Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters A Sisi campaign banner along a highway in Cairo, May 22, 2014.

The Banality of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

The Strongman in Historical Perspective

“I wish I was like Nasser,” Egypt’s new president, the retired field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Egyptian journalists during a televised interview in early May, referring to the former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Nasser was not just a portrait on walls for Egyptians but a photo and voice carved in their hearts.” Sisi’s comments seemed rather appropriate; his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, his military background, and his apparent popularity have a distinctly 1950s feel to them. Yet Sisi is not Nasser. Nor is he Anwar Sadat or Hosni Mubarak, or any other formative Egyptian leader. Sisi is just Sisi. As much as the new president has been billed as a hero and a savior, his coming rule is likely to be banal.

It should be clear to virtually everyone, no less to Sisi, that it is far better to be field marshal and minister of defense than it is to be president. He is hemmed in by Egyptians’ demands, a collapsing economy, a Muslim Brotherhood that is bent on delegitimizing him, and opposition to his rule within the state apparatus. To make matters worse, Sisi has few political resources at his disposal. For a man who rode mythical throngs of 30 million to power in last summer’s coup, things were supposed to be very different.

To be sure, there were signs well before Sisi won virtually all of the vote in last month’s presidential election that his real popular support was not what the pro-Sisi media made it out to be. In last January’s constitutional referendum, which was widely seen as a test for a potential Sisi presidential bid, a resounding 98 percent voted for the constitution, but only 38.6 percent of eligible voters turned out. No matter, the pro-Sisi media and his political supporters calculated that they would have enough time to manufacture a consensus around their candidate.

Yet things got worse for Sisi during May’s presidential elections, when pictures of empty polling places revealed Egyptians’ apathy or opposition toward their new leader. The authorities even took the extraordinary step of extending polling for a day and threatening to impose fines on citizens who did not vote. In the end, Egypt’s Supreme Presidential Election Commission reported that 96.91 percent of voters had selected Sisi and that the turnout had reached 47.45 percent.

That is hardly the kind of mandate Sisi and his people were expecting. The new president can comfort himself with the fact that, in his early years, the great man -- Nasser -- also faced public wariness as Egyptians struggled to make sense of their mercurial leader. It took an assassination attempt to create the Nasser myth, and the nationalization of the Suez Canal to solidify it. Sisi could, of course, be targeted. But it is hard to think of any dramatic gestures that he could make to unify Egyptians. Also, it seems that Egyptians are now less likely to be cowed by, or enthralled with, cults of personality.

In fact, the ambivalence that Sisi faces is more likely to drive a political dynamic that evokes the early 1930s, when Ismail Sidqi, whom few remember, ruled with an iron fist. Of course, things have changed since then. There is no monarchy, and the British left six decades ago. But when Sidqi entered office, he confronted strikes, street protests, generalized political instability, and a country on the economic brink -- a result, in part, of the Great Depression. The new prime minister, who was determined to crush his political opponents and establish order, ignored the constitution and ruled by decree for the next three years.

That all sounds familiar. The underlying rationale for Sisi’s presidential bid was his personal popularity and the alleged consensus among Egyptians that only he could bring order to the country’s chaotic politics. Only he, his supporters believed, could make tough choices and pursue wrenching reforms, especially economic ones. And, only he, they thought, would be granted enough of a reprieve to fix Egypt before the public poured back into the streets. That argument has now been undermined by low voter interest, and Sisi faces a choice.

For one, he can recognize that the world has changed, that Sisi-mania was a chimera, that the establishment of a new version of the old political order will be more difficult as a result of the elections, and that he needs to promote inclusion to improve his chances of putting Egypt back together. Without the overwhelming popular support that Sisi was expecting, it will be harder to rule without regard for those who disagree with him. President Mohamed Morsi tried to do this, which began the end of his short tenure at the Ittihadiya Palace.

Or, Sisi can avoid the truth and try to rule as a strongman, relying on coercion and force to maintain order. This is what Sidqi did in the 1930s. And it is, in part, what prompted the Free Officers coup in 1952, when Nasser and his collaborators sought to bring an end to political instability and, in the process, built the archetypal Middle Eastern security state. It is also what Sadat attempted in the year before his assassination, and what Mubarak both accomplished and failed to do; he shrewdly employed the authoritarian tools that Nasser and Sadat bequeathed to him, ruling virtually unchallenged for almost 30 years until it became expedient for the military to remove him as millions poured into the streets in early 2011.

Based on his performance since last summer’s military overthrow of Morsi, it does not seem like Sisi is capable of any other kind of rule -- in this, he is no different from those who came before him. It is true, for example, that Egypt is confronting a nasty insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, which has spread to the cities of the Nile Valley, and a Muslim Brotherhood that is dedicated to delegitimizing the political process. And yet Sisi’s crackdown on dissenters, his increased pressure on journalists, his demands that the opposition be loyal to him, and his tolerance of the security forces’ indiscriminate violence reveal much about his future approach.

To be sure, the field marshal was not directly responsible for all the excesses of Egypt’s latest leadership transition -- including the more than 1,000 who have died, the many thousands who have been injured, and the 1,212 sentenced to death. But, if he were as deeply loved and as powerful as the myth that precedes him suggests, then he would have had the ability to minimize these outrages, if not bring them to an end. Perhaps, in other words, Sisi does not command the Egyptian state in the way that many believe. And if that is the case, his best strategy for remaining in power is to use the only real resources he has -- coercion and force -- to discipline the political arena.

Sisi’s circumstances are interesting but hardly unique. He confronts a range of serious challenges, but the exigencies of sidelining a political group that is perceived as a threat to the natural order, an economic crisis, and chaos in the streets are all parts of Egypt’s political history. And Sisi’s response is likely to be similar to his predecessors’. In Egypt, the future looks a lot like the past.

So where does that leave Sisi in the grand sweep of modern Egyptian political history? It might be an unfair question to ask as he takes the oath of office. Yet the last year suggests much about his worldview. If his presidency looks anything like the transition period, history will treat him with ambivalence at best. Nasser was the giant of mid-twentieth-century Middle Eastern politics; Sadat made peace with Israel; Mubarak ruled for three decades then succumbed to the people; and Morsi was a Muslim Brother. Each of Egypt’s post­–1952 leaders can lay claim to his own historical legacy. If Sisi establishes order, that will be an accomplishment. But it will be a small one, nothing compared to the accomplishments of the man he wishes to be. Indeed, he will be a footnote -- another Sidqi.

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