El-Sissi and the Egyptian Presidency

Article first published at The Huffington Post.
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A six by twelve billboard greeted me on my drive from Cairo airport to my apartment, less than a mile away from former president Hosni Mubarak’s presidential palace. “Egypt Fighting Terrorism” in bold lettering in Arabic and English, and a determined looking child with the Egyptian flag painted on his cheeks completed the picture.

Endless Egyptian flags hang across apartment balconies and drape horizontally across civilian buildings. There is no escaping it: Egyptians have fallen for their country again.

At the centre of this romance is the shrewd man in uniform and Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. And if Egyptians could personify their love for Egypt right now, that personification would be el-Sissi himself.

Comparisons being drawn between el-Sissi (left) and revered former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Comparisons being drawn between el-Sissi (left) and revered former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Since July 3, the day that saw former president Mohamed Morsi ousted, and consequently launch a thousand TV panels across the world about whether Egypt had undergone a coup or not, el-Sissi’s popularity cannot seemingly grow any more than the heights it has already reached. Apart from a brief defensive operation to global media trying to dispel the notion that Egypt’s democratic transition had been hijacked by the military, you will not find many Egyptians who care anymore whether the world understands or not. You only need to drive around Cairo for half an hour to see that the semantic debate over July 3 is finished: el-Sissi and the army are in; Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are out.

El-Sissi mania is everywhere. From biscuits and cupcakes adorned with his face being sold on high street vendors, to speeches being made at weddings praising him for saving Egypt from “terrorists.” Television hosts and guests mostly have nothing to say that would demote him from anything less than a Demigod, and even leading politicians and former presidential candidates have essentially paved the way for el-Sissi to run and sweep presidential elections if and when they happen.

El-Sissi has so far played it cute on the “will he or won’t he run” question. Yet realistically, the odds that a man, who enjoys the fanfare that even Egypt’s most popular actors and pop stars could dream of, will not heed this call but rather return to obscurity, are extremely unlikely.

Unlike the group he dismissed from government, the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sissi has thus far been non-committal about whether he will run or not — a mistake the Muslim Brotherhood made when they adamantly insisted they would not field a candidate for the 2012 presidential elections, only to then backtrack and consequently turn the wheels of suspicion towards them that they craved every opportunity of power.

Yet, el-Sissi is doing exactly what he needs to do to keep people talking about him, and sooner rather than later, it will no longer be about when presidential elections take place, but rather, when will el-Sissi “accept” the will of the people for him to be its president. The last time he asked the public to take the streets to support him was in the fight against terrorism, and the way his stock has continued to rise since July 3, there is little doubt that if he asked the people to decide whether he should run for the presidency, he would find mass support once again.

Of course, el-Sissi as president would be a major vindication for many around the world who cannot get past the word “coup”, not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood themselves, stating that el-Sissi’s intervention three months ago had nothing to do with restoring democracy but in fact a massive set-back to the democratic process. The military general, who overthrew the democratically elected president, and then taking the up the mantle of president himself, would be the final proof they need. If el-Sissi does eventually occupy the presidency, Egypt will just have to endure this criticism just as it did in the immediate aftermath of July 3.

Egypt is often compared to other countries that have or are going through a similar transition. These are often useful but limited, and perhaps a more rewarding comparison would be to compare the Egypt of today with the Egypt of only eighteen months ago. Under military rule under former Commander-in-chief, Hussein Tantawi, who el-Sissi succeeded, it took less than a month for many to turn against the army. In January and February 2011, while millions took to the streets to remove Mubarak, protestors sang national songs about the unity between the people and the army. But Tantawi lacked both the personality and shrewdness of el-Sissi. And perhaps most importantly, Tantawi forgot the most basic military tactic which applies to politics just as it does on the battlefield: divide and conquer. Tantawi failed to produce an alternative enemy of the state after Mubarak’s removal, and with Mubarak gone, Egyptians voiced their anger and discontent with Tantawi and military rule who were a blunt force when a softer hand was needed.

El Sissi, however, has not made that mistake. Despite most of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership being arrested or on the run, as well as the fateful dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins that led to over a thousand killed, el-Sissi appears to recognise the vital importance of maintaining his popularity by keeping the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood alive, and at the forefront of the minds of the Egyptian populace.

And it is working. Keywords like “the Hamas threat” and “Islamic terrorism in Sinai” dominate Egyptian media, who have become the voice box of the interim government and el-Sissi. “The threat is not over, but just beginning” is the headline message, and moreover, in less than three months, the label “Ikhwan”, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, has now become the umbrella term for all forms of Islamic terrorism, ensuring that the group’s name is now synonymous with being the number one enemy of the state. If at any stage el-Sissi needs to retain his popularity, all he need to is mention the “Ikhwan.”

