It seems increasingly likely that General Abdel Fattah El Sisi will be Egypt’s next president. Though the final decision might depend on the extent to which the upcoming constitutional referendum can be interpreted as a popular mandate, the signs pointing to an impending presidential run are clearly visible.
Recent leaks to the press, which claimed that the presidential election will be held before parliamentary elections and that Sisi has made up his mind to run, suggest a possible attempt to increase turnout in the referendum and pave the way for an announcement of the general’s candidacy. More broadly, a Sisi candidacy would track with the trajectory of Egyptian politics following the July 3 coup, in which the cult of personality surrounding the general has been encouraged, hardliners have engineered a repressive crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and secular activists, and the military and security forces have been the dominant players in restructuring the country’s political system.
Whether Sisi chooses to become president or remain minister of defense will have a significant impact on the cohesiveness of the Egyptian state. Writing for Al-Masry Al-Youm, Nathan Brown argues that:
President Sisi is poised to be a powerful figure, taking command of the central institution in Egyptian political life for sixty years–the presidency. He might be able to re-unify the state apparatus, and he might initially have a popular mandate to do so. But in the end, this would most likely lead to the same presidential autocracy that Egyptians revolted against in January 2011.
If Sisi was minister of defense alongside an elected president, there would probably be a slightly different outcome, especially under the terms of the proposed constitution. Critical institutions of the Egyptian state–the military, security agencies, judiciary and Al-Azhar, which all see themselves as above politics–would likely operate autonomously of each other. And they would be immune to oversight by democratic institutions, thereby deepening the Balkanization of the Egyptian state.
Neither of these outcomes will produce democracy, but could a Sisi presidency at least lead to stability? That seems unlikely. Even if Sisi succeeds at reunifying the Egyptian state as president, there are few reasons to think that he will be able to contain the country’s ongoing political and economic instability. Sisi will not be an autocratic savior; instead, these problems are set to continue regardless of who becomes the next president.
For one, the Egyptian military does not have much of a record on the economy. According to Farah Halime, “The military are far from being shrewd businessmen. Instead, because of a track record of losing contracts, bad ties to regional powers and dodgy accountancy, the army are relying on selling bottled water and other domestic goods to survive.” Sisi himself has shown no evidence of possessing a vision for reforming the economy, and is reportedly “reading up on economic issues.”
Nor would President Sisi prove any more capable of ending Egypt’s political unrest. A harsh crackdown has been ongoing for months, but the protest movement shows no signs of dying down and an armed insurgency seems to be spreading. It is not clear how Sisi’s transfer from the ministry of defense to the presidency would change this dynamic, since the government’s policy of repression is already his own.
At the end of the day, it will be difficult to escape Egypt’s current political trajectory. As Steven Cook recently put it:
There was a coup d’état in Egypt, the response to that inherently anti-democratic act has been violence, and in order to establish political control in an increasingly unstable and contested political environment, Egyptian leaders have resorted to authoritarian measures all in the name of a revolution that was for democracy. So the next time something or someone blows up in Egypt or the next time a student is killed on a university campus, or when blood flows in street demonstrations, no one should be shocked or surprised.
Regardless of whether Sisi becomes president, Egypt’s troubles are likely to continue for some time.