Sisi’s reaction to the crisis with the Obama Administration has helped build up his credentials as a daring Egyptian nationalist who does not retreat before a superpower – among other things.
Since the ousting of President Morsi on July 3, 2013, the issue of who will be the next elected President of Egypt has been at the center of attention in Egypt and abroad. Morsi’s presidency has proven the extent to which an Egyptian president can influence the course of the country and shape its domestic and foreign policy. Because of this, one can easily understand the amount of energy devoted by analysts of the Egyptian scene in order to try and decipher the intentions of General Abd el Fattah el-Sisi, the actual strongman of Egypt.
Sisi holds the combined titles of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, first Deputy of the Prime Minister, and Minister of Defense and Military Production. He is the man who led the overthrow of President Morsi. Since August 14, he has conducted a ferocious crackdown (only parallel to the crackdown performed by Gamal Abd el Nasser in 1954 against the Brotherhood) aimed at eliminating the political power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. And unlike his predecessors, Sisi is waging a merciless campaign against jihadi fighters in the Sinai Peninsula in order to restore Egypt’s sovereignty in the desert while drastically reducing Hamas’ power in the Gaza Strip.
Sisi has been very murky about his future plans, denying through the army spokesman any intention of running for the presidency in early 2014. However, events on the ground seem to show that the general is preparing himself for the presidency because this is the only viable choice for him and the military establishment. In theory, Sisi could decide to stay in his position under a newly elected president and enjoy his powers as he is doing today, but he could also suffer the fate of his predecessor, Field Marshal Tantawi, who had his career terminated with the stroke of a pen. Sisi does not want to alienate his opponents by eying the presidency too early and creating a situation in which he would have to justify himself.
Savior of Egypt
The course of events in Egypt seems to lead to a situation in which Sisi will be “called to the flag” as a savior in order to salvage Egypt from its enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, and lead the country not only as an Egyptian nationalist but as an Arab hero. In fact, if Egypt’s mainstream media and political power circles could have voted by now, then Sisi would be president with almost no challengers.
No observer of the Egyptian scene can ignore the publicity campaign, partially orchestrated by the authorities, singing Sisi’s praises, which has been happening for several weeks. Between TV commercials used to advertise food products, groups on social networking sites and posters in the street, Egypt seems to have “Sisi fever.” Talk shows and newspaper columns have been advocating the idea of the general running for president in order to fight the terrorist threat that they say the country is facing. Local media are also buzzing about the widespread support for a Sisi presidency. In fact, Sisi has no real competitor. Most of the other potential candidates – Amr Moussa, Ahmad Shafik, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abd el Muneim Aboul Foutouh – have declared that if Sisi would run for president, they would retract their candidacies.
Recently a number of campaigns have been launched calling on the general to run for president. The campaigns are called “Complete Your Favor,” “A Nation’s Demand,” and “Al-Sisi for President.” Their aim is to circulate petitions with the hope that 30 million signatures will convince Sisi to run, just as the millions of signatures convinced him to act against Morsi.
No doubt the “Sisi fever” is being fueled partly by Sisi himself or by people around him who support him. These supporters stress his charisma, his popularity, and his authoritative demeanor. They also emphasize that Sisi is someone who makes tough, harsh, and unpopular decisions and yet at the same time presents himself as “guardian of the people’s will” and delivers colloquial and sentimental speeches to the nation.
More interesting is the concentrated effort to picture Sisi as the political heir of the iconic President Gamal Abd el Nasser. Sisi himself has revived the Nasserist cult by participating in the 43rd memorial ceremony of Nasser’s death. Sisi has also allowed posters to spread with his picture adjacent to the venerated president, invited Nasser’s son and daughter to official ceremonies (such as the one held to commemorate the “October War”), and used Nasser’s “magic words” in his speeches. When these phrases were pronounced by Sisi, Egyptians were able to see him as the successor to Nasser, the Egyptian leader who fought the Muslim Brotherhood domestically and led Egypt to the leadership of the Arab World and the non-aligned community.
