What might the possible presidency of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi hold for Egypt? Political scientist Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed reflects on the question with Dina Ezzat
Whether it has been put on hold for a while, as has been speculated this week, or whether plans are continuing at their scheduled pace, the candidacy of army chief and Minister of Defence Field-Marshal Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi for the presidency seems to be all but inevitable.
The man whose intervention on the side of the nation-wide demonstrations last summer caused the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi now seems set to nominate himself for the job that has been temporarily in the hands of chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court Adli Mansour.
The road towards Al-Sisi’s widely expected — and many independent observers would agree widely hoped for —candidacy has however been marred by considerable political agitation and security hiccups.
Today, argues political scientist Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, the nation’s top brass needs to ease the tensions before his candidacy is announced in order to allow the upcoming presidency to be more conducive to a much-delayed process of state-building and democratisation and move away from what would otherwise possibly be legitimate allegations of “military rule” that excluded, or even quelled, the opposition.
“It is crucial for the political tension to be dispelled, and it is necessary for this to happen sooner rather than later because the longer the state of tension that we have been seeing continues, the darker will the shadows be that it leaves over the prospects of the political process over the next weeks and months. This could be the case whether Al-Sisi runs, as he is widely expected to, or if he chooses at the last minute to refrain from running and continues instead as army chief,” Al-Sayed told the Weekly.
Al-Sayed had no doubt about the volume of agitation that the country has been seeing. “We have seen some very disturbing political confrontations since the ouster of Morsi, and I am not just talking about the confrontation with the Islamists, not that I am giving credibility to any form of deliberate political harassment. I am also talking about the confrontation between the state and the liberal opposition that was at the forefront of opposing Morsi.”
The confrontation, which has included the arrest of some activists and the intimidation of many others, has had the effect of creating an unhealthy political atmosphere in which some commentators and lobbyists have taken the liberty of calling for Al-Sisi to run uncontested and to become president come what may, he said.
“This would be one of the worst things that could happen to Egypt now — to see the army chief trying to join a presidential race with no competition. This is because no matter what could be said about the popularity of the man at this point — and he is certainly very popular — the lack of credible competition in the next presidential elections would not best serve the legitimacy of the coming regime,” Al-Sayed said.
He added that for the opposition to come into the competition, the armed forces needed to retreat from appearing to back the head of the army because this would be intimidating to any potential competition. “Al-Sisi has gained considerable popularity in view of the decision he took when he sided with the people who were demanding an end to Morsi’s rule. But this is not in and by itself a sufficient base for his candidacy. Like any other candidate, Al-Sisi should have a platform to offer to public opinion and debate,” Al-Sayed said.
“This should also be the case for the other possible candidates who should be granted equal opportunity and equal air time from the radio and TV channels to promote their views.”
So far, however, Al-Sayed argued, there had been no clear indications that things would take this path. On the contrary, he said, there had been some “unjustified attacks by the media” against two potential candidates who have indicated their willingness to contest the role of the head of army.
Both Sami Anan, himself a retired army general, and Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate in the 2012 elections, have been subject to considerable media attacks for having considered joining the presidential race.
“I am not suggesting that these attacks were ordered or condoned by Al-Sisi or the armed forces, but what I would certainly argue is that this attitude is not helpful, or let me say it is downright harmful, to the chances of a democratising process taking place under the presidency of Al-Sisi,” Al-Sayed said. “Those who wish to see Al-Sisi at the top of the executive need to get over their wish to see him walking the path towards the presidential palace uncontested because this is not sustainable.”
Al-Sayed argued that prior to the launch of the presidential race, Al-Sisi needed to end the attacks on freedoms that have been escalating in recent weeks in what have been widely interpreted as the early signs of the re-institution of the security apparatus in Egypt.
“People cannot simply be rounded up without charges that are based on sound and compelling evidence, and those who have been held for long periods with no clear charges, including those accused of association with the Muslim Brotherhood, should be promptly released,” Al-Sayed argued. “Take the case of Muslim Brotherhood member Helmi Al-Gazzar, for example, who has been held in custody with no clear charges. This is just one obvious example of someone who should be released.”
Freedom of expression, assembly and political lobbying should no longer be undermined as has been the case over recent weeks in the case of the Islamists or of secular opposition voices, Al-Sayed argued. This should include the lifting of restrictions on all forms of peaceful and lawful opposition to any state-promoted political choices and it should mean that those who wish to promote alternative political options are not interfered with.
