A general come back
 
 
October 6, 2013 celebrations in Tahrir Square
 

Since the 2011 revolution, October 6 has served as a day to remind the people of the military institution’s prowess, particularly given the generals’ tumultuous relation with politics after they took the reins of the country following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

But October 6 2013 is different. The military doesn’t need to exert too much effort to celebrate on this day, the anniversary of what the Armed Forces call a victory in the 1973 war with Israel. This year, Egypt is celebrating October 6 at a time when the military’s popularity has reached a fevered pitch. The Armed Forces have been riding a wave of popular support that has grown bigger and bigger since they mandated former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office on July 3.

This year, October 6 is being celebrated with images of the Armed Forces chief commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Printed in full color on A4-sized posters, his face is distributed at every other traffic light and street corner in Cairo and beyond.

This is the apotheosis of a weeks-long popular campaign calling for the 58-year-old general to run for presidency, although he has vehemently denied any desire to run in the upcoming elections. Those on the Sisi-for-president bandwagon think Egypt needs to be saved by a strongman during this time of precarity, but others fear this is a dangerous indication of a deep political void.

“The whole issue comes within the context of national responsibility. The country’s [best] interest lies in Sisi running for president,” says former MP and liberal politician Mohamed Abu Hamed. He thinks popular pressure has to be exerted on Sisi to take up this position.

It’s not only the situation at home that demands the colonel general’s strong presence at the forefront of politics, but also broader turmoil across the region, particularly in Syria, Abu Hamed asserts.

“It will be hard for a civilian to rule Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood will try to shake the stability of any future ruling regime, and to avoid that, the future president has to have wide popular support to fall on,” he argues.

Abu Hamed goes so far as to say that no other president could succeed if Sisi was standing the shadows, particularly given the wide popular support he has garnered in the last few months.

“If we want Sisi to run, we have to do our best through popular campaigns to convince him. Otherwise, the next president will suffer from being constantly compared to what Sisi could have been,” he insists.

But the belief that only a military man could confront the current period’s difficulties is seen by some as a reflection of limited political options.

“No one has presented himself as a presidential candidate except the 13 names who ran in the last presidential race, and none of them even gained wide popular support then. Morsi won the elections over [former presidential candidate and Mubarak regime figure Ahmed] Shafiq with a one percent margin, not due to belief in him, but because voters feared the return of Mubarak’s regime,” says Suleiman Gouda, opinion writer and former chief editor of the Al-Wafd partisan newspaper.

“We are witnessing a different state now. Sisi’s support of the June 30 movement [that ultimately toppled Morsi] gave him enough popular support without having to present himself as a potential presidential candidate,” Gouda adds.

Since June 30, Sisi has been hailed as the savior who came to meet the demands of the raging masses who took to the streets to demand Morsi’s resignation. 

Beyond this lack of options, other observers feel that the call for Sisi is a reactionary one, springing from a deeply seated struggle between Islamists and their opponents. Akram Ismail, a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance party, thinks that the political forces opposing Islamists are mired in a profound anxiety regarding their potential return.

“They believe that Sisi is the only one capable of dealing with Islamists. Those civil fronts are addressing ruling authorities, rather than the people, to save their spots in the political space,” Ismail says.

Yet Ismail is skeptical about Sisi’s actual interest in running for the presidential seat.

“I don’t think Sisi will run for many reasons, but mostly because such a move will confirm Western forces’ convictions that Morsi’s toppling was a coup. Moreover, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ experience during the first transitional period, which was a turbulent period, proved that involving the army in political conflict only [negatively] affects its popularity,” Ismail suggests.

Even if widespread popularity is a card in Sisi’s hands now, elections mean promises, Ismail points out. With the dire economic conditions currently afflicting the country, it would be a challenge for a president to bank on his popularity without being able to offer any real solutions.

“The theory of preserving the state by depending on a man from the army is devoid of truth, since high army ranks are strongly present in the government structure anyway. Sisi is capable of running the battle with Islamists without being visibly in charge, because institutions like the Ministry of Interior and the General Intelligence are on his side,” Ismail adds.

Mohamed Naeim — a political researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who is analyzing the current developments in the constitution writing process — also doubts that Sisi is willing to throw his hat in the ring.

The presidency is no longer an alluring position, judging from a draft constitution in which the presidential powers would likely be significantly diminished, Naeim says.

The constitutional committee has announced a close-to-final vision of what presidential powers would look like under the new constitution. The president would have to acquire the approval of two thirds of parliament to declare war in this draft, for example, while the 2012 Constitution stated only that the president needs a majority in the parliament.

Other constitutional amendments include granting the party with the parliamentary majority the right to name the head of Cabinet, as long as they can acquire a 51 percent approval within the parliament. The Cabinet itself would acquire more powers, as the president would need the approval of his ministers to impose a state of emergency or draft certain strategies for running the country.  

Furthermore, police forces would no longer be subordinate to the president, who in older versions of the constitution used to be the head of the Supreme Council of Police. 

“All these [changes] are indications that Sisi is not the right figure to make such compromises. He is the minister of defense, which is a special position above all others — especially because the constitutional committee kept the Armed Forces articles [granting the military special privileges], giving them the right to keep their budget a secret and to choose their leaders within their own ranks. I expect the army to support a candidate who will fall in line with these stable and recognized conditions,” Naeim concludes.

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Omar Halawa