June 8, 2014 saw the inauguration of Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as Egypt’s seventh president since the toppling of the monarchy in 1952.The ostentatious ceremony stunned those familiar with the simple inauguration procedures of previous Egyptian presidents.
In view of the circumstances leading to al-Sisi’s rise to power amidst serious charges of conspiracy and scheming, he needed to give his inauguration an aura of legitimacy, especially after a stunningly low voter turnout necessitated extending the election by an additional day. Despite the fact that what happened in Egypt on July 3, 2013 bore the hallmark of a well-orchestrated coup d’état, the US seems willing, even if hesitantly, to give al-Sisi–now that he has been sworn in as the president of the most populous and militarily powerful Arab country–the benefit of the doubt and work with him.
The Importance of Egypt
Egypt is a cardinal Arab country and its state of internal affairs reflects not only on Arab states, but also on the entire region, including Turkey and Iran, and much of Africa, especially the Nile riparian countries. Its political stability is essential for maintaining the region’s balance of power and security. This is the reason why the counties of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the notable exception of Qatar, are eager to support al-Sisi in order to ensure that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which articulates a menacing politico-religious ideology to their conservative Islamic outlook, does not pervade their tribal-based political systems and erode their traditional political legitimacy. Furthermore, the GCC regard Egypt pivotal in containing Iranian encroachment on their militarily weak entities and vulnerable societal fabric.
Similarly, the US accepts that it has no option except to work with al-Sisi, even though it cannot ethically and doctrinally condone his overthrow of democratically elected president Muhammad Morsi. The US, which has invested heavily in Egypt – mainly in the aftermath of the 1978 Camp David Agreement – and pumped billions of dollars into its military, considers Egypt a strategic ally and, in dealing with al-Sisi, it sees beyond his ephemeral phenomenon.
Opportunity to Revive its Leadership Position
It would not do any good to complain ex post facto about the methods al-Sisi had used to grab power. What had been done is done, yet the fate of Egypt remains anything but certain. When in June 2012 Morsi was elected in a keenly contested presidential race, Egypt had a rare chance to transform itself into a competitive democracy. The events leading to the 2013 coup shattered the spirit of optimism ignited by the popular uprising of January 2011. There is no question that Morsi committed crude mistakes in running Egypt during his brief tenure in office, and it might be true that the Brotherhood sought to alter the contours of Egyptian politics in a manner consistent with their ideology. Nevertheless, his political lapses attested to his poor political experience and rush to effect lasting changes in Egyptian society. Morsi evinced willingness to work with the opposition and make necessary concessions in order to safeguard his administration. His pleading with his vociferous critics to respect the rules of the nascent democracy fell on deaf ears.
Egypt has the opportunity to revive its leadership position in the region and fill the vacuum caused by the inward looking policies of presidents Anwar Sadat (1971-1981) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), who were mostly preoccupied with their own internal affairs, with emphasis on crushing the opposition and staying in power.
During the years in office of President Gamal Abd al-Naser (1954-1970), Egypt presented itself as a powerful leader of Arab world, despite its frequent ups and downs with other Arab states. As he begins his term in office, al-Sisi is not unaware of the economic and political opportunities available for Egypt should he succeed in placing his country’s political life on solid grounds. These opportunities are contingent on al-Sisi’s ability to rise to the challenges of the job.
Towering Challenges Demand Innovative Leadership
Al-Sisi understood the difficulty of the task that lay ahead of him when, in March 2014, he announced his intention to seek the presidency and pledged to tackle the challenges. In announcing his candidacy, he warned his countrymen against expecting him to have the power to make miracles happen. This runs counter to what the Egyptian public expects from him. The impoverished population wants immediate and tangible results to improve the quality of its deteriorating life, especially after more than three years of turmoil; otherwise it would rise against him the same way it rose against Mubarak and Morsi.1 It is improbable that al-Sisi can do much to embitter the lives of his people at a time when annual foreign investments dwindled from $20 billion before the uprising to less than half a billion in 2013.2 Egypt is in the midst of exceptional economic difficulties, and dealing with them requires innovative leadership and an original way of thinking.
No matter how he chooses to tackle the country’s stubborn problems, al-Sisi needs to address the overwhelming responsibilities of reducing poverty, alleviating energy shortages, creating jobs, and presenting a national project to integrate the Brotherhood in the country’s political life and end the cycle of protests and violence. In order to achieve meaningful results, al-Sisi must embark on bold, new measures that include revamping the state machinery, and accepting the idea of genuine political plurality. These towering challenges entail introducing profound structural and behaviour changes to the operations of the Egyptian political system.