In a way, Sisi’s revival of Nasser’s memory was a way for him to satisfy deeply buried longings for an era of Egyptian prominence in Arab and world politics. Nasser’s family has mobilized in order to give Sisi the legitimacy to present himself as the political successor of Nasser. Nasser’s daughter Huda wrote an open letter to Sisi urging him to “step forward and take responsibility for the destiny that is yours.” The list of personalities invited to the podium for the ceremony marking Egypt’s “victory” in the “October War” included Abd el Hakim Abd el Nasser (son of President Nasser), Jihan Sadat (the wife of assassinated President Anwar Sadat), Field Marshal Tantawi, and other dignitaries from the Arab world. The only person missing was former Chief of Staff Samy Anan, but this was likely due to the fact that Anan had presented himself as a candidate for the presidency in 2014. For the Egyptians, Sisi appeared as a unifier, a leader that conceded to his predecessors their rightful place in Egypt’s history. In fact, Sisi was presenting his legitimacy as the rightful leader of Egypt not only to his Egyptian compatriots but also toward the U.S. administration, which is questioning his legitimacy and presenting him as the leader of a coup and a usurper of power.
The Nasserist revival presents a challenge. Nasser’s relations with the United States were notoriously bad, as was his attitude toward Israel. Sisi has not challenged the peace treaty with Israel and most probably will not do so as long as his main concern remains the consolidation of his regime and the quelling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s resistance. Sisi, as head of Military Intelligence, knows the intricacies of Egyptian-Israeli security relations and is well aware that the issue of insecurity in Sinai raised by Israel is primarily directed against the stability of the Egyptian regime. As long as Israel agrees to the Egyptian requests to beef up its forces in Sinai in order to fight the jihadists – and is therefore willing to overlook the limitations on Egyptian troop levels imposed by the peace treaty – Sisi has no reason to change the rules of the game with Israel.
Anger at U.S. Policy
A new, unexpected element has come into the equation between Egypt and Israel. For years, Egyptians were used to hearing from the U.S. that continuation of American financial assistance to Egypt requires honoring the peace treaty with Israel. However, following Morsi’s ousting, the United States decided to cut its financial aid to Egypt and postpone the delivery of weapon systems already ordered by Egypt. By doing so, the United States has overturned the longstanding correlation between financial assistance and Egypt’s honoring of the peace treaty, leaving the Egyptians to wonder now what the U.S. reaction would be if Egypt were to question its peace treaty with Israel, given that American financial leverage could disappear.
The $14 billion that Saudi Arabia and the UAE transferred to Egypt immediately after Sisi’s takeover, and the $40 billion promised in economic aid, are a reminder to the United States and others that Egypt may not be in need of such conditional financial assistance. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first to understand the change in Egypt. They see Sisi as a potential ally and protector against the growing threat of Iran in the Gulf area at a time when the U.S. interest in the area fades away and is being replaced by a drive to restore relations with Iran. In the face of Egypt’s serious socio-economic problems compounded by unrest, financial aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE could become a decisive factor for Egypt in consolidating the situation in the country under army leadership.
Moscow has also been paying attention to the unexpected Saudi-Egyptian alliance, as shown, for example, by the recent visit of the director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, Prince Bandar, to Moscow and his exhaustive four-hour conversation with Russian President Putin. It is interesting that Prince Bandar did not respond to a similar invitation from Washington, which speaks indirectly of Riyadh’s dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the Middle East.
President Obama prefers not to publicly support the Egyptian military regime. After the events of August 14, he attempted to call General Sisi. However, according to some sources, Sisi did not take Obama’s call. Instead, the Egyptians suggested that the White House call the interim president, Adly Mansour, which the Americans, in turn, declined to do.
Observers who follow the Egyptian scene are repeatedly stressing the change in the mood of the Egyptians towards the United States, from friendship and admiration to open hostility. Israel also has been suffering from this change in the mood towards the United States. The U.S. attitude (described by Sisi himself as turning its back on the Egyptians) is fueling his leadership exactly as occurred decades ago, when Nasser used CIA money to build a radio tower in Cairo that became the beacon of anti-Americanism in the region. In fact, the crisis with the Obama Administration and Sisi’s reaction to it has helped build up his leadership credentials as a daring Egyptian nationalist who does not retreat before a superpower – particularly one that so openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
The writer, a special Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence