Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi — the most important general in the Middle East with respect to the largest and most significant political change in this region — has always succeeded in striking a charismatic political discourse that has brought the Egyptian political language, with its particular style, glimmer and allure, back to centre stage at a time when Egypt is grappling with the challenge of the future with greater confidence. Al-Sisi’s public appearances are few compared to his appearances in military forums. However, it is impossible to neglect the major political role that he is playing at present, after having taken the decision to step into the political sphere. It should be added that he took this decision with the support of a large team that represents the Armed Forces with whom he consults regularly at every step which has been the case not only since the dramatic events that have unfolded since 30 June but from the moment he took the oath as minister of defence last year. His regular meetings with staff and army regiments in addition to the periodic opinion polls that were conducted at all levels of the Armed Forces confirm that every measure he has taken was based on a general consensus within the establishment to which he has restored a high level of combat efficacy, as is only appropriate to an institution with a record of 200 years of regional leadership and international presence.
In his recent speech in the Galaa Theatre at the Military College, a venue that will now go down in history as a political as well as a military forum, General Al-Sisi was greeted with sustained enthusiastic applause. As Major General Mohamed Bilal told Al-Ahram Weekly, “[this] confirms beyond a doubt the extent of military coherence and cohesion which has been the primary feature of the military establishment ever since it was forged in the kiln of the Egyptian national movement to the development of which this establishment contributed. This puts paid to the tendentious propaganda targeting the unity of the army.”
As for the substance of Al-Sisi’s first speech since the 30 June Revolution, it conveyed very clear messages. Bilal explained that Al-Sisi’s purpose was to clarify positions and reaffirm the role of the national military establishment in solidarity and unison with the undeniably large throngs of people that poured out into the streets in their millions. This was a national, not a political, role, because a political role could be partisan or biased whereas a national role was of a different order. As Al-Sisi himself said in his speech, “the Armed Forces felt it important to follow-through in its approach to the field of national, not political, work. It therefore proposed a map for the future in the hope that this would contribute to the promotion of the exercise of the right to free choice. This roadmap, which I had the honour to present to the people in the presence of the representatives of its political and social forces, especially Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, is no more than a proposed framework for a safe way out of the current predicament and for addressing the major responsibilities that lay ahead for the future. Unfortunately, these responsibilities are also heavy, exhausting and filled with risk and, together, they pose a challenge. But it is imperative to rise to this challenge and to shoulder these responsibilities boldly, competently and with hope.”
Bilal observes that part of the army’s national, as opposed to political, mission is to safeguard the nation against grave deterioration which was precisely what was occurring under former president Mohamed Morsi’s rule. He points to the passage in which Al-Sisi said, “in January 2011 the forces of the people rebelled. Subsequently they found that the revolution was heading in a direction that was not commensurate with its purpose so they sought to redress that. Simply put, they felt that their hopes had been frustrated, that the revolution had deviated from its higher purposes, and that their vision for the future had been darkened by clouds and shadows that could not accommodate the essential qualities of the ages of enlightenment, knowledge and proficiency.”
Strategic affairs expert General Sameh Seif Al-Yazal offers a similar analysis of Al-Sisi’s speech which, he said, conveys 12 distinct messages that were ordered in accordance with the political developments which the military leadership handled very meticulously. The messages addressed the role of the army since the 25 January Revolution, at which point the army assumed control during a foggy and fluid interim period, after which it supervised the electoral processes that brought Morsi in as president. This was followed by a “phase of advice giving” in light of the military establishment’s awareness of the dangers of that period in which various aspects of national security were in jeopardy, and in which the army had to counter numerous attempts to weaken national security. As Al-Sisi said in his speech, “the facts could not be ignored. The most important is that the Egyptian economy, whether due to [the focus on political] ambitions, mismanagement or the failure to appreciate the rights of coming generations, had reached a perilous state of deterioration. At the same time, the social conditions and living standards of the majority of the people had grown gravely unjust precipitating social tensions that were handled with poor assessment, mismanagement and bad decision-making, while [economic?] reform intentions floundered for various reasons. Then, at the intellectual, cultural and artistic level where Egypt has long stood as a powerful model in its world, Egypt’s influence and status in its region declined and, accordingly, so too did its role in the community of nations.”
But the crux of Al-Sisi’s messages, as General Al-Yazal points out, had to do with the victory of the people and, hence, the victory of the concept of the modern state with respect to which there was an attempt to undermine it by using its own instruments against it. Al-Sisi essentially held that in a modern state, “empowerment” is for the people as a whole, not for a single group or faction. Al-Sisi said, “the Egyptian Armed Forces, as a whole with all its members and commanders, chose without hesitation to remain at the service of the people and to empower their free will so that they may determine what they believe is best, because their will expresses the collective wisdom regarding their relationship with themselves, their environment, their world and their age.”
Al-Sisi in his speech then turned to the challenges and problems that the Egyptian people must contend with now and in the future, because these people with all their diverse political shades and factions, their religious institutions and their youth, are the ones who have drawn up the map for this future. He then dispatched messages abroad that were simultaneously intended to reassure domestic opinion with respect to Egypt’s relationships abroad, both with respect to the Arab strategic depth but also with respect to the international community and the broader community of mankind.
