The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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? 

I see several possibilities, each of which has a different implication on the way things might unfold in the future

Pressure from the ranks:

When an institution takes a stance that does not necessarily fit with its long-term strategy, the cause is often due to internal dynamics. Al-Sissi may well have been trying to bolster his leadership over Egypt's far-ranging military, intelligence and security establishment, many of whom are clearly frustrated with letting the Brotherhood sit-ins continue in place.

The military has signaled that it wants to move against the Brotherhood's sit-ins because of their alleged connections to militants in the Sinai, just as they previously signaled that the decision to overthrow Morsi was due to a sense in the military that their hands were tied fighting the insurgency there. It may seem odd that events in underpopulated, peripheral Sinai could dictate al-Sissi's strategy, but tails are known to wag dogs from time to time and the peninsula takes outsized proportion to the Egyptian military: it's the only part of Egypt where soldiers are regularly killed in action, and military intelligence in particular is obsessed with the idea that foreign militants, particularly Palestinians from Gaza, are active there and have ties with the Brothers. Al-Sissi's statement came hours after a bomb blast hit a security headquarters in Mansoura, the first sign that Sinai militancy might be spreading to the rest of Egypt. The military may have decided that they need Emergency Law measures, like mass arrests, to stomp out Sinai militancy, or they may simply detest the thought that Islamists can thumb their nose at the state from Rabaa and Nahda while their comrades are out fighting in the desert.

Another related possibility -- people turned to the army in part because they see it as capable of addressing the last two years of insecurity, and al-Sissi may be under pressure to deliver on that promise. The Ministry of Interior appears to be bringing back officers from the Mubarak era, and they may be insisting that they need their old tools -- again including long-term detention of suspects -- to do their job. 

If pressure from the military or the Interior Ministry to be allowed to take the gloves off is behind al-Sissi's declaration, than his long-term strategy to let civilians take the lead in Egypt's government may stand. But, it also suggests that the military will brook no interference in its handling of internal security, and will demand a restoration of Emergency Law or other exceptional measures whenever it feels it needs them.

Frustration with losing control of the narrative:

Another possibility is that al-Sissi himself has lost patience with Brothers sitting in their encampments defying the authority of the state. The Brothers are not making themselves popular doing this, particularly as they appear to be getting into shoot-outs with local residents, but it does feed the impression of a dysfunctional state and a security vacuum. As the Brothers themselves learn, whoever is charge ultimately loses credibility when disorder is prolonged, even if the state swears up and down that it's the fault of opposition protesters or do-nothing police.

Also, even the most popular and powerful institutions in the country can start to feel beleaguered if the other side is monopolizing screen time. Al-Sissi may be worrying that the Brothers' day-in day-out repetition of their narrative, that "the people" oppose the coup, may eventually gain traction. He may simply want the Rabaa and Nahda situations to be erased, without a longer-term plan of clamping down on the opposition.

If this is why al-Sissi has called for the millioniya, then his political style may become very similar to that of SCAF -- a volatile alternation between wanting to assert his authority, and the sense that it may be better after all to take the back seat.

Clearing the way for an army president

A final possibility is that the army's popularity has prompted it to recalculate its strategy of keeping civilians out front. It may have become used to the adulation of a grateful public. Al-Sissi himself may be deciding to run for president. Some are invoking the precedent of Abdel Nasser or Musharraf, but not all popular-generals-turned-presidents become autocrats: Charles de Gaulle, as authoritarian as he may have been, ultimately left French democracy stronger than he found it. But if this is the path al-Sissi chooses to take, then Egypt's future rests on his skills and temperament as a civilian politician, which are an unknown.

Whatever the reasons behind al-Sissi's declaration, they do show that declarations by coup leaders that they will from this point forth take a back seat don't often mean much. However sincere they may be, they will always face short-term crises that will tempt them to wield their power. Egypt's military is unlikely to be a quiet force standing behind civilian politicians, keeping watch over the nation; rather, it will be both an active participant -- indeed, the most powerful actor on the scene -- steering the country according to its own particular institutional temperament and interests.