Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The General’s message

Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s profile is eclipsing all other political players, writes Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Many find it inconceivable that Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will not be Egypt’s next president. In the first three months following the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi from power it is Al-Sisi, not interim President Mansour Adli nor Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi, who has dominated the new political order.

Yet even as military sources insist Al-Sisi harbours no presidential ambitions and pundits speculate he will either opt for behind-the-scenes decision-making or remain only as long as it takes to secure the military’s safe return to the barracks, Al-Sisi can hardly be said to be avoiding the limelight as campaigns demanding he present himself as a presidential candidate become increasingly vociferous.

Al-Sisi made two significant appearances this week. The first was during the lengthy official celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the 6 October War with Israel, which at times appeared to focus more on Al-Sisi than on the war. When the event’s host, actor Hussein Fahmi, listed Al-Sisi among the attendees the euphoric crowd at the sports stadium began to roar his name. The celebration’s finale song — which featured a roll call of well-known singers — played on Al-Sisi’s phrase that “Egypt will be as big as the world”. Then none other than Al-Sisi closed the ceremony with a 14-minute speech. He was the only state official to speak.

The next day the general gave his first ever press interview, choosing the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm which serialised his words over three days.

Al-Sisi gave an account of why the military intervened and removed Morsi on 3 July, echoing much of what he has said in previous speeches though providing a few more details. He cited the controversial rally Morsi held on 26 June in solidarity with the Syrian people and which was dominated by Salafi speakers who indulged in sectarian discourse. Morsi gave a two and half hour speech at the rally, beginning by apologising for his mistakes but then going on to attack the opposition and refuse any concessions ahead of planned protests demanding early presidential elections.

“I told myself as I listened to his speech this is it, they’re threatening the people,” Al-Sisi said in the interview. “It’s clear they saw things differently and the extent of the protests that happened then didn’t change their picture. I knew then the moment of decision was going to be 30 June.”

“Tens of millions” of Egyptians took to the streets that day because they feared for their “centrism and future”, he said. The military, which had issued a one week ultimatum that ended on 30 June didn’t release an immediate statement, Al-Sisi explained, because he wanted to give “serious communication” between the various parties a chance.

Al-Sisi said he then gave Morsi another ultimatum and informed him of it before making it public. “Take notice,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm, “someone who is planning a coup does not give people advance notice.” He denied providing Washington with details of the 3 July statement in which he announced the removal of Morsi, the suspension of the 2012 constitution and a political roadmap that included the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adli Mansour, taking over as interim president.

While placing the responsibility for events leading to the army’s intervention squarely on the shoulders of the Brotherhood and Morsi, Al-Sisi’s explanation of their failure was more nuanced than that of many other state institutions, certainly than that of the security apparatus which favours a totally exclusionist policy.

After ascending to power, suggested Al-Sisi, the problem wasn’t whether Morsi was going to be the president for all Egyptians that he had promised but whether he wanted to be that, and if he did want it whether it was possible. 

“I’m not criticising anybody,” said the general, “because this is a problem that’s going to face any political stream… the Islam of an individual isn’t the same as that of an organisation or the state.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is an organisation that agrees on certain ideas, and they’re free to do that, but they can’t impose them on others, he added.

“Can anybody argue these Islamists care for Islam?… the problem is they can’t separate between individual practices and practices within the state system.” These Islamists damaged the image of Islam in “unprecedented” ways, making it synonymous with murder, blood and sabotage.

Al-Sisi rejected the idea that the military never accepted Morsi as president and worked to depose him. The Brotherhood just didn’t have the background to run a state like Egypt, he said.

While possibly patronising, Al-Sisi didn’t refer to the group or its leadership as terrorists, a term exhausted by the media since August.

“The military is more pragmatic and realistic than other institutions and realises that excluding the Islamists is neither acceptable nor practical,” says Ashraf Al-Sherif, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “He might also be responding to the exclusionist discourse. Either way, Al-Sisi’s rhetoric shows there’s no one-man rule at the moment.”

The big question — whether or not the general will run for the presidency — remains, but it might be irrelevant. Egypt is many months away from presidential elections (no date has been set) and in the second part of the interview published on Tuesday, Al-Sisi states clearly that the Armed Forces “learned” from the 18 months it was in power following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster “that the military shouldn’t be at the forefront of the [political] scene”.

“Power should be in the hands of a civil government and presidency as a way out of any crisis,” he said.

But in the third part of the interview published Wednesday, when asked directly if he'll run for president, the general avoided a direct answer and didn't rule out the possibility: "I don't think this is the right time to pose the question," he said.

Al-Sherif is not so sure. “Al-Sisi knows that the next president will be unable to deliver in the face of overwhelming challenges. It's doubtful he'll be that president,” says Al-Sherif. The Armed Forces however will remain the guardian of the state, “and this is the image he’s part of”.

Yet as long as Al-Sisi remains so visible he is likely to pull the carpet from beneath the feet of would-be presidential contenders.

“Why should I consider [ex-army chief-of-staff] Sami Anan or [ex-chief intelligence officer] Murad Mowafi or even [ex-presidential contender] Hamdeen Sabahi when there’s Al-Sisi?” asks Khaled Mohamed, a banker from Nasr City, the east Cairo neighbourhood which witnessed the bloody clampdown on the Brotherhood’s sit-in on 14 August.

The scale and frequency of violence in Sinai which has now spilled over to cities along the Suez Canal and even Cairo may be the outcome of political deadlock but it also justifies the military’s continued political presence.

“Egyptians need to feel the army will protect them but this can’t be sustained for too long. More compelling bread and butter demands will eventually prevail,” says Al-Sherif.

The bankruptcy of all political players over the past two and a half years is reflected in the public mood and possible scenarios of what's yet to come. At the height of the 2011 revolution there was resentment for the “pharaoh” and a “focus on collective leadership” says AUC political science professor Rabab Al-Mahdi. “Now the public’s disappointment has led to the re-emergence of the desire for a single leader.”

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