It is hard to imagine any politician wishing to run for the presidency while the prospect of el-Sissi running remains a very strong possibility. Egypt has always had a paternal relationship with the presidency, a relationship that Mohamed Morsi failed to fulfill, but a role that el-Sissi already occupies. Only time will tell if el-Sissi will resist the temptation of the presidency, but if he does not, and the popularity he receives today is anything to go by, it will be less of an election, and more a Roman triumph mixed in with a coronation.

The Curious Case of ElBaradei.

Article first published at The Huffington Post.

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In January 2012, upon being asked why he had decided to withdraw from Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei responded, “My conscience does not allow me to run for the presidency or any other official position unless there is real democracy.”  In his quip about “real democracy”, the Nobel Laureate was referring to the tumultuous and violent transient power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), who were responsible for overseeing Egypt’s democratic transition after Mubarak’s resignation.Mohammed ElBaradei

Clearly, however, ElBaradei’s withdrawal from the democratic process and accompanying statement, showed how little he valued the fictitious nature of democracy under the auspices of the SCAF, and his reluctance to be part of such a material showing.

ElBaradei was both admired and criticized for his decision — many citing him as a principled man who forgave the opportunity of power if this power was corrupt, while others saw this as the failure of ElBaradei to graduate from technocrat to politician and muddy himself in the game of Egyptian politics.

Six months passed and Mohamed Morsi took the mantle from the SCAF and became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Yet this would not spell the end of ElBaradei, who, with the SCAF seemingly returning to their barracks and leaving politics behind, the scene appeared far more ideal, and democratically sound, for ElBaradei to return to politics in the guise of political opposition to President Morsi and his government.

Fast forward one year, Egypt, and ElBaradei, have come full circle. A president has been removed and the SCAF are back with a vengeance in politics. This time, however, ElBaradei took a different decision. Instead of remaining on his moral high horse and galloping around lecturing Egyptians about democracy and Kafka, ElBaradei appeared to set aside any apprehensions he had about getting involved in a democracy that is clearly being dictated by the army.

On 14 July, a mere eleven days after Morsi was ousted from office by General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, which shook the foundations of Egypt’s socio-political paradigm, ElBaradei was sworn in as Egypt’s vice president. In short, ElBaradei chose to be a real player in a game where the rules are being dictated by the men in uniform he once vehemently criticized.

It raises the question, what changed for ElBaradei? One obvious answer is that ElBaradei finally understood that the game will go ahead, with or without him. While he withdrew from the presidential elections of June 2012, other liberal candidates emerged in his stead and filled the void left by his withdrawal.  Perhaps ElBaradei naively thought his withdrawal would have some sort of ripple effect against the SCAF, but it didn’t, and not wanting to make the same mistake twice, ElBaradei, at least superficially after Morsi’s ouster, cosied-up to the institution that he once saw disparage “real democracy.”

Are we to condemn ElBaradei for this apparent hypocrisy, or commend him for his altruism in becoming involved in a process for the greater good of the country that he would otherwise reject? This past Wednesday saw over six hundred deaths and countless injured in the removal of pro-Morsi protestors by the army and police, which has since seen widespread condemnation across the globe and Egypt has been making the headlines ever since for all the wrong reasons. Hours after most of the bloodshed was spilled, ElBaradei resigned from office, citing that “I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood.”

What appears to be problematic with the case of ElBaradei is that while his resignation falls in line with his persona as a politician who places principle over politics, his decision to get involved with General el-Sissi and an obviously military led Egypt is out of place. ElBaradei appears almost surprised by the army’s actions to remove the pro-Morsi protestors, yet this is exactly the type of action that the army took all throughout the post-Mubarak, SCAF led era. Just like many Egyptians, I am sure ElBaradei has not forgotten the massacres at Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud, and others, that all took place by the hands of the army.

What made ElBaradei’s involvement in the post-July 3 era so compelling and surprising was the position he took up only eighteen months ago. One thing that is for certain is that for once, ElBaradei took a gamble and it appears that gamble did not pay off. ElBaradei perhaps saw his decision to withdraw from the presidential elections as a mistake and wished not to make it twice. However, only weeks into his new position, he saw the decision he took in 2012 vindicated, as any political process and influence with Egypt’s military will always be limited and superficial.

When the dust settles, what does this all actually mean for ElBaradei’s political future? He was already a polarising figure and his resignation will only increase this polarisation, who will see his resignation as further proof that he is a man of principle who will forgo any of his political aspirations in the name of Egypt’s well-being. Yet, there will be others who will question why he got into bed with the military in the first place, and that his naivety in thinking that Egypt would democratically thrive after a military coup further adds to the stigma that ElBaradei is not designed for Egypt’s muddy political paradigm.

Egypt’s Moral Compass

Article first published at The Majalla.

