More of the same, it would seem, is heading your way if you are living in Egypt. Egypt’s now ex-defence minister, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, is readying himself for power. He does so by way of caution and a puritanical script favouring austerity. “I cannot make miracles. Rather, I propose hard work and self-denial.”
Acknowledging limits should be a matter of course: “We must be truthful with ourselves: our country faces great challenges. Our economy is weak. There are millions of youths who suffer from unemployment in Egypt.” Every strong man needs showmanship and a sense of role play. Muscle is otherwise a reality without sense, a statement of the gym rather than parliament. Sisi provides myth and a sense of assurance in the form of jogging with his troops, donning his fatigues and menacing his enemies with lashing rhetoric.
He also uses his uniform to impress – the oldest trick in the trade of wooing electorates who fear into bed. “True, today is my last day in military uniform, but I will continue to fight every day for an Egypt free of fear and terrorism.” A fit man with a sharp tongue is a formidable man. Whether he is a person who will clean the stables is something else. They may not be up for cleaning in any case. “Key to his political skill,” observes Robert Springborg of the United States Naval Postgraduate School, “has been his secrecy coupled with expert role playing that duped his opponents into thinking he was an unambitious professional officer.” In so doing, he also made a tilt in appeal “to the Egyptian public as the man to lead them out of the post-Mubarak political morass.”
The paradox of the Sisi formula, in so far as power yields any, lies in the realm of popularity and oppression. His popularity is exaggerated as the opponent of the Islamists – better him than the others. For him, the people are a religion, a subject of worship. “It wasn’t the army or political forces who ousted the last two regimes,” he insists, “it was you the people.” This is a gift to abstract, unmeasurable forces – the people often being the great fraud that political forces use to exact gains. Cleverly, he suggests that others not only can run, but might have a chance against his imposing prospects. “My entering the presidency race doesn’t not mean that others shouldn’t.”
For all this talk about the “people” in action, Sisi has been at the helm of a repressive security and military apparatus that has done all but scotch any semblance of democracy. While President Mohammed Morsi bungled his attempt to give democracy a chance, the coup to oust him signalled exactly where Sisi would be heading. The Arab Spring froze and has remained in that state ever since, only warmed sporadically by the blood of protesters.
The biggest targets remain the Muslim Brotherhood, typified by such bloody moves as the sentencing to death of 529 members by a trial judge Said Youssef in the city of Minya. The trial took two sessions, with the right on the part of legal counsel to make their case curtailed. Memories are still fresh of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo last August. In breaking them up, some 600 were killed in the initial violence, while hundreds died in the resulting violence. Government facilities, police stations, and churches were subsequently burned.
Morsi’s base is being targeted with remorseless intensity – it cannot be allowed to flourish. Roughly 16,000 members have been arrested over the past months. The leadership is being politically decapitated. The Egyptian chief prosecutor has ordered two trials for 919 suspected Islamists for a range of charges, including murder. Again, Youssef has the brief to oversee them.
How fitting, then, that US officials would express concern at such a move, given Washington’s endorsement of the putsch against Morsi to begin with. While a portion of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid for Egypt was suspended, the pretext of support remains. Egypt, good or bad, is indispensable to security policy in the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood has, in turn, engaged in a campaign that is part civil, part incendiary. The base of protest is strong, but something of a minor insurgency is taking place against the authorities. Sisi is duly capitalising.
Sisi is placing hopes that an electoral process will sanitise his military credentials. Such elections will be free, though not all are jumping on that band wagon with enthusiasm. Ahmed Shafik, a former general and prime minister who was also runner-up in the last presidential bid, has few words of comfort. His comments are instructive, given that both he and Sisi are cut from the same military cloth. “I know very well they will fix all the ballot boxes.” The elections will be nothing but “a comedy show.”
A change of suits will not mean a change of temper – a military man, when he wins, will return to the helm of the country. Backgrounds are hard to defy. This has been the nature of Egypt’s political structure for decades –while the military can’t enter politics per se, they are more involved in politics than most civil societies would permit. Mubarak’s status quo will have been revived, and the prisons will continue to fill.