El-Sisi’s project for the future of Egypt
The Jan. 25, 2011 uprising in Egypt, which ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak is a case in point. The uprising was triggered by youth-led groups such as the April 6 Movement which was able to mobilize millions of people who took over Al Tahrir Square. They were later joined by political parties and opposition figures. Protesters raised classical and non-controversial slogans: Freedom, Social Justice and Human Dignity. The revolution was leaderless. Political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, rallied to end decades of authoritarian rule but did not present an ideological vision for the future of the country. They spoke of a civilian and democratic state, a common goal that even the Islamists embraced in the beginning.
Even when candidates contested the presidential elections Egyptians were divided and it was shocking that Ahmad Shafik, a long-time Mubarak man, did so well in the first round. His success forced rival political parties and figures to unite behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Muhammad Mursi, who promised to work for national reconciliation and achieve the uprising’s main goals. Mursi’s ascendancy was accidental; he was not the Brotherhood’s primary choice.
None of the candidates had presented a plan for Egypt’s future. Even the Muslim Brotherhood’s much talked about Al Nahda (renaissance) Project turned out to be unreal. In the months following Mursi’s election frustration with his biased policies and authoritarian style of rule began to rise reaching its peak with the 30 June demonstrations demanding his exit. What followed is now history.
The July 3 military intervention turned Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi into a national hero overnight. For millions of Egyptians El-Sisi’s intervention underlined his patriotism and courage. The 58-year-old was able to legitimize the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected civilian president by soliciting the support of the country’s main political parties and figures in addition to the respected Al Azhar institution and the Coptic Church. All had signed on to the military’s roadmap for the future, a political action plan that should reinstate civilian and democratic rule by the beginning of next year.
But while El-Sisi insisted that the army was forced to enter the political arena and that he had no personal ambitions to run for president, the fact of the matter is that he is now the most popular and powerful figure in that arena. Regardless of the existence of an interim president and a transitional government, El-Sisi is the man who now runs the country.
This became apparent when El-Sisi addressed the Egyptian people last month and called on them to take to the streets to give him a mandate to fight terror and extremism. On July 26 millions of Egyptian heeded his call.
The standoff with Islamist supporters of the deposed Mursi, which enters its second month amid signs that the government will break the sit-ins through force soon, also underlines the rising popularity of El-Sisi. While pro-Mursi demonstrators lift his pictures, opponents have responded by raising El-Sisi’s images in Al Tahrir and others.
Certainly the media and the military establishment have played a major role in presenting El-Sisi as a patriot and a national hero who saved Egypt from the disastrous rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some in the media suggested that El-Sisi is the successor of the late leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. The image of Nasser, tainted for decades, is now being restored and comparisons between him and El-Sisi have filled the airwaves.
But a closer look at El-Sisi paints a different picture. He is a brilliant officer and was the youngest member to occupy a seat in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. He was against the hereditary succession plans under which Mubarak’s son Gamal was to succeed his father. He is also known for his religious piety and that is probably one of the reasons that Mursi had appointed him Defense Minister and general commander of the armed forces last year. Until few months ago no one inside the Muslim Brotherhood or the presidency believed that El-Sisi presented a possible danger. As head of the armed forces he sought to rid the military establishment of corruption.
Little is known about El-Sisi’s political views, but an article published in Foreign Affairs last month refers to a thesis written by him in 2006 while studying at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania. The article, by military expert Robert Springborg, suggests that El-Sisi favors a political system that is “a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism” and that he links acceptance of democracy to support of religious leaders and respect of the country’s religious beliefs. Springborg concludes that El-Sisi’s “true goal might not be the establishment of a more inclusive, secular democracy but, rather, a military-led resurrection and reformation of the Islamist project that the Brotherhood so abysmally mishandled.”
He points to a quote in El-Sisi’s thesis that reads: “For democracy to be successful in the Middle East,” it must show “respect to the religious nature of the culture” and seek “public support from religious leaders (who) can help build strong support for the establishment of democratic systems.” He goes on to write: “Democracy cannot be understood in the Middle East without an understanding of the concept of Al Khilafa,” or the caliphate.
This document throws light on El-Sisi’s views and beliefs of the nature of the political system that Egypt needs. How far will he get involved in the current political process and will he step back after the conclusion of the roadmap remains to be seen. His popularity today has eclipsed important questions about the role of the military in Egypt’s affairs and El-Sisi's own political beliefs.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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