Will General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi remove his military uniform in order to become a presidential candidate? After all the popularity he has won will he settle for being minister of defence and refuse to nominate himself or will he agree to stand for office and, if he wins, lead the ship of state?
These are among the questions that Egyptians are asking themselves as calls are increasingly heard for Al-Sisi to take the helm in the coming phase. Indeed, many have begun to dub him “Nasser 2013” in reference to the massively popular Gamal Abdel-Nasser whose memory remains alive and potent many decades after his death.
The general’s path to the presidential palace would likely be strewn with opprobrium. He would encounter cries against “military rule” at home and choruses of “we told you so” by foreign parties that charged that events in Egypt following 30 June were a military coup.
Yet a large segment of the domestic media has joined the call for Al-Sisi to nominate himself, aligning themselves with increasingly vociferous grassroots campaigns such as “Complete your Favour”.
The proponents of the campaign regard Al-Sisi as the strongest man in Egypt and, hence, the most fit to lead the country. In their view other presidential hopefuls will all pale next to “Nasser 2013”. As though to drive home this message some satellite channels are playing medleys of patriotic songs which make a far from subtle link between Nasser and Al-Sisi.
Al-Sisi has emerged from near obscurity to the forefront of the political stage. In the process he has acquired a Nasserist “aura” in his relations with supporters and opponents. Tangible testimony to Al-Sisi’s presence came in the form of the immediate and massive response to his appeal to the people to stage demonstrations in the country’s streets and squares on 26 July to grant him a mandate to fight terrorism.
Calls for Al-Sisi to stand for the presidency have not only come from the “street”. Former Arab League secretary-general and one time presidential candidate Amr Moussa has effectively declared his support. In a recent press conference Moussa, who currently heads the Committee of Fifty charged with amending the 2012 constitution, said “Egypt wants a firm and decisive president... Al-Sisi would stand to sweep the elections because he has such qualities in his character”.
Mustafa Al-Feki, who served as Hosni Mubarak’s information adviser, is equally confident of Al-Sisi’s electoral prospects should he decide to run. Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi agrees, adding “if Al-Sisi fields himself for the presidency I will support him because he is a popular hero.”
Sabahi’s use of the term “popular hero” is probably apt. As the public and political observers flick through the names of former candidates they would be hard put to find anyone capable of garnering as much popular support as Al-Sisi. Perhaps this is why some politicians have raised the “Al-Sisi for president” banner. They realise that in a presidential contest against Al-Sisi they would lag behind in the polls.
Even such an outspoken critic of military rule as Alaa Al-Aswani recently conceded in an interview on a satellite television political talk show that Al-Sisi “has a legal right to run for president if he resigns from the army”.
Ahmed Shafik, runner up in last year’s presidential race against Mohamed Morsi, says that “if pressed by a large number of noble fellow citizens I will heed their call and nominate myself as I did the first time.” But he added a significant coda: “This is contingent on whether or not Al-Sisi runs… if he fields himself in the elections he will have the absolute priority and I will be the first to support him.”
Political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan believes that Al-Sisi will heed calls to run for president, especially now that the “Complete your Favour” campaign has shifted from the Internet to the streets in the form of a drive to collect 30 million signatures on a petition asking him to nominate himself in the next presidential elections.
Nor is this the only such campaign. Another was launched in Assiut, the “A national demand”. It seeks to persuade Al-Sisi to nominate himself as president, but in an interim capacity, in what the campaign organisers describe as a necessary extension of the roadmap. A third campaign, “The people’s will”, is making similar demands.
Political parties and NGOs have also climbed on board. Last week some 150 rights advocacy organisations held an emergency meeting to discuss the current situation. Among the recommendations they approved was one supporting Al-Sisi’s nomination as a presidential candidate. Among the political parties to echo this call was the Nationalist Egypt Party whose vice chairman, Mahmoud Riad said, “our party is convinced that Al-Sisi is the man for the current phase… he is the person best fit to become president after the 30 June Revolution”.
But the calls for Al-Sisi as president are not yet overwhelming. Intellectuals and journalists from across the political spectrum have come out against the idea. Some argue it would confirm that what happened on 3 July was a “coup” while others hold it flies in the face of the demands of the revolution for democracy and a civil state. Some have remarked that the posters that feature Al-Sisi alongside Nasser are misguided and do an injustice to the latter. They argue that when Nasser first came to power he formed a cabinet that included a number of Muslim Brotherhood members. Many critics point out that it is just as wrong to mix politics with the military as it is to mix politics with religion.
A large segment of this camp argues that Al-Sisi’s current position is no less significant than the office of the president. His service to the nation and the great role he played in protecting the January Revolution are far more important than his running for office. They also warn that the organisers of the Al-Sisi for president campaigns are trying to manufacture a new pharaoh. Al-Sisi, they argue, realises this and does not want to be that pharaoh. As one opponent to such campaigns put it, “any initiative to promote General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s nomination for president is out of the question, especially as Al-Sisi has given no sign he will nominate himself or presented a political platform to the public.”
Mahmoud Al-Alaili, a member of the central committee of the Free Egyptians Party, stated in a press conference: “We must focus more on the roadmap and concentrate on producing a civil constitution that expresses the aspirations of all Egyptians. We should work to rally the Egyptian people into voting [in the referendum] for this constitution so as not to leave the vote to a faction that is doing its utmost to mislead the people.”
Revolutionary youth also side with this body of opinion. Taha Abdel-Gawwad, a member of the executive bureau of the National Salvation Front (NSF) argues that Al-Sisi performed a great national role in his capacity as defence minister in standing by the 30 June Revolution. He fulfilled the expectations in him as a brilliant and patriotic military man but, Abdel-Gawwad added, revolutionary youth favours a civil president with a clear and specific political platform and are suspicious of grassroots campaigns whose organisers’ political outlooks and intentions are unknown.
The camp opposed to an Al-Sisi presidential nomination are also quick to point to foreign criticism of the 30 June Revolution as a military coup. If Al-Sisi does nominate himself he will feed the critics’ warning that a nascent civil state in Egypt risks militarisation whereas if he does not nominate himself he will retain his stature as a highly popular general.
When Al-Sisi was asked by The Washington Post how he would respond to the flood of support in favour of his nomination for the presidency, he responded, “I would like to say that the most important achievement in my life was to overcome these circumstances and thereby ensure that we will live together in peace, continue with the roadmap and hold the forthcoming elections without shedding a single drop of Egyptian blood”.
When pressed as to whether he would run for office, he answered “You can’t believe that there are people who don’t thirst for power?”
“Are you one of these people?” the interviewer asked.
“Yes. Realising the hopes of the people is my ambition. The love of the people is the most important thing to me,” Al-Sisi said.
Yet campaigns for his nomination are unlikely to abate. At some point he will have to decide whether to remain the General Al-Sisi whose appeal for a mandate to fight terrorism was answered by approximately 33 million people and whose assets of popular admiration and support are guaranteed, or whether to take plunge into the political fray with all the risks that entails.