Dump Sisi, or Strengthen Him?

What’s the Egyptian military establishment planning for the presidential election?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

While Egypt’s foreign relations are increasingly beset by complications and crises – with Ethiopia over its Nahdha Dam and Sudan over the Halaib border dispute, not to mention Qatar and Turkey – the country’s domestic scene is in no better condition. In some respects it is so shrouded in obfuscation that it is has become incomprehensible.

The Egyptian political elite is still reeling from former general Ahmad Shafiq’s decision to run in the forthcoming general elections and his subsequent withdrawal, and all the speculation, confusion and conflicting explanations generated by that bizarre development. Now it has been hit with another surprise following the announcement by the Misr al-Urouba (‘Arabism Egypt’) Party that it had nominated its founder, former chief of staff Gen. Sami Anan, as a presidential candidate. He is due to deliver a speech to the Egyptian people accepting the nomination and setting out his election programme.

Intriguingly, President Abdel Fattah as-Sisi has not yet formally announced his own intention to run for a second term at the March election. He is not expected to do so until the end of this month, the deadline for nominations, in a couple of weeks’ time. This raises many questions about what may be going on behind the scenes within Egypt’s narrow ruling clique.

It would have been much easier for Sisi to compete with an opponent like Shafiq than it would be to face the more powerful and formidable Anan, who is said to continue to enjoy support within the military establishment. He is also said to have external backing, notably in the United States, with which he has good relations nurtured throughout his military career.

Two days after Anan’s nomination was announced, there had yet to be any reaction from Sisi or his political and media mouthpieces. This is understandable to those who are familiar with how things are managed within the Egyptian deep state – Shafiq, having been living in the UAE, was not fully informed about arrangements for the election or that Anan would run as Sisi’s competitor.

Two main explanations have been offered for Anan’s decision.

Some say his candidacy is part of a carefully scripted ‘pantomime’ aimed at depicting the election as a real contest by fielding a strong candidate who could theoretically unseat Sisi. The aim is to give the election some credibility and prompt voters to turn out in large numbers, although the prearranged outcome is for Sisi to win in the end.

A rival view is that Anan’s nomination is no pantomime, but a serious move that reflects serious rivalries between factions within Egypt’s ruling military establishment It pulls all the strings in the game, and has opted to go to the people to endorse the outcome it has decided.

Neither theory is completely plausible. If it is nothing but a ‘pantomime’, it would have been sufficient to field a ‘nobody’ as the rival candidate, as occurred at the last presidential elections. But it is also unlikely that there is a factional power-struggle within the Egyptian military establishment, which for most of its history as been renowned for its cohesion and its commitment to its internal unity as an un-crossable red line.

It was Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the former Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), who settled the outcome of the 2012 presidential elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi to office. Figures close to ruling circles – including the late Muhammad Hassanein Haikal – maintained that the second-round run-off vote was actually won, albeit very narrowly, by Shafiq. But Tantawi and the SCAF, of which Anan was a member, decided to declare Morsi the winner in order to avoid another revolution in Egypt. Shafiq had been very close to former president Hosni Mubarak, and his victory would effectively have meant restoring the old regime and aborting the 2011 revolution. It was felt that the Egyptian people would not accept that result and take to the streets again.

It was also said at the time, by the same sources – though this has not been confirmed from within official circles or supported by documentary evidence — that the SCAF, which was nominally dissolved, promised to back Shafiq at the next presidential elections.

After he was appointed minister of defence by Morsi, and again after the military seized power in 2013, Sisi declared that he did not want to be president or shed his military uniform. When he was ‘compelled’ to run in the 2014 election, confidants insisted he would only serve for one term and would not contest the next polls.

The pressing question now is about the military establishment’s real intentions for the coming few years. Is it planning to transfer the presidency to a new face, but one of its own, better able to handle the country’s many challenges? Or is it setting the stage for a serious, rather than token, electoral contest involving strong candidates whose outcome would strengthen Sisi’s hand in his second term and grant him an open-ended popular and military mandate?

It is hard to venture an answer given the obscurity of the situation. But what can be said for certain is that Egypt faces huge foreign and domestic challenges, and needs a president who has broad popular backing and support within the military so as to take the tough decisions needed to tackle them.

It is not unlikely that a secret plan has been drawn up Egyptian military establishment. But it would be unwise to speculate about its details – these will unfold clearly enough in the coming days and weeks.