“I am willing to argue that the TV channels associated with the Islamists that have been taken off the air should be allowed to re-broadcast, provided that they act within the bounds of the law and away from all forms of incitement and hate speech. I am also willing to argue that there was no point in hampering those who wished to garner support for a no vote to the new constitution either,” Al-Sayed said.
“Let’s be frank about it: there is already a negative impression, not just in the outside world, but also in many quarters inside Egypt, about the way political freedoms have been going since the ouster of Morsi and in view of the anticipated candidacy of the army chief for the presidency. We need to think about ways of dispelling such concerns, which are not entirely without merit.”
According to Al-Sayed, the worst thing that could happen now would be for Al-Sisi to depend on the support he has gathered for having removed an unpopular and failed president to move on without trying to create a wider and deeper base of support. Even worse would be for him “to do so against the backdrop of repression,” Al-Sayed said.
“I am afraid that this is not something that the large majority of Egyptians, and I am not here talking just about the Islamists, would feel comfortable with, especially as this proposed pattern cannot lead to stability and as such would not take the nation where the people want it to go,” Al-Sayed added.
According to this political scientist, it is not enough for the presidential hopeful to promise limited meetings with his opponents or to make an open promise that he will reverse the tide towards repression once in office.
“Again, what he needs to do, and this he could do in his current post and using his current clout, is to make sure that he walks towards his new post without associating himself with the media brain-washing of public opinion or the security harassment of the opposition.”
In addition to promoting liberties, “especially for the opposition because you cannot expect to have zero opposition and call yourself a democracy,” and pursing a platform that is “away from the influence or intervention of the military,” Al-Sayed said that it was “absolutely essential for Al-Sisi to refrain from allowing any association between his proposed presidency and the return of the pre-25 January Revolution political set-up.”
“Here, I have to say that there have already been concerns that what the presidency of Al-Sisi could produce the re-introduction of the regime of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak that the people rose up against in 2011,” he added.
Al-Sayed insisted that any such association would be very harmful for the attempts of Al-Sisi to establish a successful presidency because no matter how much “revolution fatigue” people may be suffering from there is a genuine public wish for democracy, stability and prosperity and a continued rejection of the former Mubarak regime.
“It has already been noted that the kind of treatment that ousted former president Morsi has been receiving since 3 July last year is very different from the kind of treatment that Mubarak received after he was forced to step down. Indeed, many have rightly noted that the kind of treatment that Morsi receives falls far short of honouring the basic legal requirements to which any prisoner should be entitled,” Al-Sayed said.
“People cannot but make comparisons between a man who was kept for the longest part of his custody in a hospital and another man who was held incommunicado and who has not been allowed any access to his family members or even his lawyers except very recently,” he added.
A fourth requirement that Al-Sayed proposes for the successful presidency of Al-Sisi is an end to the hostility and security-only approach in dealing with the Islamists.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is not going to disappear or just go away because the security has decided that it should. This assumption overlooks the fact that when all is said and done, this is a group that has survived many challenges and that has a wide base. All those indicted with breaking the law should be brought to justice, there are no two ways about that, but those who are proven innocent should not be denied the right to pursue their own paths,” Al-Sayed argued.
He added that “in fact by giving everybody in the Muslim Brotherhood such a hard time it has become almost impossible to expect the voices that call for structural and conceptual reform from within the group to have any serious chance of overwhelming the more radical ones.”
“In attending to the matter of the Muslim Brotherhood and despite the many complications involved, Al-Sisi should free himself from the security views that dominated under the rule of Mubarak and that in fact were not conducive to the modernisation of the group or its impossible eradication,” Al-Sayed said.
At the end of the day, “we are still waiting for the man to announce his nomination, but I think that the requirements for the success of his presidency should be provided whether he runs or not. They are necessary for the success of the political transformation that Al-Sisi chose to start on 3 July last year.”
The highest likelihood is that Al-Sisi will run and win, and that from that day on it will be an uphill battle to prove that although he comes from a military background he can rule as a civilian president with a strong prime minister and a diverse and inclusive team. The latter will need to honour the key demands that started Egypt’s long political process on 25 January 2011: freedom, dignity and social justice.
“Short of this, things might not take the positive turn that people are all hoping for,” Al-Sayed concluded.