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.

Generally speaking, I find looking at his actions now and in the last year much more instructive than what he may have written in his US Army War College thesis or his behavior as an officer while there. Eric Trager's analysis of that paper, linked below, is right to dismiss the paper as too indicative of anything (although Trager's nonetheless goes to provide some analysis nonetheless, much of it poor; for instance his criticism of Sisi's assertion of the impact of regional conflicts on democracy is odd, considering the obvious impact of war on state resource allocations and economics more broadly – obvious in an Egypt economically devastated by its wars with Israel just as it is in the Western Sahara conflict's impact on the Moroccan economy. But I digress.)

One can safely ignore the paper as much more than a curiosity (and it's probably best to place it in its context, since it seems to very much address US democracy promotion policies in the shadow of the Afghan and Iraqi wars/occupations) and look at what Sisi has done recently: 

  1. Between February 2011 and August 2012, he maneuvered through a war of succession within the Egyptian military over who would succeed Hussein Tantawy. His position as head of the Military Intelligence put him at odds with both the obvious choice, Chief of Staff Sami Enan, and the head of General Intelligence, Mourad Muwafi. My understanding was that Sisi was Tantawy's personal pick. In any case, he Mubarak's head of Military Intelligence he was a top regime insider and gatekeeper.
  2. Between August 2012 and December 2012, he largely focused on restoring army morale, purging the ranks of senior officers (presumably those whose loyalty he questioned), and withdrawing the armed forces from the political role they had occupied during the SCAF interregnum. His speeches during that period, mostly to the Second and Third Army and to cadets, focused on restoring the armed forces' confidence in themselves and occasionally broached questions of strategy and doctrine (such as reviving long-shelved programs, like long-range missiles.) Even so, the Egyptian military has yet to make any major change in its doctrine, in its threat evaluations, in its procurement, or other factors that an army run for operational readiness (rather than an economic enterprise, social safety net and regime vanguard) might do.
  3. Sisi and the military were not yet ready to assert themselves in December 2012 / January 2013, and quickly scuttled an attempt to act as mediator in the crisis that emerged over Morsi's November 2012 constitutional declaration. Over the next six months, however, the military grew in confidence in speaking out about the country's political situation as Morsi's own position grew more precarious.  Morsi also came to rely on the armed force to a greater extent, notably during their deployment in the Suez Canal zone during the wave of riots there in February and March 2013.
  4. Sisi's growing willingness to speak out in June came in tandem with the success of the Tamarrod campaign, peaking of course with the massive June 30 protests. (Which of course were not 30+ million as so many idiots repeat – but it's interesting that even the army figure, 14m, is quite inflated.) How much coordination there was between the military and that campaign (or those opposition figures that supported it) is open to question, but my gut feeling is that the military made the decision to topple Morsi quite late. It's quite likely that some late events, such as Morsi's speech endorsing jihad in Syria, pushed them to act. But yet again the overall feeling is that Sisi was cautious, trying (in his own view even if Morsi did not see it as such) to give the administration and the MB a way out.
  5. Such caution will probably determine whether or not he runs for president – in other words, he'll wait and see. My understanding is that since August 2012, Sisi has not appointed anyone to replace himself as head of military intelligence (that may have changed more recently). Leaving his current post, now seen as the real power in Egypt, to don a suit and run for president may be risky. The post-Mubarak era is in some respects reminiscent of what happened during the Mamluk era when a powerful sultan died:  sometimes it took a few years, and misfires, before a new figure was able to assert itself. Sisi is popular now, but many (even among conservatives or felool types) were stunned by his speech. The inner sanctum of the Egyptian regime, the top ranks of the military, may not be secured enough to allow for a presidential bid at this stage. Indeed, across the officer corps at large there may be genuine reluctance to be dragged into directly governing again, for all the contempt they probably have for civilians at this stage.

Conclusion: things are just too uncertain in Egypt right now to judge whether Sisi wants to be president – even if he is popular. It certainly seems like a possibility in a way it never was for Tantawi. But it is also a high-risk strategy, one that may become necessary to galvanize the regime if it becomes more embattled (against Islamists, against the West, etc.) but that will not be necessary at all for Sisi, and his clique of officers, to remain broadly in control of the country, but without frontline exposure. 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.