Minister of Defense Field Marshal ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi has just announced he met today with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to resign his commission. As a civilian, he will now prepare for his campaign for president. By Egyptian law, members of the military may not run for public office.
Thus begins the next phase of the counter-revolution, one far more reminiscent of 1950s immediate postcolonial-era charismatic dictatorship. Even (especially?) the 2012 pro-regime presidential candidate, Ahmad Shafiq, has been caught complaining the state would fix the polls so al-Sisi would receive the proverbial 99.9% acclamation of the masses.
However, it is apparent Sisi’s path has not been straightforward to this point, considering the long delay in the arrival of this event and the roiling rumor mill in Cairo. Al-nizām, the “old regime,” is not as monolithic as the mass protests have made it seem. The material basis of political power in Egypt is divided between the military itself, a range of state and semi-state-run enterprises, and a large and diverse private sector which included until recently a strong contingent of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Besides his genuine and media-scripted mass popularity, al-Sisi gives confidence both to the leadership of state institutions such as the police, judiciary and military, and to the state enterprises,that their independence and power bases will be respected and even honored. The recent appointment of Ibrahim Mahlab, for 20 years the CEO of Arab Contractors, the biggest state run building contractor, as prime minister is the most prominent symbol of this desire to please.
Now al-Sisi wants to cock it all up by running for president. Here in the United States, we let C-students be president, and the “smartest guys in the room,” aka powerful moneyed interests, usually try to keep their mouths shut. Why doesn’t he make a guy like Mahlab run for president and remain Minister of Defense with a permanent praetorian hand on him and any successors, who could enter and leave office according to constitutional term limits?
If the military wants to preserve its economic and diplomatic privileges, without the prying questions of the media and the accompanying erosion of Egyptian respect, the answer is: don’t run. If the judiciary wants to diffuse criticism of its practices (such as sentencing 529 rioters to death, mostly in absentia) rather than focus them on a single person responsible for appointing supreme court justices, the answer is: don’t run. If the state enterprises want to foster nationalist pride in import-substitution industries that can pretend to provide Egyptian workers with a living wage, and do not want to represent a cesspool of crony capitalism, the answer is: don’t run. If al-Sisi himself doesn’t want instant and escalating protests insulting his name, the answer is: don’t run. These are some of the voices we presume have been speaking behind closed doors at SCAF in the past few months.
Why does he want to run? The only answer is: narcissism. (Credit is due to Juan Cole for this characterization). Ironically enough, the social and political basis of plutocracy is too weak in Egypt for the elite to tell al-Sisi to sit back and be a Koch brother (or play Northrop Grumman) and let a puppet do the hard work of actually being president.
Doesn’t he look pleased as punch? But if al-Sisi thinks he is going to be the next Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasir (top right, before he took off his uniform in 1956 to become Egypt’s second president), he should think twice.