Where is el-Sisi taking Egypt?
July 3rd, 2014
09:04 AM ET

Where is el-Sisi taking Egypt?

By David B. Ottaway, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David B. Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are his own.

A year ago today, a little-known military figure of uncertain intention overthrew the first democratically-elected Islamic president in Egypt’s history, Mohamed Morsy, in the process instantly becoming a national savior for millions of secular Egyptians and an arch enemy for millions of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

For months thereafter, Egyptians waited for word about whether Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, defense minister and head of the Supreme Military Council, would run for president. Like the mysterious figure in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, no one really knew anything about him, his intentions or his vision of Egypt’s future.

Indeed, even after el-Sisi formally declared his candidacy on March 26, secularists led by “liberal” intellectuals in support of military rule made little attempt to get the general to spell out his plan for Egypt’s political future and a way out of the country’s catastrophic economic situation. For them, it was sufficient he had saved them from their worst nightmares of Islamic rule. His only opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, was an ardent admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and thus in no position to challenge the arrival of another potential Nasser-like military ruler.

As expected, el-Sisi easily won the election; he crushed Sabahi, winning 97 percent of those who bothered to turn out – officially put at 47 percent of eligible voters, although his opponents suggested even this figure was inflated. He was formally sworn in as Egypt’s seventh president on June 8.

But even though “Godot” has finally arrived, it is still unclear what he stands for. Is he Nasser incarnate?  Another Anwar Sadat, who won international fame by making peace with Israel? Or another Hosni Mubarak, whose guiding principle of not rocking the boat had kept him in power for nearly 30 years?

A weeklong visit to Cairo during el-Sisi’s inauguration found Egyptians asking many of the same questions as outsiders: What does the lackluster turnout at the polls mean for a man cast in both the state-controlled and private media as a national savior? Will el-Sisi (like the six presidents before him) shy away from imposing politically risky economic reforms? Will he continue to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization” or seek a reconciliation?

For once, Cairo’s loquacious pundits seemed silent.

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing was abundantly clear – there is an overwhelming preoccupation with security within the new government. Access to el-Sisi’s inaugural celebration held in Tahrir Square, the iconic site of the Egyptian revolution, was tightly controlled, and he didn’t make a public appearance. Instead, el-Sisi spent his inauguration hosting foreign, mostly Arab, admirers and carefully selected local dignitaries.

In the first days of his presidency, el-Sisi has sought to establish a certain tone rather than specific polices and postponed hard choices, at least until after Ramadan ends in August. He went to visit a woman sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square and ordered the police to crack down on offenders, 13 of whom are about to go on trial.  He also reportedly indicated his intention to cut his own salary by half and promised to give up half of his personal wealth.

But while el-Sisi’s precise plans for the economy and political system remain a mystery, there are signs Egypt is headed for a return to a Nasser-like state-propelled economy and an even more limited, multi-party democracy than under Mubarak.

In his main inaugural night speech, for example, el-Sisi talked repeatedly of Egypt entering a “new era in the history of the Egyptian state,” the launching of “mega national projects,” and the building of “a giant economy” based on labor-intensive heavy industries.  His call on Egyptian businessmen to cough up $17 billion for a fund to “build Egypt,” meanwhile, has left some wondering where the private sector fits into his thinking, though el-Sisi promised “land and licenses” to both foreign and domestic private investors to set up new industries.

Perhaps most notably, in his hour-long speech el-Sisi hardly mentioned the word “democracy,” although he recommitted himself to parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall. So far, there is no sign he intends to replace Mubarak’s sycophant National Democratic Party (NDP) with a similar one to dominate the new parliament and gin up support for himself and his policies.

The veteran politician Amr Moussa, head of the 50-member constitutional committee that drafted a new constitution last year, has been seeking to form a broad coalition of centrist parties to support el-Sisi. But his attempt has already failed, leaving in doubt how Egypt’s new president and new parliament will work together or whether anything but a very tame opposition will be tolerated.

