President Sisi Rides Precarious Passions into Office

It is fitting that Egyptian armed forces commander Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi has decided to assume the presidency of his country, because two of the three main problems that Egypt faces are a consequence of his own decisions during the past year.

It is fitting that Egyptian armed forces commander Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi has decided to assume the presidency of his country, because two of the three main problems that Egypt faces are a consequence of his own decisions during the past year. These are the massive schism in society between the Muslim Brotherhood that he banned and the rest of the country, and the continuing tradition of military control over civilian politics and national governance (the third problem is the chronic issue of economic growth that can create enough jobs for the two million + Egyptians born every year).

Sisi has personally played a central role in these two tough arenas, so his smooth sideways slide into the presidential chair could give him the opportunity to address and resolve these massive constraints to Egypt’s development as a democratic, stable, and prosperous country—should he have the desire and the ability to do so. The really troubling thing right now for Egyptians is not that they are about to elect a new soldier president, but that they are about to elect a new soldier president about whose policies, capabilities, democratic values, governance style, and national plans they know virtually nothing.

Sisi should be aware of the fact that he is assuming the presidency now on the strength of the two greatest but most fickle passions that any political leader can count on to shape his or her incumbency —blind love and fierce fear—because the mass adoration he enjoys on the basis of these frenzies can disappear as quickly as they appeared. The combination of intense love for Sisi as the national savior and deep fear of the hapless Muslim Brotherhood due to its miserable and greedy one-year-long performance in office means that Sisi’s strong mandate can last as long as any fleeting emotion lasts in a human being—perhaps months at best. By summer, the three big problems that plague modern Egypt and the entire Arab region—chronic military governance, domestic secular-religious schisms, and socio-economic distress—will certainly remain unresolved, and likely could worsen. They will resurface, and could damage and threaten Sisi, as they have all other Arab leaders since the 1970s, depending on how he uses the enormous power at his disposal.

The situation and Sisi himself offer some assets that could be used to overcome some of these legitimate concerns and doubts, by drawing in particular on three strengths that he takes into office with him.

First, he will assume the presidency with a strong popular mandate, but a presidency that has been damaged by his own unceremonious ousting and jailing of the previous democratically elected president, Mohamad Mursi, on the heels of significant popular protests against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi will have the same opportunity he has enjoyed since early July 2013, which is to rule Egypt with a free hand to implement almost any policies he deems appropriate, yet will also remain vulnerable to being ousted by the same popular forces that he used to oust his predecessor.

Second, he takes office after 18 months or so during which the Muslim Brothers won free and democratic elections to parliament and the presidency, and then proved to be both incompetent at governing and thuggish in their thirst for total political power. The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood should have the opportunity to assume office democratically is no longer a serious one in Egypt now, because they had that opportunity and failed miserably. Yet Sisi must find a way to heal the rift with the Muslim Brotherhood, effectively rescind the ban on them so they can engage in democratic politics again in a new guise, stop the deeply contentious mass arrests and trials of political activists of all stripes who are charged with being or aiding terrorists, and lower the level of violence in the streets between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood citizens.

Third, he enjoys the very strong support of several key constituencies, including much of the public, wealthy Arab state supporters in the Arabian Peninsula, many key foreign governments, and a majority of Arab citizens who still look to Egypt with awe and great expectations that it could move the Arab world into promising new pastures of statehood, citizenship, governance—and national composure and dignity.

This soldier-president will be unlike any other in Egypt, because of the manner in which he assumes office and the continuing strong desire by Egyptians for a credible democratic transition from the old ways of security-state governing. Sisi will need to reveal in the coming weeks and months if he has the character, wisdom, courage and honesty to address Egypt’s enormous political problems and socio-economic stresses, and wind down the two important stressors that he himself has been involved in—military rule of governance and the violent antagonism to Islamist politics in society.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global