Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
The outcome of the country’s presidential election in March is not in doubt, but attempted challenges from within the military raise questions about the president’s hold on power.
An election campaign banner for President Sisi in Cairo. Photo: Getty Images.An election campaign banner for President Sisi in Cairo. Photo: Getty Images.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems certain to win a contrived presidential election in March, after other challengers including a former prime minister and high-ranking military officers were barred from running or pressured to drop out. Jane Kinninmont talks to Jason Naselli about what Sisi’s tactics tell us about the power struggles within Egypt and what it means for the region.
 

Former general Sami Anan declared his intention to run against Sisi and then was arrested. What do challenges from within the army tell us about Sisi’s grip on power?

Harassment of rival presidential candidates is all too predictable, but the arrest of Sami Anan is striking because it is unusual for the head of Egypt’s military-dominated regime to face a challenger with a senior military background. Usually the only challengers to incumbent presidents have been leftists and liberals, from Ayman Nour to Hamadeen Sabahi, who have been easier for the military to undermine. But Sisi has faced two.

First, Ahmed Shafiq, former head of the air force, who narrowly lost the 2012 presidential election to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, declared his intention to stand for the election from his self-exile in the UAE. However, he was then arrested and deported by the UAE. On his return to Egypt, his family said he was kidnapped, until he announced that he had decided it would not be such a good idea to run for president.

Challenger two, Sami Anan, led the army for eight years, until he was removed by the Muslim Brotherhood government, so he has credentials that appeal to the same sort of people who support Sisi. He is harder to demonize as either a radical who threatens stability, or a naïf who could never be trusted to run things.

Of course, as the incumbent, Sisi has many levers with which to undermine Anan’s reputation. Before his arrest, the media trumpeted conspiracies that Anan was plotting with the Brotherhood. On the day of his arrest the military said he had broken rules by failing to inform them of his candidacy and allegedly falsifying documents to show he had left the army.

The extent of his public support is unclear in such a politically charged and propaganda-ridden context. It is even more difficult to assess what level of support he might still enjoy within the military, where there are rumours of dissatisfaction with the running of the counterinsurgency campaign in the Sinai, but which remains highly opaque to outsiders.

Under Sisi, the military has taken on a far greater role in internal political repression than was the case under Mubarak, where the police and intelligence services played that role. Traditionally it was thought that the army was respected much more than the police because they were seen as defending Egypt’s borders and sovereignty rather than being involved in internal power struggles.
 

The election will clearly be rigged for Sisi, but how much do appearances matter? What are the biggest risks for Sisi during the process?

Today, virtually every authoritarian regime likes to have at least the appearance of electoral participation and population choice. The previous military ruler, Hosni Mubarak, enjoyed four ‘elections’ in which there were literally no other candidates – instead there was a yes/no referendum on his presidency in which he always won by a landslide.

But from 2006 onwards, Egypt decided to permit rival candidates to contest the presidency. It is unclear how much this was to assuage international pressure and how much was for domestic consumption. Either way, the alternative candidates who stood in 2006 had no chance of actually winning.

By 2011, opposition to Mubarak had completely outpaced the glacial speed of political reform and he was overthrown by a popular uprising which the rest of the military accepted. The military leadership – which included Sami Anan at that time – seem to have judged that sacrificing Mubarak, who was ageing and believed to be grooming his non-military son to take over, would serve to protect and strengthen the military regime.

But they also had to reinvent the military regime for an era where there had been mass mobilization around demands for greater popular political participation, respect for the concerns of ordinary people, and for at least some of the public, democracy and human rights. The reputation of democracy has suffered in Egypt since then, as the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, and his party’s subsequent conduct in office, led to massive social divisions, and a significant section of Egyptian society supported the military’s 2013 coup against Morsi.

The military – and many of those who supported their actions – insist that it was not a coup, and still seem to want to preserve some appearance of democratic legitimacy, despite the very obvious barriers to anyone who tries to challenge the president’s power.
 

How will Sisi’s more ‘conventional’ authoritarian tactics play in places like Saudi Arabia, which is trying to modernize its image, but without becoming democratic?

The severity of instability in today’s Middle East means that people’s hopes for better government have shrunk to a much narrower and less ambitious level than was the case during the Arab Spring. Certainly, a significant proportion of Saudis – probably a minority of perhaps 20 per cent – had some sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and were uneasy about Sisi’s 2013 coup. But today few people will be surprised to hear another piece of evidence that the Egyptian government rules in an authoritarian fashion. Instead, the questions will be about whether Egypt’s army will maintain its unity.
 

If the election runs as he plans, what are Sisi’s next moves domestically and regionally?

Sisi’s next term is supposed to be his last, because of Egypt’s term limits, so attention will turn to the question of whether he will seek to overturn the term limits, or groom a pliable successor. It is unclear who might succeed him, so there is potential for an internal power struggle between rival candidates in the military.

Regionally, Sisi is likely to be focused on the issues closest to Egypt’s own security: the situation in neighbouring Libya and in Gaza, where Egypt has been an important broker between Fatah and Hamas. As President Trump pushes for some kind of explicit Arab-Israeli peace deal, Sisi will be one of the key regional players involved, though like his counterparts in the Gulf, he will face a difficult balancing act – between his interest in working with a US president who has been supportive of his own rule but has little regard for Palestinian sensitivities, and the sympathy for the Palestinians in Egyptian and wider Arab public opinion. This neglected issue is fast rising up the agenda for the Middle East in 2018.

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