewers Ibrahim Eissa and Lamees Hadidi even gently pushed him, warning Eissa “I won’t allow you to use that word again,” about the apparently derogatory terms “askar” for the army, and admonishing them: “Are you going to talk or you going to listen?” The interview was pre-recorded, and glaringly failed to include what might have seemed like obvious questions (such as, given El-Sisi now oft-professed love of Egyptian women, how he defended forced virginity tests for female protesters two years ago). 

The field marshals’ electoral program remains shrouded in mystery. In an unorthodox move, his campaign has simply decided not to burden themselves with explaining how his vision might actually be implemented. His own campaign manager has told the press that presenting a program at this point “would provoke a discussion and debate that we don’t have the time to react to.”  His few policy proposals (giving young men refrigerated trucks to deliver vegetables to market; encouraging the use of LED lightbulbs to face the electricity shortage) seem risibly modest, and when pressed on how he would actually implement them, the mushir simply says that the state will “make” people adopt them. 

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Bassem Youssef on Sisi's austerity program

Our friends at Industry Arabic (where you can get all your translation needs met) have translated a recent reaction by satirist Bassem Youssef (who was taken off the air recently in case he might "influence" the presidential vote) to presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El Sisi's seeming austerity program for the Egyptian people. 

How am I Supposed to Provide for You?

By Bassem Youssef

No sooner did I finish watching Field Marshal al-Sisi's speech to young people than I jumped out of my chair with a determination to go to the nearest gathering of doctors and dissuade them from their partial strike. Al-Sisi has managed to completely change my ideas about Egypt and its ungrateful people who just want to take and not give anything to their dear mother, Egypt.

Al-Sisi tells us in a voice replete with tenderness and affection that only a traitor or foreign agent would quibble with: "You have to give more than you take." He said that this is what he told his officers to encourage them in discharging their duties towards the people. Then he cited the lovely example of poor parents whose son graduates from university and goes on to pay them back. Al-Sisi wished that such behavior would become common.

In fact, I could use this lovely example to convince the ungrateful doctors who just ask, "What will I get from Egypt?" while not one of them stops to consider, "What will I give to Egypt?"

The ungrateful doctor studied and crammed, then went to spend his residency in remote areas, then was appointed as a physician in the Ministry of Health, spending long hours in the hospital. He is forced to chase after dispensaries and decrepit hospitals just to get enough to pay his telephone bill. The state bestows upon him an exorbitant salary, as you know. So to hell with those doctors who dare to ask for anything from Egypt.

 

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Egypt in TV

Another entry in our contributor Nour Youssef's avidly followed Egypt in TV column. 

"El Sisi just doesn’t want to disclose any information about his plans. He is not stupid. He is smarter than you and your father," the red-faced, middle-aged woman seated next to me in a restaurant told her son, who coolly alternated between sipping Pepsi and asking if she was done talking, provoking her to throw dripping straws in his face.

What caused the fight across the table was a discussion of the nearly four-hours-long interview Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave Lamis el-Hadidi and Ibrahim Eissa on CBC last week, where he repeatedly expressed love, admiration, respect and all things synonymous for the straw-thrower’s demographic.

"(I don’t want) anyone to get me wrong, but I love the Egyptian woman," he told Ibrahim Eissa, who wanted to know why the Marshal’s metaphors are always related to or directed at women. This followed el-Sisi’s request for caution from the public while choosing their representatives in parliament and the president -- the same caution an Egyptian mother exercises when checking the backgrounds of her daughter's suitors.

To be fair, el-Sisi’s flattery was not limited to women. The rest of the population is also exceptionally smart and more patient than any other nation.

When not complimenting the population, el-Sisi ducked numerous questions -- literally. Questions about the nature of his policy towards Hamas and Qatar were met with a lowered head and a close-lipped smile. And when he depended on words to answer questions, the Marshal made certain that they were so vague that I had to re-watch segments of the interview multiple times to make sure I was not missing some vital transitions that would put things in order and reassure voters about our future president's attention span.

When they asked about the weapons deal with Russia and whether or not the next parliament will monitor the military and its budget, el-Sisi dispensed words about "leaving the army alone." After a long pause, he said: "The army is a very great institution, to an extent that Egyptians can't imagine. God willing all of Egypt could be at that level." The two journalists sitting across from him smilingly accepted his answer without further questions.

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Sisi vs. Sabbahi

Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi recently requested the chance to debate former defense minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi (whose propagandists have done quite a bit of Nasser-invoking themselves recently), prompting treasured local wit Sarah Carr to ask: "So will there be a public debate between Sisi and Sabahy. Will it just revolve around who loves Nasser harder?"

This sent contributor Paul Mutter down an imaginary wormhole from which -- courtesy this classic SNL sketch -- the following emerged: 

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

"I have a fever and only (more) Nasser can cure it."