However, as heartening as this much-needed injection of optimism was, some have cautioned against excessive optimism at this time when the post-30 June roadmap is still in its trial phase. They warn that Egypt had experienced a similar euphoria before, with the dawn of the 25 January Revolution but then the situation unravelled as people lost their way in the twists and turns of political developments. Divisions grew rife and the hopes of the people vanished amidst the drumbeats of political conflict and sharp polarisation.
General Adel Suleiman, military affairs expert and director of the Centre for Future Studies, is of this opinion. He cautions that to ignore the size of the Muslim Brotherhood presence in the street and to turn the television cameras away from this while preparing exclusivist political arrangements is not a promising beginning for a new climate in which we all work together to rectify the course. He points out that Al-Sisi himself cautioned against exclusionist tendencies in his speech: “None of the political forces in the nation want conflict or violence. In fact they appeal against these phenomena. All political forces without exception and without exclusion must realise that the opportunity is open to all parties engaged in political work and to all ideological trends to participate to the best of their ability for the sake of the nation which is the property, the right and the future of all Egyptians.”
Suleiman continues, “we have a speech that clarifies the reasons that made the army move to engage itself in the centre of the political scene to remove the president, and that justifies the role of the army in this. Nevertheless, I prefer to read political situations more than analysing political speeches in text or substance. There are domestic parties that are sceptical about what happened and we cannot ignore them in Rabaa Al-Adawiya, the university, in Upper Egypt and in the Delta. Simultaneously, there are diverse international stances towards what is happening here. Then, in spite of all the good intentions of our great army, dangers lurk at the crossroads, as Al-Sisi said.
“What would happen if the politicians of the new phase fail and who would bear the repercussions? This is not out of the question. There are signs of a conflict brewing on the horizon and this makes me anxious about the military establishment to which I belong. Even granting that the military establishment appreciates the dangers and the magnitude of the challenges, it has placed its faith in civil forces that I do not believe that the army can depend on as much as it depends on its own regiments which ultimately work effectively through the system of the military establishment. Therefore, I hope the army emerges from this phase safely in spite of the anticipated costs, whether with respect to its moral assets which it recuperated last year or its strength which could be sapped in a turbulent political domain. In addition, many questions continue to hover regarding the future position of those groups that remain loyal to the dismissed regime. Indeed, what will be the fate of its president? In addition, on what basis will the reconciliation that the [current] presidency is calling for take place?
“Everyone knows that this will be a one-sided dialogue. Even the telephone lines are cut between the two sides and the distances between them are too great. They want to turn the clock back to the night before 3 July and erase every detail of what happened since, whereas for the army this is an unapproachable red line which cannot be sacrificed for the sake of those who made mistakes and plunged the political scene into a quagmire.
“For my part, I would have preferred for the people to have learned by trial and error. The blows they would have sustained would not have broken them, but rather strengthened them in the future. I would have preferred it if the army had not stepped in to take the initiative. I fear that it will sap its strength in politics, stirring the appetites of all those we fear who are lurking along our borders whether with Israel, or Sudan to the South, or Libya to the east.”
Another military affairs expert, General Gamal Mazloum, agrees that there are major challenges that cannot be denied and that there are open fronts that can be used to inflame tensions and portray the situation in Egypt as though it were caught in a clash between two equally valid streets of opinion. However, he maintains, the army’s intervention following 30 June was an unquestionable imperative. To speak of a “coup” or promote the thinking of the other street is to ignore the historical numbers of millions that turned out on 30 June and to distort the reality by pressing it into conventional moulds. “When there is an organisation accused of treason and this organisation has people who preach violence and bloodshed, then to regard them just as another street parallel to the street of the masses of the revolution is unacceptable and a betrayal of the people.”
On the future, military affairs experts hold that the army is keeping a distance from the details of the political fray while continuing to perform its basic role as a keel. Its aim, as Mazloum says, is to “empower the state” by means of the clearly demarcated roadmap of 30 June that he felt confident that the forces of the revolution would carry through because it is effectively a plan for rescuing a country that had almost drowned and that had been deeply wounded in almost every respect by the former regime and its supporters. “Even the military establishment itself was wounded by this regime. But it does not forget and it will not tolerate offences because its structure and creed are built on dignity.”
Mazloum continues, “as for the challenges of the future, these are being carefully weighed and considered because we must deal with them. The important thing is to avert a rift in the national ranks. Unity and dialogue can overcome all challenges and obstacles which are fully appreciated by both the military leadership and the national forces that are in partnership to forge this future the path to which no one believes is strewn with roses.”
Al-Sisi, in his speech, sustains such an assessment: “If the circumstances compelled the Armed Forces to approach the political process, then it did so because the people summoned it and asked it to undertake a task that they, with their sense and assessment of the realities of the situation, knew that their army could perform. This was to right scales that had gone askew, rehabilitate truths that had vanished, and set purposes that had deviated from their course back on track. The general command of the Armed Forces did not in any way seek this task. It has always been and will remain true to its beliefs and principles with its people, and dedicated to its role which it will not exceed or surpass. The role of the Armed Forces in the modern world is perfectly clear. No party has a right to embroil it in complications that it cannot sustain due to its very nature.”