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How times have changed. Anti-Mubarak demonstrators and members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement pray in front of Egyptian soldiers at Cairo’s Tahrir square on 7 February, 2011. GETTY IMAGES

How times have changed. Anti-Mubarak demonstrators and members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement pray in front of Egyptian soldiers at Cairo’s Tahrir square on 7 February, 2011. GETTY IMAGES

On Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton, was allowed access to former Egypt president, Mohamed Morsi, and she vaguely announced that she was not sure where he was being held, but that he was “doing well.” Having not been seen or heard from since his ouster by the army on July 3, how army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi handles Morsi’s future will be one of his most delicate challenges. Under the guise that he remains in custody “for his own security”, this past week finally saw charges brought forward against Morsi relating to a planned jail break in January 2011, supposedly aided by Palestine’s Hamas. Since the dramatic events on July 3, Egypt has been trying to find its footing in yet another twist in its political dynamic. There is the return of the army to politics, the reemergence of Mubarak’s “deep state” that seeks to return Egypt to its pre-Jan 2011 political status quo, and in the midst of it all you have liberal secular forces fragmenting even further as they disagree on whether the army can trusted. 

Perhaps most worrying, however, as the army, the deep state and liberal forces vie for political positioning, is that they all appear to agree that the Muslim Brotherhood should be finished off once and for all. Since July 3, Muslim Brotherhood members and pro-Morsi supporters have taken to Egypt’s streets calling for the army to return to their barracks and reinstall their leader as president. Those calls have been met with systematic violence by both the army and police, who continually justify the number of fatalities and casualties of pro-Morsi supporters by claiming they were attacked first.

In conjunction with the physical violence, a far more subtle yet equally as dangerous war has been waged against the Muslim Brotherhood. While Egyptians celebrated their right to protest in Tahrir Square and other locations around the country — first against Mubarak, the SCAF, and finally Morsi — pro-Morsi protestors on the other hand have been demonized and dehumanized. They have occupied Rabaa Al-Adawiya in the district of Nasr City in Cairo since Morsi’s ouster, just as Tahrir Square has been occupied for several weeks several times in the past three years.

Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood are being demonized by the very same people who frequently went to Tahrir Square, with my Twitter and Facebook pages littered with insults towards Muslim Brotherhood protestors – not towards their politics, but calling into question their levels of hygiene and the accusation that they are terrorizing anyone who goes near them.

As anyone who was in Tahrir Square protesting against Mubarak’s presidency and SCAF’s rule in the post-Mubarak era will tell you, this is hypocrisy. This was all present in many parts of Tahrir Square as well, just as cases of sexual harassment of women were present, as well as cases of theft and extreme xenophobia. Thankfully, some journalists who are extensively covering pro-Morsi protests have sought to admirably combat this hypocrisy.

“But they are armed, Ahmed”, I am told, to which I take this opportunity to declare that after February 2 2011, when the infamous Battle of the Camel took place and I saw that as a protestor I could be subject to violence, I, along with several others who I regularly went to Tahrir Square with, armed ourselves. I know at least two people who were carrying firearms, and I would also happen to call them liberals. You cannot put a monopoly on wanting to defend yourself, and while the Muslim Brotherhood have pockets of violence in their history, it is being manipulated to justify violence against them today.

Last week el-Sissi called for the Egyptian people to take to the streets to give him a mandate to fight terrorism. What he meant was he wanted a mandate to dispel and break-up Muslim Brotherhood protests and he wanted carte blanche to do it with violence if necessary. Many Egyptians obliged him and the death toll of pro-Morsi supporters quickly racked up over the weekend as attempts were made to remove them by force.

Yet, this loss of Egyptian life is being mourned by no one outside the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr Mohamed El Baradei stated that he had the “deepest sorrow” over the deaths, but went on to say that the Muslim Brotherhood “can’t help” but be blamed for the deaths. For a prominent liberal who has sought the moral high ground wherever possible over the past two years to make such a statement underlies the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood are not only being removed from politics, but ideologically being dehumanized. El Baradei shamefully has something in common with Mubarak and the SCAF, who both blamed pro-democracy supporters whenever violence took place in Tahrir Square.

It is also no accident that the army have chosen to charge Morsi with a crime that associates him with Hamas — targeting Egypt’s long standing custom of engaging in conspiracy theories and packaging Morsi and the Brotherhood as conspirators who have strong ties to foreign groups that can harm Egypt in the future. Again, we have seen this tactic before with Mubarak and SCAF who both blamed hidden foreign powers for causing political and civil unrest and used it as an excuse to crack down on pro-democracy supporters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere around the country. Yet, so called liberals and pro-democratic Egyptians cheer on SCAF as they do the very same thing to the Muslim Brotherhood.

This all goes beyond political rhetoric. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood made every mistake possible during their tenure in government which was rightly vehemently criticized. Yet the dehumanization and physical onslaught on the Muslim Brotherhood over the past month which many Egyptians are cheerleading, serves as a warning that if it can happen to them, it can happen to you, and should the day arrive where the army or police attack you in the same way, you will not have a moral leg to stand on.