Less than one year ago Abdel Fattah El-Sisi reassured former Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi (who in turn in 2012 appointed him as Defence Minister) that “the army had nothing to do with politics”. But, as a ‘chronicle of a candidacy foretold’, on 26 March El-Sisi resigned from his post as Army Chief and announced that he would nevertheless stand in the next presidential elections, expected to be held by June-July 2014.
His announcement did not come as a surprise though. In fact, the question for many commentators was not if, but when, he would run for the Presidency. Given the unpredictable reaction of the Square, which burned the political ambitions of former Chairman of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and brought down Muslim Brothers’ president Mohammed Mursi, El-Sisi’s studied announcement shows that he is shrewd enough to avoid the fate of his predecessors, that is, becoming the least popular figure in Egypt. In fact, General El-Sisi has been able to forge popular support for his candidacy and present it as a response to the “will of the people” rather than the materialisation of his long-standing and carefully thought-through presidential ambition. Even to the casual observer, El-Sisi has now gained notoriety for his calculative mind and shrewd political moves, the very qualities that led Hosni Mubarak in 2010 to appoint him as chief of the Mukhabarat (Intelligence Service).
The role El-Sisi and the SCAF played in forcing Mursi out of office in July 2013, as well as in ostracizing the Muslim Brothers from the public space, has bought him significant legitimacy and support among the supporters of the Tamarrod movement, the traditional opponents of the Brotherhood and those who became disillusioned by their short and erratic stint in power. They have blamed the Muslim Brothers for failing to improve security, tackle rising unemployment and, worst of all, for exacerbating societal fragmentation and confessional sectarianism. It is not by chance that in his 15-minute televised speech, El-Sisi resorted to a patriotic discourse, and put a huge emphasis on “overwhelming unemployment”, “soaring state debt”, the “serious threats of terrorism and attempted foreign intervention”. Furthermore, in November 2013, the transition government, which was formed after the toppling of the democratically elected Morsi, followed suit by outlawing them Muslim Brothers as a “terror group”; in mid-March 529 people, allegedly affiliated to the Brotherhood, were sentenced to death, further fuelling anti-Brotherhood (and pro-Army) feelings.
Moreover, it should be noted that El-Sisi enjoys undisputed loyalty of the military, the police and the mukhabarat. Recently, a number of forced retirments, removals and new appointments seem to have restructured the State security apparatus, thus strengthening El-Sisi’s network of trusted people.
Whilst the 2012 Presidential elections had 13 candidates, standing for the Muslim Brothers, the Liberal Front, the Left, the Nasserists and the pro-Army, the forthcoming elections are likely to slide back to a pre-2011 political scenario. Many potential candidates have already announced that they will not run in the presidential race, whilst liberals (and former presidential candidates), such as Amr Moussa, are now supporting El-Sisi. The only official competitor is the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahy, who is openly supported by part of the liberal youth front, which was constituted after the 2011 revolution. Meanwhile, some sources quoted by Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram have mentioned that talks between Sabahy and the Army have taken place, hinting to some kind of informal agreement for cosmetically arranging El-Sisi’s ascension to power as result of a competitive elections than a referendum on his track-record.
The Muslim Brothers have denounced El-Sisi candidature as the “final stage of the July 2013 coup d’Etat”. The main challenge that El-Sisi cannot but face is the support that the Brotherhood still enjoys among a significant portion of the society, without further dividing the Egyptian people.