The General Who Would Be President
In what is being seen as a final military reward before announcing his presidential run, Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was promoted from general to field marshal today, giving him the same military rank as ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak before he became the country’s head of state.
The promotion came as army sources indicated that el-Sisi is poised to declare himself as a presidential candidate in elections, which he is expected to win easily in the absence of any other serious contenders and amid an atmosphere of pro-army intimidation.
And today, Egypt’s military council gave el-Sisi its authorization to run for the presidency, according to the state-run Middle East News Agency. Egyptian government spokesman Ehab Badawy said that amounted to an endorsement of el-Sisi by the armed forces.
On Sunday, the country’s interim president, Adly Mansour, said the planned election order would be reversed, with a presidential vote coming ahead of parliamentary polls—a major change from the roadmap drawn up after the army ousted Egypt’s first freely-elected head of state, Mohamed Morsi, in July amid popular protests against his Muslim Brotherhood government.
The electoral switch is deepening tensions in a country that was rocked by mainly Islamist protests over the weekend that left 49 dead and hundreds injured, including the deadliest blast to hit Cairo in living memory, when a jihadist group linked to al- Qaeda detonated a bomb outside the capital’s police headquarters on Friday. The bombing heightened fears that a low-level jihadist insurgency, until now mainly confined to the Sinai Peninsula, is breaking out and striking at high-profile targets in the heart of Cairo.
El-Sisi ascending to the same rank as Mubarak was just one of the abundant ironies of the past few days–his promotion comes two days after the third anniversary of the ousting of Mubarak and it was celebrated by pro-army celebrities and anti-Islamist liberals in Tahrir Square, ground zero of the Egyptian democratic uprising. The square was ringed by barbed wire and heavily protected by the security forces wielding machine guns and deploying armored personnel carriers.
Posters applauding el-Sisi’s leadership were at the center of celebrations in Tahrir Square. A few miles away in the Mohandeseen district, counterprotests mounted by Islamists as well as liberals opposed to army rule featured posters declaring: “January 25, 2014: Celebrate or be killed.”
No date has been announced for the presidential elections, although they are likely to be held by the end of April. But el-Sisi’s candidacy seemed set after the country voted earlier this month in a two-day referendum approving a new constitution for the country.
The passing of the constitution—even as Islamists and some moderate groups boycotted the referendum—was widely seen as clearing the way for the army chief to declare formally for the presidency. Before the referendum he had urged Egyptians not “to embarrass me in front of the world” by voting against the draft constitution or staging a boycott. Voter turnout was only 38 percent but the constitution was approved by 98 percent of those who voted in a process the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a Washington DC based think tank, described as “flawed.”
Buoyed by a deep wave of pro-military nationalism, the security forces seem ready to redouble their hard-line crackdown on opponents, Islamist or liberal, violent or not. This weekend, President Mansour said he had asked the “appeals court to expand judicial capacity in order to officiate speedy trials of terrorists cases.”
Earlier this month, U.S. State Department officials briefed American lawmakers that the army crackdown is likely to widen and increasingly target liberal activists. They told lawmakers also that the army chief would stand for the presidency and win by a landslide, according to one GOP lawmaker who was included in the briefings. Several potential presidential contenders have already said they won’t run if el-Sisi stands.
El-Sisi’s career has been marked by cautiousness and his rise to prominence from a modest background—his father was a shop owner and the family lived in a small apartment in run-down family-owned building—was always measured. His big leap came when Morsi earmarked him for promotion, persuaded that the devout 60-year-old would make a trustworthy head of the Egyptian armed forces.
“He has been tussling with the decision to run for the presidency,” says a Western diplomat. “The key to his decision, I think, is that feels he is the only one who can confront the security challenges facing Egypt.”
Earlier this month, one of el-Sisi’s big Gulf champions, the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, said in a BBC interview the Egyptian army chief would be better off staying in the military instead of running for president. He didn’t elaborate the reasons for his remarks and later withdrew them.
How el-Sisi would act as president isn’t clear. He has proven himself an astute political player but not made public any plans about how to solve the country’s deep-rooted economic problems and poverty and the lack of opportunity have fueled much of the political agitation in Egypt the past three years. The big question is how patient even his supporters will be with him.