The Egyptian Army’s Department of Morale Affairs (morale, please note, not moral, which it probably isn’t), has been doing a great job since the overthrow of the last administration.
The Department is responsible for managing the public image of the Army. Ever since the coup, led by then-General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, it has been assiduously encouraging a cult of personality around him. His recent promotion to Field Marshal provided it with a field day. Its media campaigns have resulted in his face appearing frequently on Egyptian state television and in state-run newspapers, on posters and billboards, and even on memorabilia ranging from chocolates to underpants.
The skilful propaganda projection of him as an upbeat officer who is at the same time a devout Muslim, harbouring traditional respect for women and Christians, goes some way to explaining the high regard in which he is held. His popularity rating is also due, in no small measure, to the popularity of the military, which continues to be the most trusted institution in the country. Around 90 per cent of Egyptians support it.
Until Wednesday, March 26, 2014 al-Sisi was Egypt’s deputy prime minister, the minister of defense and the commander-in-chief of Egypt’s armed forces. On that day he resigned all three offices, and announced that he would be standing for election as Egypt’s new president in a ballot whose date has yet to be set. After three years of upheaval Egypt yearns for a strong leader. Even though al-Sisi remains something of an enigma within the country, his public idolization is so great that he is virtually certain to emerge, some time during the summer, as Egypt’s new president.
What sort of president will he make? He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry – the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat.
Although very different in temperament and outlook, the two late presidents had one thing at least in common – both took Egypt into direct combat with Israel. In this, at least, it is highly unlikely that al-Sisi will emulate his predecessors. Nor are we likely to see him follow Sadat in popping into Jerusalem to address Israel’s parliamentarians – his predecessor’s untimely end would no doubt inhibit any such whim. But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.
And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home. In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters.
As for al-Sisi’s economic policy, it is shrouded in ambiguity. Negotiations with the IMF have been suspended, since the conditions they would impose for a loan would be political suicide. He continues to rely on huge subsidies from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while he attempts to persuade capitalists in exile to return to Egypt with their money.
Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”
Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing” Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility. The concept of Pan-Arabism, for example, is dead. There are, however, one or two areas in which he might make a Nasser-like mark – rekindling nationalist pride is one. Turning towards Russia for support is another. Al-Sisi’s trip to Moscow in mid-February 2014 to complete an arms deal, in reaction to the US’s lack of enthusiasm for the coup he engineered against Mohammed Morsi, evoked memories of Nasser’s rejection of the West in favour of the Soviets.
Al-Sisi would seem to be emulating Nasser in one further respect. He is already identifying his forthcoming presidential era as one of grand projects, just as Nasser had done with the Aswan Dam. Al-Sisi’s project is the proposed development of the Suez Canal area, being heavily promoted as the key to Egypt’s future.
Anwar Sadat followed Nasser into power, shoehorned into the presidency by Nasser’s supporters, who regarded Sadat as a transitional figure that they believed could be manipulated easily. He was to prove them wrong. Sadat did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations. He succeeded in instituting a “corrective revolution” which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists. In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them “considerable cultural and ideological autonomy” (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.
In 2006, al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master’s degree. In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was “not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template”. He argued that “democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith”. However, he did not talk about implementing Islamic law.
So President al-Sisi is likely to rule Egypt as an up-to-date version of the strong, near-authoritarian, leader, firmly grounded in his military background, but paying something more than lip-service to democracy – although a democracy strongly flavoured with more moderate aspects of Islam. With Egypt’s national interests in mind, he is likely to adopt a pragmatic approach to cooperation with Russia – President Putin is anxious to counter US influence in the Middle East – and with Israel, where collaboration in overcoming extremist terrorism in Gaza and Sinai is in both countries’ best interests.
And the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, brokered by Egypt’s President Sadat and Israel’s prime minister, Menachim Begin, will – short of some totally unforeseen catastrophe – be in safe hands.