Al-Sisi has not so far shown indicators that he is up to the task. The fact that he won the presidency with 97 percent of the vote demonstrates that he is oblivious to the meaning of competitive elections. He seems to enjoy that his supporters view him as an invincible leader, and the poor who took to the streets to demand that he runs for office pin their hopes on him. His populist leadership style raises questions about his capacity to make sound, yet painful and unpopular decisions, especially when it comes to energy and the civil service. Just few days in office, he organised a bicycle tour to emphasise the seriousness of the energy crisis. He urged fellow Egyptians to ride bicycles in order to save on the country’s energy bill that cost the budget $15 billion in 2013. Despite its symbolism, al-Sisi ought to have known that riding bicycles in lieu of public transportation is not a practical option in Egypt’s sprawling urban centres, where there are high traffic incidents. In addition, Egyptian conservative culture frowns at women on two wheels.
Many Egyptian factories have shut down for lack of power. Egyptian power plants run on natural gas, which is extremely scarce. Al-Sisi has to deal with the dilemma of distributing gas-generated electricity to the public to keep them appeased, or to production plants to get the economy on its feet again.The diesel fuel donated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE is unsuitable to operate Egypt’s power plants that use natural gas.
Considering that the domestic and foreign debt has reached 90 percent of Egypt’s GDP, which is unacceptable by any standard, al-Sisi simply cannot ignore the dire need to give preference to boosting the emaciated economy. He has already alerted the Egyptian people to work hard and sacrifice for the sake of the country, while at the same time, he has promised to enhance the freedom of people and move it towards order and away from chaos. This brings to the fore not only the fate of the outlawed Brotherhood, but also the autonomy of the judiciary.
In March 2014, a court in Cairo issued death sentences to more than 500 members of the Brotherhood on charges of violence and attempted murder.3 Egyptian courts handed down additional death verdicts since then. The death sentences outraged the international community and rendered the Obama administration ‘deeply troubled.’4 If anything, such ludicrous sentences point out clearly to al-Sisi’s determination to crush the Brotherhood and intimidate other opposition activists.The irrational behaviour of the Egyptian judiciary glaringly shows that it is a lackey to the regime. What is equally important is that it unmasks the hegemonic orientation of al-Sisi, and his reliance on the military to subdue opposition and consolidate his quasi-charismatic leadership style.
One persistent problem that has plagued Egyptian presidents since the days of Nasser has been the bloated bureaucracy that drains the country’s meagre financial resources. Nasser’s decision in the early 1960s to entrust the task of Egyptian economic development to the public sector led to an exponential growth of the bureaucracy. By the time Nasser passed away in 1970, the number of civil servants, which did not exceed 250,000 personnel in 1952, soared to two and a half million. Even though Sadat seemed determined to privatise the economy and shrink the size of the bureaucracy, its rank and file jumped to three and a half million personnel by the time he was assassinated in 1981. Currently, the public sector employs 5.6 million personnel, even though only one-fourth of them are needed to run it. Streamlining the bureaucracy and rationalising its activities and behaviour are unpopular and, in a country where annual per capita income does not exceed $3,000, might ignite popular uproar. Since Sadat’s attempt to cut down on food subsidies precipitated widespread riots in 1977, no president since then has sought to tamper with food subsidies. It is highly unlikely that al-Sisi, who is waging an existential confrontation with the Brotherhood, would risk undermining his position by broadening the scope of public protests against his rule.
Reaching a political settlement with the Brotherhood is unavoidable if al-Sisi truly wants to restore peace,without which he cannot proceed to work on the stubborn security and economic challenges. Since the rise of the movement in 1928, the Brotherhood has been a constant factor in Egyptian life. Successive campaigns to eliminate them did send them underground, where they regrouped and eventually re-emerged stronger than before. It does not seem that al-Sisi has yet grasped this reality. He will, however, sooner or later. Hopefully, the Egyptian people will not have to endure much more damage to the economy and the cohesion of society before reality sets in on his approach to politics.
Hilal Khashan is a Professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
1. Al-Yawm al-Sabi‘ (Cairo), June 9, 2014.
2. The Daily Star (Beirut), March , 2014.
3. An-Nahar (Beirut), March 25, 2014.
4. Reuters, April 28, 2014.