Running ahead – Egypt’s new president

Author: Khaled Dawoud/ AL Ahram Weekly

Cairenes woke up earlier this week to find posters of Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi plastered across the capital’s main bridges and streets. Most of the posters were emblazoned with the slogan “Al-Sisi President for Egypt” and provided no details of who was sponsoring the hefty costs of the campaign. Elsewhere in Cairo, in poorer neighbourhoods, less glossy posters have appeared which deliver the same message.

Al-Sisi, who was instrumental in removing former president Mohamed Morsi following the 30 June Revolution, has been riding a tidal wave of popularity. Even so the sudden, blanket campaign backing his nomination as president is confusing, even embarrassing, given the 60-year-old defence minister has not yet officially announced his decision to run.

So-called “informed sources” told several local newspapers on Monday that Al-Sisi would announce his candidacy in mid-February. Currently, they said, he is working with a high-level team to prepare an election programme that will confirm he is running as “a civilian candidate”, on an equal footing to anyone else who might seek the presidency.

An announcement of his intention to run would require Al-Sisi to resign as defence minister though that is unlikely to weaken his image as the candidate backed by Egypt’s dominating military establishment. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a brief statement last week saying they supported whatever decision Al-Sisi takes but also noting that the level of support he currently enjoys  makes contesting the presidency “a duty” .

Political figures and commentators known to support the Al-Sisi presidential bid, immediately sought to distance him from the poster campaign. The campaign, they claimed, was most likely a series of “personal initiatives” by individuals or parties seeking to build court the man most people assume will be Egypt’s next president. Some even warned such campaigns could hinder, rather than benefit, Al-Sisi’s chances. Egyptians, they argued, have not forgotten that they took part in a popular revolution three years ago to oust a dictator who stayed in office for 30 years on the back of fake campaigns orchestrated by state institutions.

Pro-Al-Sisi commentators have been critical of “cheap” means being used to bolster support for Al-Sisi. In one widely reported incident children were made to wear army boots on their heads while carrying posters of Al-Sisi. Muslim Brotherhood supporters, involved in daily clashes with police and army following the military’s decision to back popular demands to forcibly remove Morsi on 3 July, have repeatedly described Al-Sisi’s supporters as “slaves of army boots”. The families of the children made to place the boots on their heads said they were “proud to confirm their love and support for Egypt’s national Army and its commander Al-Sisi.” In a similar incident last month the Minister of Social Affairs Ahmed Al-Borei sacked the director of an orphanage who forced girls as young as three to wear sleeveless dresses on a particularly cold day then packed them into a small bus in which they were taken to an event aimed at rallying support for Al-Sisi where they were due to sing.

Whatever the objections to the campaign, the fact is the posters have not been removed. State and private media continue their cheerleading for Al-Sisi, portraying the defence minister as the only candidate who can meet the security challenges Egypt is facing and repair its battered economy.

The support for Al-Sisi has clearly scared off other presidential hopefuls, not least because anyone who does announce his intention to stand against the army chief will inevitably face charges of treason and of trying to divide Egyptians. One of the many groups that have emerged backing Al-Sisi campaign recently declared that they would collect 40 million signatures endorsing his presidential bid, enough, they said, to declare him president without the bother of holding elections.

Ironically, the figure who has given the strongest indications that he might run against Al-Sisi also hails from the military establishment. Former Chief of Staff Sami Anan worked for decades under former President Hosni Mubarak and played a key role in steering the country’s political direction following the removal of his former boss on 11 February, 2011 when SCAF took control of the country. Anan’s declaration that he was considering standing has caused discomfort in military circles.

Columnists in state-owned newspapers lashed out at Anan, claiming he had the support of the Muslim Brotherhood which hoped to “divide the Egyptian army”. They added, for good measure, that the Brotherhood was backing Anan in return for handing power to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi when he was a member of SCAF.

Morsi removed SCAF head Mohamed Tantawi and Anan following a terrorist attack on a military post on the border with Gaza in which 17 army officers and soldiers were killed in August 2012. He replaced them with Al-Sisi and Sedki Sobhi.

Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third after Morsi and Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik in the first round of the presidential election in May 2012, is clearly hesitant to throw in his hat. While saying that he was ready to run for president “as the candidate of the 25 January Revolution” he also stated that he did not want to give the impression that he was “breaking the obvious national consensus over Al-Sisi” or running against the Egyptian army.

Significantly, Sabahi’s political movement Al-Tayar Al-Shaabi (The Popular Trend) has issued a statement criticising SCAF’s backing of Al-Sisi, arguing the army, as a political institution, has no business backing one candidate over another. Yet in an interview on Sunday, Sabahi said he would “back Al-Sisi as president if he offered a political programme that aims to achieve the goals of the 25 January Revolution”.

Sources say Sabahi’s supporters are divided, with younger members insisting he should run and the older generation arguing he should not take part in a battle he is destined to lose.

Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate who came fourth in the 2012 race, has also indicated he is unlikely to stand. He said in an interview on Monday that “there were no guarantees for a fair and free election” and the state was already heavily involved in backing Al-Sisi. Abul-Fotouh added he was being systematically excluded from expressing his views in the media.

Khaled Ali, a leftist human rights lawyer who also ran in 2012 but only won 135,000 votes, is likely to try again, but mainly to publicise his views and those of the small, radical youth groups that support him. A member of Ali’s campaign told Al-Ahram Weekly that they were coordinating with Sabahi’s young supporters to gain their backing should Sabahi not run.

In a recent newspaper cartoon a man in ragged clothes, poor and tired, stands between two shouting men. The first, bearded man, asks him: “Are you a supporter of Morsi or an infidel?” The second asks: “Are you a supporter of Al-Sisi, or a traitor?”

The man replies simply, saying “I’m hungry”.


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