“One wish, one man… El-Sissi for Egypt’s presidency,” read the campaign placards throughout the streets of Cairo in advance of the elections that will take place in two and a half weeks.
The stirring posters bear a picture of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, 60, the man behind the last revolution in Egypt — in June 2013. He’s in civilian dress instead of his military uniform, wearing the sunglasses that have become his trademark.
But those expecting to see mass excitement over the elections on Cairo’s streets are likely to be disappointed. Poster-hangers, who were out on every street corner during the last elections two years ago, are around, but in far smaller numbers. Public interest in the elections is low. And that’s because there is no sense of real competition.
“The outcome is not pre-determined like it was in Hosni Mubarak’s days,” Amar Zakaria, an Egyptian journalist, told The Times of Israel. “But the nation knows who to choose. This time, the people asked el-Sissi to run in the elections. [Lone rival Hamdeen] Sabahi has his supporters, but it looks like most of us will vote for el-Sissi. He has experience in actually doing. He has results. Sabahi is good at speaking, but we need men of action.”
Professor Yoram Meital, an Egypt expert at Ben-Gurion University and chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy, sees the reasons for the relative apathy somewhat differently.
“There is an air of frustration among those groups that led the revolution in January 2011, and they’re not the only ones. It stems from a couple of reasons.
“First, the young people who wanted to topple the regime understand today that they only managed to topple the president. The regime survived. Second, the internal security situation is getting worse, and is reaching an unprecedented nadir. And third, there’s the shoddy economy. There is a serious energy problem today: A dearth of gas for domestic use, that is nearing a disaster.”
El-Sissi, the former chief of staff and defense minister and youngest officer on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is expected to triumph in the May 26-27 elections over the Nasserist Sabahi to become Egypt’s fifth president. To this point, there is one clear focus for his political activities and his election campaign – war against the Muslim Brotherhood, whose president, Mohammed Morsi, he ousted.
El-Sissi was interviewed this week on Egyptian television for the first time since he declared his candidacy, and used the occasion to announce that the Brotherhood would be eliminated.
The reality is rather different, of course. The movement continues to operate and maintain some measure of popularity, despite the unceasing efforts from the military and security forces to quash it.
El-Sissi claimed in the interview that he would continue the all-out war against them. “If I am elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood movement will cease to exist,” he promised.
He said he opposes talking with the Brotherhood, and declared that, if elected, “no memory of this movement will remain.”
El-Sissi and the regime are deeply involved in the war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Two days ago, the trial of former president Morsi opened in Cairo, along with the trials of the movement’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, and 36 other members, facing charges of collaboration with enemies and betraying Egypt after they joined “foreign and local terrorist groups.”
If convicted, they likely face the death penalty.
El-Sissi’s supporters include the heads of the bureaucratic, business, and security establishments, as well as Egypt’s tycoons. Even the Salafists have expressed support for his candidacy. “They smell stability,” said Meital. “This is el-Sissi’s promise, and one can see this especially in positive changes in the Egyptian stock market, where indicators have risen recently. His support is rooted in the expectation to return to routine, and not to revolutionary Egypt. The problem is that el-Sissi’s campaign promise to destroy the Brotherhood is a double-edged sword. It may lead to the weakening of the movement, but it will also lessen the chances for achieving the stability he repeatedly promises voters.”
El-Sissi also promised that the army won’t continue ruling Egypt in the future, and will not involve itself in affairs of the state. The question is whether, without the Brotherhood and after his anticipated election, the new president will succeed in leading Egypt to a more secure, stronger future economically.
And here there are many concerns. El-Sissi enjoys the support of the rich Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, yet the aid Egypt receives from them is not sufficient. He needs to bring hordes of foreign investors to Egypt, but they are not eager to come, in part because of the Islamist terror threat. This threat also damages one of the most meaningful income sources in Egypt — tourism.
El-Sissi’s Sinai headache
One of the greatest challenges awaiting el-Sissi after his expected election victory is posed by the radical Islamist groups who are not from the Muslim Brotherhood, and who cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income. The terrorist groups are part of the global jihadist movement, which has established a stronghold in the Sinai peninsula.
The Sinai is home to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Majlis a-Shura fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, and several other groups with names so long it’s hard to imagine how they came up with them. The Egyptian army’s operations in the Sinai are ongoing, but locals say they have subsided somewhat. The same goes for the battles between the terrorists and the Egyptian army.
This may be a combination of the army’s successes in the field and an understanding on the part of the local population that with the new bosses in town — the army under el-Sissi — they would be wise to refrain from cooperating with al-Qaeda’s Egypt branch.
At some point, the terror groups transferred their activities from the Sinai into the heart of Egypt, but the level of attacks in the country has gone down of late.
Israel sees the Egyptian army’s efforts and determination in the Sinai in a positive light. “If the army doesn’t pursue them, [the terrorists] will pursue us,” said a senior Israeli official. “The regime is committed to a war against al-Qaeda, is determined, and will remain so even after the elections.”
Still, the threat of Islamist terror is far from over. Only recently, supporters of these groups managed to once again blow up the gas pipe between Egypt and Jordan, despite efforts to protect it.
In one area, at least, the Egyptian army is winning its war — the tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza. With the exception of a small number of tunnels, smuggling into the Strip has stopped.
In Israel, experts estimate that Egypt has managed to shut down 95% of the tunnels. It is hard to say whether el-Sissi will be able to maintain this trend as president, but the Egyptian operations on the ground, along with close cooperation with Israel, will go on after his election.
Still, el-Sissi acts like a typical Egyptian president in at least one regard— his attitude toward Israel. He refrains from official, overt contacts, despite the fact that recently his security chiefs have worked to strengthen their relations with their Israeli counterparts. He himself has spoken more than once with senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
El-Sissi prefers to downplay this aspect of his political activities. Instead, he said this week that as long as there is no Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, he will not visit Israel.
But the most important piece of this week’s interview for Israel was his comments on the Israel-Egypt peace treaty: “Egypt is a country whose policies, history, and respect for contracts and pacts are deeply rooted within her. I am part of the country, and I will respect all the international treaties and agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel.”
El-Sissi turned to the Israeli government, saying that “an opportunity to achieve a real peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority is standing in front of you… This is necessary for opening a ‘gateway of hope’ in the region.”
The leading presidential candidate emphasized “peace with Palestinian Authority” and not with the Palestinian people. For him, Hamas was and is an enemy. “We must not let our problem with Hamas influence of opinions about the Palestinian issue. We will never forget who stood by us and who stood against us,” he said, in a clear message to the Hamas heads in Gaza.
It seems that despite the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which even enjoyed some light assistance from the Egyptians (who allowed Hamas’s deputy political chief, Moussa Abu Marzouk, into Gaza for the unity talks), Cairo still has a score to settle with Hamas for its open support of the Muslim Brotherhood. And one of Egypt’s demands to the heads of Hamas is clear: break all connections with the Brotherhood, the very organization in which Hamas was born.
The other candidate
And what of the rival contender, Hamdeen Sabahi? He seems to understand that he doesn’t stand much of a chance, but he and his supporters believe that after el-Sissi’s election, they will become the strongest opposition camp in the Brotherhood’s absence.
Sabahi enjoys the support of many groups on the left, including April 6 and others identified with social justice causes. For many of Sabahi’s supporters, the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood needs to end rather than worsen.
Journalist Amar Zakaria recently warned of the challenge facing the presidential candidates: “No president will succeed is the people don’t support him. No man can do it all alone. We must remember that if we don’t succeed this time, it will be hard, very hard, for Egypt to recover.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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