Donning his military uniform for the last time, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah El-Sisi delivered his first direct address to Egyptians this week announcing his candidacy to run for President.
Since Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi from the presidency eight months ago, hyper-nationalists, business interests, and ordinary people have demanded that he run. In the eyes of many Egyptians, the country is broken and needs a savior. And the tireless work of the military’s propaganda division and a troupe of compliant media personalities have fed this image of Sisi as savior for the people.
Sisi’s own words point to a man far from being on the cusp of cutting taxes and prices for citizens struggling in a shaky economy. It doesn’t seem that many of his supporters have actually taken the time to listen to what he says beyond constant rhetoric about fighting terrorism. He believes in austerity and “pain,” but it is unclear if he understands that people have rebelled for far less. Egypt’s population is bigger than that of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen combined. Instability there sends shockwaves across the region. Three years of non-stop unrest and violence have taken their toll on the country. If Sisi cannot manage Egypt, it will be hard to imagine how the country can simply continue to “muddle through.”
On a recent research trip to Egypt in December 2013, the Center for American Progress surveyed the political and fragmented Islamist landscape in the country. The actors are more polarized than ever. CAP also conducted interviews with alienated Islamist youth and were alarmed by their readiness and acceptance to embrace violence in the face of mounting government repression. By the time we published our report, “Fragmenting Under Pressure: Egypt’s Islamists Since Morsi’s Ouster” earlier this month, the scale of the violence only increased. Police conscripts and officers are now fair targets for assassinations; in fact, according to estimates, some 281 police and army men have been the victims of terrorist attacks since the July overthrow of Morsi.
Sisi will not be the president of the country’s Islamists and especially their youth. The Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi cohorts believe that they are in a revolution against an illegitimate coup government. Some wish to turn this into insurgency. Others like the terrorist Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis seek Jihad and pick ripe and angry Islamist youth to recruit. If Sisi does not govern with an agenda to de-escalate government repression and muster the necessary leadership to even attempt reconciliation then the cycle of violence will only continue. Islamists might be fighting a lost battle but in the process more of their youth are becoming radicalized and the country is paying the price.
Sisi will become Egypt’s next president. What is happening is far from a “democratic transition” and there is no use for us to say so. It’s also unclear whether Sisi will bring stability to Egypt. The military is not invincible and Sisi will be exposing it to more scrutiny and risk. At the same time, the United States has no choice but to cooperate with Sisi on fighting terrorists in the Sinai. But we must ensure that we do not rubber stamp a political process that may only swell the terrorists’ ranks so long as the Egyptian government executes its irresponsible policy of repression with no consequence. We must work with our partners in the region and quietly engage Sisi on the dire need for an overhaul in state policy and opening up political space. A judge feeling confident enough to sentence 528 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death after a two-session trial is not indicative of a country transitioning to democracy.
Mokhtar Awad is a Research Associate with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.