One thing, though, is clear – el-Sisi will not allow another independent power center to develop in the mold of the Muslim Brotherhood under Morsy.  Instead, the president made clear he intends to rule with a forceful hand in the name of a new, strong Egyptian state. “I will not allow the creation of a parallel leadership to be in conflict with the state powers and prestige,” he said, repeating three times “Egypt has only one leadership.”

But where that leadership plans to take the country remains a mystery.​

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Topics: Egypt

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Hurdy Gurdy Man

    Congratulations to the analyst writers at CNN. Their latest takes on ISIS/ISIL, and the real situation in Iraq, have been very truthful, and well-researched.

    July 3, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  2. rick

    Might actualy turn Egypt into a safe place to study and learn of its long history. Only time can tell if his new way of doing things will work and turn that countrys land into a cultural hub. IRAQ should be watching there closely. Their millitary dont collect paychecks and run at first sign of trouble. Again.. Time will show..

    July 3, 2014 at 4:19 pm |
    • Em and Em

      Nothing is known about this person? Umm after reading the article it sounds like plenty is known. What's new here? It's another dictator who is denying citizens the right of opposition and who is going to hand out control of the economy to cronies in the military and business circles. He will continue the totalitarian security state similar to the novel '1984'. Basically nothing new here, just a new face. What this article is about is what type of dictator will he be. A socialist dictator like Nasser, a boat rocking dictator like Sadat, or an utterly selfish dictator like Mubarak who's family stole BILLIONS from the state.

      July 7, 2014 at 10:28 am |
  3. mohamed

    In Egypt, the Western world – in particular the US – let democracy fails by refusing to call a coup a coup and permitting the military to depose Mr. Morsi with other words giving it “NO PROBLEM SIGN”. Now, whatever hopes there were to create a stable democracy are set back by years, if not decades.

    The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) overplayed its hand in Egypt. On the other hand, there is little doubt that it was fighting against a CONCERTED, SECRET CAMPAIGN to undermine its government and make it impossible for it to govern effectively. The military helped orchestrate the liberal protests several months ago that served as the pretext for the coup. And now the same corrupt, venal figures are back in power, killing MB supporters and doing everything they can to push the MG into extremism by showing that playing by the rules of democracy does not work. And, of course, one of the first things the new govt does is declare it illegal for a government to be overthrown by public protests, ridiculous isn’t it?

    Egyptians could have ousted Mr. Morsi and the MB at the next election. That would have given democracy in Egypt a real shot in the arm. Instead, corruption will persist for some time to come. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no doubt that the unsustainable remains unsustainable until it becomes sustainable.

    July 3, 2014 at 7:10 pm |
  4. BushCheney

    sissy is taking Egypt down the drains. This MORON and BRUTAL killer is empty headed and does NOT know what to do next. All he knows is shedding innocent Egyptian blood, gagging the press and putting opponents in jails..

    July 3, 2014 at 9:05 pm |
  5. BushCheney

    The US and Europeans have wasted Billions to install puppet sissy. Now it is time to realize that a mistake is made. For those who don't know, an Egyptian third-grader is far more intelligent than the sissy (The DONKEY general)..

    July 3, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
  6. BushCheney

    The US and Europeans and all those who supported this donkey have wasted Billions to install a USELESS puppet. Now it is time to realize that a mistake is made. For those who don't know, an Egyptian third-grader is far more intelligent than sissy (The SUPID DONKEY general).

    sissy is a high school dropout, so how do we expect him to be eloquent, inspiring and capable of ruling Egypt efficiently?

    July 3, 2014 at 9:41 pm |
  7. imtiaz hussain

    Sisi may rightly be called a lovely Donkey of Obama.He has fulfilled all the wishes of what his master expected of him.the mass killings of poor citizens of Egypt will be remembered for centuries to come.

    July 4, 2014 at 1:02 am |
    • Jon Stevens

      If Sissi is the donkey of anyone it's the Saudis and Kuwaitis who are providing $15 billion of aid. last year Egyptians were accusing Obama of being a member of the Brotherhood now it's his fault the coup happened. The only thing Egyptians are consistent is in blaming others.