In Translation: Nader Fergany on Sisinomics

Last week, the stodgy flagship of Egypt's state press, al-Ahram, published an op-ed by one of its regular contributors, Nader Fergany – a leftist intellectual who runs al-Mishkat Center, a think-tank, and is best known internationally as the editor of the original Arab Human Development Report. The op-ed contained a type of critique of then Minister of Defense Abdelfattah al-Sisi (this was a few days before he stepped and down and announced he would run for president) rarely seen in any part of the Egyptian media (at least those newspapers legally printing), never mind al-Ahram. It triggered speculation as to what it meant: how would the editors of al-Ahram allow this? Is it a feint of openness to distract from the fact that the presidential election is essentially being rigged – that we are returning to the late Mubarak-era model of opposition existing through the pen but never given a chance at the ballot box? Or a sign of genuine splits inside the establishment?

Our friends at Industry Arabic translated Fergany's piece below. Please give them consideration if you have any type of translation project, it helps them keep on helping us with this In Translation series. 

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Why Sisi hasn't announced yet

There has been a lot of speculation lately over what is holding up the seemingly impending announcement of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El Sisi's presidential campaign. Commentators and analysts have been -- rather un-persuasively -- reading the tea leaves of the latest cabinet re-shuffle (which retained Sisi as Minister of Defense and Mohamed Ibrahim as the Minister of Interior while shedding most of the "liberal" ministers that had given the June 30th coalition some credibility) and of recent presidential decree making the minister of defense, rather than the president, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. All that has been clear to me is that there is an awful lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and some trepidation before this big step. Thank goodness, though, Egyptian tabloid El Watan can reveal the real reasons behind the delay (the following is an abridged translation of the article): 

Intelligence sources have revealed to El Watan that Sisi will make the announcement around March 10-12, after the new law regulating presidential elections is issued. He will tell the public the reasons for his delay, which are: 1) the need to detect and foil plans by the Muslim Brotherhood, some Western countries, Turkey and Qatar, to commit terrorist attacks following Sisi's announcement 2) genuine fears that the Field Marshall will be personally targeted, after the detection of such plans on the part of the American intelligence services and those of some neighboring countries 3) putting the final touches on the international and regional alliance Sisi is shaping to face the American moves in the region, and which consists of Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, to face the Western alliance headed by America and including the United Kingdom, France, Turkey and Qatar. The sources revealed that Egypt is lobbying the Chinese dragon to join its alliance. 

If Sisi runs...

From Andrew Hammond's valuable blog, a short post reproduced below in full before commenting on it:

If Sisi gives in to temptation and runs for president, the July 3 regime may not last. If he does not, he gives it a chance. If he runs, the July 3 regime continues to define itself as a new beginning, undermining the transformative power of January 25, and in the process dooms itself to failure, but if he does not run it will have a chance to become another chapter in the long process of reconstituting Egyptian politics and society begun on Jan 25.

If he runs, Sisi will see opposition to the military’s blatant interference in the public sphere increase and opinion slowly change on the Muslim Brotherhood, which hopes he will make this mistake in order to regain the sympathy it lost because of its disastrous year in power. If he does not run, the group will find itself forced to review its mistakes and consider serious reforms. If he runs, the Brotherhood will remain a powerful anti-modern political force some factions of which could succumb to resistance politics and obsession with injustice.

If logic prevails, the July 3 ouster has the chance to be viewed by posterity as just one of a series of post-Jan 25 army interventions, some big, some small. If he and the army remain in the wings, the ‘roadmap’ launched in July last year may survive as an integral element in Egypt’s post-Jan 25 political architecture. But if Sisi steps up to take the reins of power, his argument that he was responding to the call of the people against an unpopular government will drown in the tide of voices, domestic and foreign, who denounce and will increasingly denounce his July 3 manoeuvre as a military coup.

If he runs, Egypt is doomed to long-term instability. If he does not, Sisi may realize his wish to be seen one day as the saviour his sycophantic, opportunistic admirers claim he is today. Egypt may have a chance.

Quite aside from whether Egypt's future can be reduced to the question of whether Sisi will run (and even though I broadly agree with the calculations Andrew outlines) – if we have reached the point where is so central, won't he remain central no matter what, and the outcome (with a very weak president if he doesn't run) the same? Sisi has already put Egypt on the path of an outdated model of charismatic rule, the return of the worse tendencies of the security state, and chronic instability due to both inner regime tensions and the conflict between the state and a sizable part of the population. And there is nothing to indicate that he has a vision for facing Egypt's socio-economic challenges or the tolerance to allow other strong personalities to run the government should he choose to remain at the helm of the armed forces only. Whether Sisi is president or not, won't Sisi still be the only game in town?

Egypt's army chief: Will he? Won't he?

From The Economist's Pomegranate blog:

Mr Sisi has so far been coy, shying from the limelight. His reticence has made other potential candidates hesitate to step forward, though two former presidential hopefuls, Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist, and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a centrist Islamist, have both lately aired pointed 'advice' that it might be better for the minister to stick to military affairs. So it was with a mix of fascination and sarcastic glee that Egyptians have responded to what is alleged to be a leaked, not-for-publication portion of an interview with a sympathetic newspaper editor, in which Mr Sisi seems to suggest he may be pre-destined for the highest office.

