For a man who is almost certain to become President of Egypt in late May as a result of what’s expected to be a massive popular vote, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi remains something of a mystery. What does he believe in? What are his plans for the most populous Arab country if he becomes its new President? One major clue emerged in two recent TV interviews. “As long as the army is good, Egypt is good,” al-Sisi told an interviewer from Sky News Arabia on May 11. In another interview, two otherwise compliant Egyptian journalists dared to ask him about his continuing connections to the secretive group of military officers that has dominated Egypt for the past 31⁄2 years. “Leave the military alone,” he growled.
The two comments were a helpful reminder that al-Sisi is first and foremost a military man. He seems determined to help Egypt regain its lost greatness. And he’s convinced there’s only one institution that can win it back: the military.
A half-century ago, Egypt was the most powerful nation in the Arab world. But over the past 30 years it has drifted to the strategic margins. Egypt bravely made peace with Israel at Camp David in 1978 but in the process made itself a junior ally of the U.S. and less of an authority in the Arab world.
Al-Sisi wants to bring an end to Egypt’s strategic meekness and restore its military muscle. He talks about finishing off the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that held power for one year before he led a coup—with substantial popular support—against it in July. He also talks about Egypt leading a war against Islamist terrorists. According to advisers who have heard his private comments, al-Sisi wants Egypt to project power in the region, rather than be seen as a basket case that can be manipulated by the rich oil sheiks in the Gulf.
If elected, al-Sisi could soon find himself with a chance to order the Egyptian military into battle. For years, tension has been growing between Egypt and Ethiopia, whose government has begun constructing a massive new dam across the Blue Nile. If Ethiopia blocks the river, Egypt risks losing a major share of its only significant source of freshwater, endangering its already fragile food supply. Al-Sisi is unlikely to stand by while Ethiopia dramatically reduces the level of the river that is the lifeblood of Egypt. After a long standoff, both countries said recently that they’re willing to attempt another round of negotiations. Several previous attempts ended in failure.
If al-Sisi does launch an attack on Ethiopia, his allies in Washington would be furious and might freeze military aid. But in the Arab world, it would look like Egypt was refusing to be bullied by Ethiopia and its international allies.
Al-Sisi does not just want Egypt’s military to exert its power beyond its borders, according to politicians who have met with him. He also plans to further insulate the military from civilian oversight. Al-Sisi has acknowledged in interviews that he’ll probably continue filling key positions with officers, because he doesn’t think there are enough qualified civilian technocrats in the country.
The former Defense Minister also wants to bring Egypt’s powerful and willful police force to heel once he has the formal powers of the presidency, according to people who have heard his private views. And he has vented frustration to associates about Egypt’s judiciary, which operates as a power unto itself. According to government insiders, a court disregarded al-Sisi’s directives when it sentenced 683 Brotherhood supporters to death in April and upheld 37 of 529 death sentences that were issued in March in a separate case. That prompted the U.S. to delay a delivery of Apache attack helicopters.
If al-Sisi’s advisers are correct in reporting his displeasure with the police force and the judiciary, that’s reassuring. But there are few other reasons to feel hopeful about an al-Sisi presidency. The retired field marshal’s determination to increase the military’s already immense power shows he doesn’t even recognize the root cause of Egypt’s endemic poverty, corruption and violence: six decades of military rule. He and his former comrades in arms will not provide the answers to Egypt’s problems. They are the problem. n
Cambanis is the author of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, which will be published in January