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The Real Contest for Egypt Has Been Won, Now the Spectacle Begins
This week, Gen. al-Sisi formally announced his bid for presidency, as well as his simultaneous resignation as Minister of Defense and the SCAF’s Chief of Staff. In his speech he detailed, at length, the ongoing crises facing Egypt.
Left out of this tirade were the inconvenient truths that these endemic problems, which animated the unprecedented protests against Hosni Mubarak, were not meaningfully addressed in the year the SCAF administered Egypt under the administration Gen. al-Tantawi (al-Sisi’s mentor)—nor has there been substantial progress on these challenges in the several months since the SCAF reclaimed power after deposing President Mursi. Worse still, al-Sisi seemed to have no significant proposals for resolving these persistent problems other than continuing to court petrodollars from the Gulf monarchies in exchange for security and geopolitical services.
The announcement of his candidacy was no surprise—if anything, many were puzzled as to why it took so long for him to officially declare his bid for president. The short answer: he wanted to be sure that there was no chance he would lose or be deposed after stepping down as head of the SCAF.
In previous analyses, I highlighted divisions within the army following the coup against Mursi—as well as longstanding divisions between the military and the NDP. I advised readers to keep their eyes trained on this space, as the biggest threats to al-Sisi would likely come from within the regime.
One indicator of this threat is al-Sisi’s recent moves with regards to the military.
Despite already being the country’s defense minister and the head of the SCAF, and despite his widely-expected resignation in order to run for President—nonetheless, al-Sisi sought a promotion to Egypt’s highest military rank, “Field Marshal.” Shortly after this promotion, the military took the unprecedented measure of officially endorsing al-Sisi’s candidacy for president and imploring him to run. The purpose of these moves was to isolate those within the military, many of whom were similarly ranked, who had been critical of al-Sisi, his bid for power and his implication of the military in Egypt’s political affairs.
However, probably the most significant threat to al-Sisi was posed by an alliance between Ahmed Shafiq and Retired Gen. Sami Annan:
Towards the tail end of Mubarak’s rule, as he was preparing for retirement, there arose a rift within the deep state as to who would succeed him. This struggle between the military and the civilian NDP culminated with the coup against Hosni Mubarak, designed to secure the army’s position within the state, as it was widely perceived that Mubarak’s heir-apparent, Gamal, would work to curb the influence of the military in favor of the NDP.
Following his failed presidential bid, Ahmed Shafiq has become the standard-bearer for these elements of the deep state who became known as al-fulul (“the vanquished”)—playing a critical role in orchestrating the coup against President Mursi.
For these reasons, Shafiq would have been a political threat to al-Sisi if he had decided to run for president himself—but it seemed as though he had instead thrown his weight behind Retired Gen. Sami Annan, and much of the army and deep state with him. In fact, Annan was respected by Washington, the Brotherhood, the military, the NDP and the Egyptian public—making him the sort of candidate that could generate dangerous consensus as a superior alternative to the Field Marshal.
The goal seemed to be to have al-Sisi resign as head of the SCAF in order to run for president, and subsequently lose the election to Annan (who would declare his own intention to run only after al-Sisi stepped down) with the support of the “deep state”—simultaneously purging the field marshal from the military and civilian governments (and likely driving him into exile). This plan did not come to fruition.
Instead, there was an assassination attempt on General Annan. While it failed in taking his life, it succeeded in driving him out of the race—a couple days later he announced that he had no intention to run. The only loose end was Ahmed Shafiq.
Around the same time the attempt was made on the General, a tape was leaked wherein Shafiq condemned al-Sisi’s bid for presidency. This put him in an awkward position—given the complete intolerance the government has shown towards criticism, and with his intended political champion (Sami Annan) disposed of, Shafiq was in no position to go to all-out war with the sitting head of the SCAF—even from exile in the UAE. Accordingly, shortly after Annan announced his resignation from politics, Shafiq stated that he would not run either and formally endorsed the candidacy of Field Marshal al-Sisi instead.
With these rivals taken care of, al-Sisi finally felt secure to resign in order to “run” for President. Having already won the contest that really matters, the war for the deep state, the official presidential election is little more than a formality.
But he isn’t leaving anything to chance: Egypt’s top prosecutor has recently announced an inquiry into al-Sisi’s only “competitor,” Hamdeen Sabbahi, accusing him of corruption.
The Upcoming Elections
From polling and other empirical data points, we can establish that the coup was and remains unpopular with many Egyptians. Even some of those who initially supported al-Sisi have abandoned their support in the face of subsequent crackdowns, increasing authoritarianism and a lack of progress in addressing Egypt’s socio-economic problems. The Field Marshal seems to have support from just over a third of the Egyptian public, maybe a little more—it is difficult to substantiate claims beyond this. While far short of the “overwhelming popular support” many analysts attribute to him, his supporters often border on fanatical, and his base is more than sufficient to win the election—in part because they seem to be the only ones voting.
In the constitutional referendum, for instance, only around 38% of the electorate turned out, but 98% of these voters approved the measure.
These electoral dynamics, when paired with a virtual absence of compelling alternative candidates, the deep state’s virtual monopoly over Egyptian media, their lack of tolerance for criticism and horrific spectacles of crushing dissent—not to mention the lack of transparency, external oversight or an appeals process regarding the election outcomes—ensures that, with the deep-state brought into line, al-Sisi’s victory is a foregone conclusion. It is disingenuous to make claims like, “he is widely expected to win,” as this grants the “contest” an underserved legitimacy or sense of uncertainty. The regime is back.
Musa al-Gharbi is a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC); he has a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona. His website (www.fiatsophia.org) includes links to follow him on social media or subscribe to his posts. A version of this article was originally published by SISMEC.