On the tape the general, or a very skilled mimic, confesses to having often experienced peculiarly prescient dreams. In one of these he, like a Muslim hero of old, raised a sword emblazoned in red with the words "There is no God but God". In another he wore a portentously magnificent Omega watch, etched with a large green star that seemed to him a symbol of mysterious power. And he dreamed of a conversation with Anwar Sadat in which Egypt’s president from 1970-1981 declared that he had known in advance that he was destined for greatness, to which Mr Sisi responded, "I, too, know that I will be president of the Republic".

A couple of things to note here:

  1. There is a cultivated ambience of uncertainty regarding Sisi's candidacy, which increasingly appears likely. This is either deliberate manipulation to create an artificial sense of suspense and build up candidacy until it hits a crescendo when it's made official (while intimidating other potential candidates), or it reflects some level of pushback within the regime about the prospect of his candidacy (hence the focus on Amr Moussa, Sami Enan and other potential establishment candidates). 
  2. The whole dream thing may appear slightly loony to observers, but it's not that loony. There is a rich Islamic tradition of interpretation of dreams (and premonitory dreams) that is perfectly legitimate (it's a major feature of some Sufi practices) in Muslim terms. Some of this will echo with ordinary people, and it serves to increase Sisi's appeal and the myth around him more than discredit him.

Update: AP picks up on the dream thing, too.

The cult of Sisi

In my latest column for the New York Times Latitude blog, I try to explain Egypt's current love affair with its armed forces, and their leader, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi

The public had soured on the military after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, under the disastrous rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But then it soured on the Muslim Brotherhood even more, and when following the June protests the military removed Morsi from power, the moment was treated like the end of a foreign occupation. Protesters waved flags — some had been helpfully airdropped by army helicopters — and army pilots drew hearts of smoke in the sky above Tahrir Square. Months later, children still stop to have their picture taken next to the tanks stationed on my street.

The Egyptian Army hasn’t fought a war since 1973, and the U.S. Embassy judges that its capabilities have “degraded.” But that’s not the point. People don’t love their army because of how powerful it is, but because of how much they want to overcome their own feelings of powerlessness. To the great majority of Egyptians, the army is synonymous with the country, and supporting it is a way of wishing that Egypt will become all the things it currently isn’t: strong, independent and prosperous.

All about Sisi

A few days ago, amidst a flurry of articles about General al-Sisi (see below), someone on Twitter asked me if I would weigh in. I thought I might just begin to write more about what's been taking place over the last month, which I haven't done because I've been on holiday, have not been in Egypt since May, and rather wait till the shrill, hysterical atmosphere in Egypt died down (more on that later).

Sisi's speech calling for a "popular procuration" to tackle terrorism has made the curiosity about the general justified. By any standards, Sisi – despite having tried hard to emphasize the civilian face of the July 3 coup early on – has taken leadership of the country and President Adly Mansour is an obvious, clearly powerless, fig leaf. Questions about his political ambitions are normal, whether the current media frenzy in his support – including calls for him to run for president – is at his behest or simply the gesticulations of what masquerades as the press in Egypt these days.

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Two quotes from Sisi

The Washington Post  — possibly the publication that is most critical of the Egyptian military in the US – has landed an interview with the generalissimo himself. He uses it for chastising Washington: 

“You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that,” said an indignant Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, speaking of the U.S. government. “Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?”

So does he want the US to not turn its back and lend support? Because the official media in Egypt seemed to be arguing that the US should not involved at all. 

And then there's this gem: 

The most important achievement in my life is to overcome this circumstance, [to ensure] that we live peacefully, to go on with our road map and to be able to conduct the coming elections without shedding one drop of Egyptian blood,” he said, before adding, “When the people love you, this is the most important thing for me.”

Surely too late about the blood? 

Sissi's choice

 Lt Gen al-Sissi's call to Egyptians to take to the streets to support unspecified measures against "terrorism" is a potentially risky move for him. To be sure, outright criticism is mostly limited to those groups who have long been skeptical of the army's involvement in politics from the beginning. But this direct foray into mass politics is a signal to the army's civilian politician partners that they are dispensable, and a few are grousing about such a circumvention of the way things are normally done in a civilian-led state. Investors, who were delighted to see Morsi pushed from power, are nervous.

Unless he genuinely miscalculated the impact of what he said  -- as we learned with SCAF, this is always a possibility when career military men enter politics -- al-Sissi has diverged considerably from his July 3 strategy of having a civilian interim government out in front. That strategy presumably stemmed from al-Sissi's experience in SCAF, whose tenure as the direct rulers of Egypt from 2011-2012 began to tarnish the military's treasured reputation as the apolitical guardians of the country.

Al-Sissi didn't really need to break with this strategy. Al-Sisi is vastly popular, there are no indications of any serious breaches between the army and Adly Mansour's government, and the Muslim Brothers, though defiant, are really far too isolated to pose much of a threat to the transition. Why might al-Sissi have chosen to change his strategy? 

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