The Egyptian Army’s Department of Morale Affairs (morale, please note, not moral, which it probably isn’t), has been doing a great job since the overthrow of the last administration.
The Department is responsible for managing the public image of the Army. Ever since the coup, led by then-General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, it has been assiduously encouraging a cult of personality around him. His recent promotion to Field Marshal provided it with a field day. Its media campaigns have resulted in his face appearing frequently on Egyptian state television and in state-run newspapers, on posters and billboards, and even on memorabilia ranging from chocolates to underpants.
The skilful propaganda projection of him as an upbeat officer who is at the same time a devout Muslim, harbouring traditional respect for women and Christians, goes some way to explaining the high regard in which he is held. His popularity rating is also due, in no small measure, to the popularity of the military, which continues to be the most trusted institution in the country. Around 90 per cent of Egyptians support it.
Until Wednesday, March 26, 2014 al-Sisi was
deputy prime minister, the minister of defense and the commander-in-chief of ’s armed
forces. On that day he resigned all three
offices, and announced that he would be standing for election as Egypt’s new president in a ballot whose date has yet to
be set. After three years of upheaval Egypt yearns for a strong leader. Even
though al-Sisi remains something of an enigma within the country, his public
idolization is so great that he is virtually certain to emerge, some time
during the summer, as Egypt ’s
new president. Egypt
What sort of president will he make? He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry – the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat.
Although very different in temperament and outlook, the two late presidents had one thing at least in common – both took
into direct combat with . In this, at least, it is highly unlikely that
al-Sisi will emulate his predecessors.
Nor are we likely to see him follow Sadat in popping into Israel Jerusalem to address ’s parliamentarians – his predecessor’s untimely end would no doubt inhibit any such whim. But
he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current
rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening
both Egypt’s nascent régime
And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home. In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within
a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters. Egypt
As for al-Sisi’s economic policy, it is shrouded in ambiguity. Negotiations with the IMF have been suspended, since the conditions they would impose for a loan would be political suicide. He continues to rely on huge subsidies from
and other Gulf states, while he attempts to
persuade capitalists in exile to return to with their money. Egypt
Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”
Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing" Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond
make his aim a near impossibility. The
concept of Pan-Arabism, for example, is dead. There are, however, one or two
areas in which he might make a Nasser-like mark – rekindling nationalist pride
is one. Turning towards Egypt
for support is another. Al-Sisi’s trip to Moscow in mid-February 2014 to
complete an arms deal, in reaction to the US’s lack of enthusiasm for the coup
he engineered against Mohammed Morsi, evoked memories of Nasser's rejection of
the West in favour of the Soviets. Russia
Al-Sisi would seem to be emulating
Nasser in one further respect.
He is already identifying his forthcoming presidential era as one of grand
projects, just as Nasser had done with the
Aswan Dam. Al-Sisi’s project is the proposed development of the Suez Canal
area, being heavily promoted as the key to 's future. Egypt
Anwar Sadat followed Nasser into power, shoehorned into the presidency by
Nasser's supporters, who regarded Sadat
as a transitional figure that they believed could be manipulated easily. He was
to prove them wrong. Sadat did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of
Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations. He succeeded in instituting a "corrective revolution" which purged the government, political and security
establishments of the most ardent Nasserists.
In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim
Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser.
He gave them "considerable cultural and ideological autonomy" (as author Gilles Keppel has
it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was
clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat
In 2006, al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master's degree. In a research paper he warned that democracy in the
East was "not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western
template". He argued that
"democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by
the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic
faith". However, he did not talk about implementing Islamic law.
So President al-Sisi is likely to rule
as an up-to-date version of the strong, near-authoritarian, leader, firmly
grounded in his military background, but paying something more than lip-service
to democracy – although a democracy strongly flavoured
with more moderate aspects of Islam.
With Egypt Egypt’s national
interests in mind, he is likely to adopt a pragmatic approach to cooperation
with Russia –
President Putin is anxious to counter US
influence in the Middle East – and with Israel, where collaboration in overcoming
extremist terrorism in
and Sinai is in both countries’ best interests. Gaza
And the 1979 peace treaty with
by Egypt’s President Sadat
prime minister, Menachim Begin, will – short of some totally unforeseen
catastrophe – be in safe hands. Israel
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 April 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 April 2014: