The military’s recent statement tasking General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with taking steps toward a presidential bid appears to confirm the widely-held belief that de facto military rule over Egypt is here to stay. For many, this statement reflects the success of Sisi’s months long efforts to pave the way for a decisive victory in a seemingly competitive national vote by liquidating his opponents and tilting the political field in his favor. The military’s announcement and the manner in which it was presented, however, reflect a great deal about the insecurities that continue to haunt Sisi in his bid for power.
If the purpose behind the general’s quest for the presidency is to afford the political status quo and the military’s dominant position the façade of democratic legitimacy, then yesterday’s announcement makes little sense. Notwithstanding the burdens Sisi has taken on and imposed on the military by entering into the presidential race, kicking off his bid with a formal mandate from the military proves and underscores the very realities that the general is supposed to conceal. Specifically, this development leaves no doubt in the minds of observers that political outcomes in Egypt are dictated by the military and not by a supposedly unpredictable, free-for-all democratic process that is responsive to popular will. By failing to unilaterally resign from his position and announce a presidential candidacy from a place of institutional independence, Sisi missed a perfect opportunity to dispel the claim that he is running as the military’s nominee. Instead, he chose to present his nomination as a direct response to the call of his own peers.
It is tempting to blame these missteps on sheer political incompetence. Yet more compellingly, this move seems to be highlighting Sisi’s insecurities about potential chatter among the officers’ rank and file that he is taking the military into risky political adventures for the sole purpose of personal gain. In such a context, yesterday’s statement signifies the publicized approval that Sisi needed from the officers in order to protect against possible backlash from within the military. By obtaining such a public endorsement, moreover, Sisi in effect made the whole military, as an institution, complicit in his personal bid for power. Such a measure makes it challenging for the officers to distance themselves from Sisi’s candidacy in the future. It makes it difficult for them to wait on the sidelines conveniently and strike a pact with whoever wins, as they had done in the 2012 presidential elections when former Air Force General Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi competed in the runoff vote.
Sisi’s fears are not entirely ungrounded. After all, the officers turned their back on one of their own when popular pressure forced them to oust Hosni Mubarak and, eventually, put him on trial. They appear to have played a role in forcing Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Anan out of their positions when it became clear that the two leaders’ political confrontations with President Morsi would take a toll on the military’s interests. As he enters the battle for the presidency, Sisi seems to realize that he is vulnerable to a similar fate, though the stakes are much higher, given the mass atrocities security forces had committed under his leadership. In fact, Sisi implicitly cited fears of being sold out by his own institution in a leaked conversation with Al-Masry Al-Youm’s Yasser Rizk last fall. When asked whether he would consider running for president, Sisi suggested that intellectuals and writers demand that the new constitution be enshrined with an article that would allow him to return to his post as minister of defense should he enter the presidential race and lose. These are the words of a general who speaks from a position of insecurity and who is well aware of the fact that he may find himself isolated from his peers and stripped of the institutional cover currently protecting him. Sisi recognizes the lessons of the past three years, specifically that the interests of the military and his own may not always align, and that the officers are likely to confront moments when sacrificing their leaders is tempting, if not imperative.
This is not to imply that splits within the military are prevalent at the present moment, but rather that there are inherent tensions in the political path Sisi has chosen, and it remains to be seen how these tensions will play out in the coming months. Getting Egypt’s military completely out of the political arena may be difficult and destabilizing, but so is deepening and solidifying their engagement in it.