Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Courtesy Reuters Supporters of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 25, 2014.

Can a Myth Rule a Nation?

The Truth About Sisi's Candidacy in Egypt

Anyone who claims to possess full political power in post-Mubarak Egypt is lying. That might be hard to believe, given how large the military looms these days. But the vision of an almighty military -- propagated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), its supporters, and those desperate for stability -- is a mirage. Soon enough, it will dissipate, revealing deep tensions in Egypt and dwindling options for what is often assumed to be Egypt’s strongest institution.

On Monday, SCAF, the governing body of the Egyptian military, unanimously gave Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military’s commander in chief and Egypt’s current defense minister, its blessing to run for president. (Indeed, it considers his nomination a “mandate and an obligation.”) Sisi, whom the interim president promoted to the rank of field marshal the same day, has yet to announce his candidacy. Still, most everyone has accepted it -- and his eventual presidency -- as a fait accompli, the final step in the military’s reconquest of Egypt and the country’s return to the days of former President Hosni Mubarak.

But that is not the whole story.

Last June, Mubarak supporters and some revolutionaries came together to oust elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Since then, large parts of society have coalesced around Sisi as the personification of a renewed nationalist strain of Egyptian power. He is lionized in the state media and praised by figures from Mubarak’s defunct ruling party and crony capitalist networks. Much of the general population, outside of the Muslim Brotherhood and revolutionaries, view him as being above the political fray. Brides profess to want to marry him, and men project his masculinity to reinforce their patriarchy. And those clamoring for stability -- from media moguls to average Egyptians and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- talk of democratic roadmaps and upcoming elections while sweeping political reality under the rug.

Sisi has tried to cement his position in politics by initiating an antiterror campaign, launched in late July of last year. The state’s coercive machinery has since increased its targeting of antigovernment protests and sit-ins, which has produced a death toll in the thousands. It is more than just a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s military-backed government has officially labeled a terrorist organization. The interim government and security forces have also killed and injured non-Brotherhood protesters, jailed revolutionary activists and nonstate-controlled journalists, lodged legal accusations against politicians who rose to prominence after the uprising, and slandered dissenting academics. The campaign has coincided with an uptick in bombings, assassinations, and a Sinai-based insurgency against the state by an Islamist group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. As the body count rises (security forces killed nearly 70 people last weekend), it is becoming clear that the state has actually weakened over the past three years. The government’s policy of using violence against dissenters is merely the latest effort to fix a leaky boat. But it will keep Egypt on the brink of revolution.

To understand why, consider what happened as protesters chased Mubarak’s last government out of office in January and February 2011: The military rolled in to protect infrastructure and its own factories and then carved up Mubarak’s ruling coalition while everyone else focused on Mubarak’s resignation. The SCAF exiled or imprisoned some crony capitalists and the government’s pro­-economic-reform team because it did not control them. It eliminated many of its competitors in the interior ministry and brought them under its authority. For example, the SCAF renamed the State Security Investigations Service(Homeland Security) , Egypt’s draconian domestic spying apparatus and reshuffled its leadership in March 2011.

Other powerful and potentially competitive intelligence agencies were not spared. Take, for instance, Omar Suleiman’s General Intelligence Service. An assassination attempt against him in Cairo during the uprising was never explained, and most accounts speculate that the military was behind the conspiracy because no one was ever apprehended. He can be forgiven, then, for quickly retiring after Mubarak’s departure. Last August’s appointment of Mohamed Farid el-Tohamy -- a former military intelligence officer -- to run the General Intelligence Service demonstrates just how fully the military had dismantled Suleiman’s old networks.

By the time the revolution was over, nearly all political control rested in the SCAF’s hands. At that point, the council had a number of options. It could have governed on its own, but it did not want to. Instead, the generals decided to protect their interests but hide behind a civilian face. So it sought out a civilian administration that could not challenge it. In the process, it whittled Mubarak’s regime, which had been designed to serve multiple constituencies and networks, into a system that would serve the interests of the military alone.

The SCAF reached out to a previous foe, which, it believed, could help demobilize a restive society. The Muslim Brotherhood was given a choice between siding with the revolution or the military. Brotherhood leaders broke toward the generals, believing that, if they were pliant enough, they would be indispensible to the military. In the end, however, Morsi and his group could not deliver what the military wanted: public stability or an end to continuous street activity. In fact, their presence and blatantly partisan rule made protests worse. So the military and its supporters consulted with and allowed the Tamarod protesters to turn up the heat on Morsi. Their street mobilization in late June, in turn, pushed the generals back into action.

In one sense, the military got its way. It demonstrated its sway over the Egyptian state when some observers believed that it had, in fact, been sidelined by Morsi, who forced the retirement of a handful of senior generals in August 2012, including the then defense minister and head of the SCAF, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. But in another sense, the military damaged the foundations of the regime it inherited. By pushing out an elected official, it discredited the notion of elections as a useful tool for rotating and transferring political power among civilian groups. Gone was any last inkling that the military could stand neutrally by, allow electoral victors to emerge, and not interfere with the process.

Now, with no other organized civilian group left to work with and its options limited, the SCAF hurled Sisi into the spotlight and began to create the myth of an Oz-like wizard controlling the state. Doing so bought Egypt’s generals some time, but the task before them -- engineering a new regime -- needs more than that. The longer the transition process drags on, the more cornered the SCAF finds itself. In fact, although Sisi’s nomination for the presidency might have appeared inevitable or destined, one could argue that it was the SCAF’s increasing weakness and paranoia that motivated his impending candidacy. After all, given his popularity, Sisi could anoint anyone as Egypt’s next preferred president. Open elections would likely be a landslide for his chosen candidate, and the process would preserve both the vestige of procedural democracy and the SCAF’s ability to intervene. Yet the generals named Sisi, looking to him to finish off the revolution and reign in the Brotherhood’s participation in politics.

But beyond creepy state press portrayals of Sisi’s virility and Egyptians parading around in gold-colored Sisi masks, as many were in Tahrir Square on the third anniversary of the revolution on January 25, the junta has little upon which to build a real regime. Sisi has no economic policies or political programs to speak of. The military-backed government’s base is narrow, and since it has no way to incorporate dissenters, it will generate more dissent and state-generated violence.

For now, Sisi and the SCAF have amassed the popularity of a fickle public. But the winds could change at any time. In years past, the military was able to pivot at will, showing remarkable flexibility. But now, with Sisi’s nomination, it has made the military the central player in the drama. Its role in politics now publically recognized, it will face more scrutiny as it tries to pull the levers. It has no civilian partner on which to pin the blame, and it is losing the support of its onetime grass-roots ally, Tamarod. As the regime-in-formation resorts more and more frequently to force, it will only exacerbate Egypt’s political crisis.

It is telling that the only institution that emerged with a good hand after Mubarak fell is increasingly playing with limited cards: all clubs and no hearts, diamonds, or spades. Although it might seem in control for now, the public will not tolerate an increasingly iron fist forever. Instability and violence will eat away at the myth of the omnipotent, newly promoted field marshal and the system’s narrative of stability. Once that happens, the ongoing social struggle will move on to its next phase.

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