      July 4, 2014 at 8:03 am |
    • reason1984

      Obama backed Morsi, not al-Sisi.

      July 6, 2014 at 8:04 pm |
  8. nuffSaid

    al Sisi = Mubarak Redux

    Nothing else matters. The same Dead End that Morsi's intransigence represented.
    The "Storong Man" form of government is a disease that is difficult and bloody to wean a nation from.
    Only a succession of disasters and embarassments will call the supporters ot al SiSi to see he is no better for them than Morsi, or Mubrark.
    Give it 20 years.

    July 4, 2014 at 7:15 pm |
  9. Ali Mohammed

    Al- sisi is a killer. He just kills people for his own ambition to be the president. i think that USA is the country that will drink from sisi's cup cause it helps him a lot to be the murderer.

    July 5, 2014 at 5:17 am |
  10. John Doe

    It would be absurd to compare Al-Sisi to Nasser. While Nasser stood for Social Justice, Sisi is trying to create an oligarchy funded by Gulf Oil Dollars and is out of touch with average Egyptians.

    July 6, 2014 at 4:21 am |
  11. reason1984

    "Where is el-Sisi taking Egypt?"

    As far away from the Muslim Brotherhood as possible.

    July 6, 2014 at 8:03 pm |
  12. j. von hettlingen

    Sisi is popular among many Egyptians. He seems to take advantage of his popularity to carry out unpopular reforms like cutting energy subsidies that had in the past cost billions of dollars. Egyptians will see higher energy bills. If he fails to deliver – no jobs created and life getting more expensive, people will have enough of him. It remains to be seen, how he then will deal with popular dissent.

    July 7, 2014 at 11:03 am |
    • Antisisi

      He's popular amongst the corrupt military and the corrupt big business in Egypt. It is a lie that 47% of eligible voters showed up to vote. Probably more around 20%. The US just keeps feeding into the forces that destabilize the Mideast. So if it's intention is for a stable mideast for oil price reasons then they're being played but if their intention is for destabliization then "Mission Accomplished".

      July 7, 2014 at 11:24 am |
  13. Antisisi

    Next time you ask yourselves 'why do they hate us'. THIS is why. The continued support of dictatorships that are corrupt and self interested, with no intention of progressing the nation or fixing chronic issues like unemployment and infrastucture, etc. That don't provide people with the right and means to voice their opposition. Don't fool yourselves if you think there is no support. If the US government wanted to dissuade the Egyptian military from overthrowing a democratically elected leader they could have and would have done MUCH more. The fact is they will continue to fund the military with "aid" and behind the scenes are shaking Sisi's hand for a successful coup. Americans don't want to see others get freedoms or rights or progress because then they can't be so narcissistic with their claims of how America is so great. The US is a dark souled scam artist.

    July 7, 2014 at 11:16 am |
  14. Nihal El-Sayed

    I do not like the tone of this article.. Sisi won the election because people voted for him, of course.
    What if we had been alive during the US civil war times – the US was definitely not the democracy it was today – democracy grows as time goes on! I think western media are much too critical of Egypt.

    July 10, 2014 at 8:35 pm |
  15. mohamed bakr

    I think almost of the people wrote here are muslim brother or they had agenda against Egypt I think al sissi saved people of Egypt by standing beside them other wise will be blood share between people of Egypt and morsi and terrors muslim brother , the Egyptians not stupid they found that all (mb) they care to roll Egypt according to the agenda to divide Egypt by name of islam and because muslim brothers came from Egypt so almost they knew they does not care about islam as much as business ,look at muslim brother in Sudan they divided to 2 country ,look at muslim brother in Yamane divided to 6 country and Iraq will be at least 3 all by muslim brother ,and now waiting for Libya and Syria ,I think muslim brother never will be back in roll because they all not even half a million and Egypt more than 94 million I am Egyptian borne and I have some muslim B friend good people they left muslim B now because they does not knew how bad they are

    July 18, 2014 at 3:31 am |
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