Three years ago, no one would have believed that Egypt would soon witness another military leader holding office. After weeks of earth-shaking protests in Tahrir Square that brought the ouster of former-President Hosni Mubarak from the government, Egyptians hoped they had finally won the civilian, democratic government they deserved. Now, Egypt’s head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is paving the path to become the country’s new Mubarak. However, while General Sisi is not staging a military coup to win over the Presidency, he will be waiting for the majority of voters to elect him.
Yes, this is the same General Sisi who has been internationally condemned for brutally cracking down on Muslim Brotherhood activists, protesting against what they correctly perceive to be a coup d’etat against Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohammad Morsi; all while seizing the legal and moral impunity that comes along with mass public support. Little wonder that, from a simple governing standpoint, Sisi is transforming comfortably into his role as the new dictator of Egypt.
This is nothing new for Egyptians. Were we to use history as an instructive guide, then it seems very likely that Sisi will become a military ruler — as were the previous, and only, three rulers (not counting Morsi) of the Egyptian “Republic”: Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. But if history has taught us anything, it would be that circumstances change, different people have different intentions and that different intentions lead to different results in different circumstances. Sisi appears to fit such a category rather nicely.
In general, a military coup serves as a direct indication of prior instability, corruption and lopsided divisions of power within a country. In Egypt, a military coup is simply another political event. Egypt’s first elected leader, Nasser, was brought into a power by a military coup. Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by a military coup. Egypt’s first truly elected President, Mohammad Morsi, was arrested through a military coup. A simple extrapolation would conclude that military coups in Egypt are almost as routine as they eventually became in 1997 Turkey.
Of course such coups undermine the democratic system, induce havoc and unrest in a country, and afford the military easy and illegitimate capture of massive power that they otherwise would not have. Although many Egyptians tend to only recall the dictatorial rule of Hosni Mubarak, the false hope for popular democracy has always been “championed” by several other Egyptian military Generals as well. Many western journalists have claimed that this latest coup will discourage the Muslim Brotherhood — a political organization that has millions of followers in Egypt — from trusting the ballot box. But it was the ballot box that led to a president that authorized himself more powers than any other in modern Egyptian history; dissolved the parliament; disregarded the constitution; urged radicalized Muslim Brotherhood youth to go and break international law by sending them to fight in Syria, plummeted the already devastated economy; and publicly supported and legally mandated the oppression, repression and mass murder of several minority groups in Egypt, namely Shiite Muslims and Coptic Christians. Suddenly, the politics of “one man, one vote, one time” is the real culprit that undermined the democratic faith of the millions of moderate Egyptians that want a real say in their governing process.
Clearly, Sisi’s military capitalized on the mass protests against Morsi, and used that as a means to reestablish itself as the country’s political authority. But the fact of the matter is that Sisi is no Nasser — he lacks Nasser’s charisma, charm and political sensibilities. However, like Nasser, he is immensely popular: the formula of mass public support sans the spectacle of public appearances is a successful recipe for a predictably cautious Sisi, whose calculated moves harbor the potential for Egypt’s gradual transition into a real democratic society. For example, Sisi was cited by a Kuwaiti newspaper that he will “have no choice but to meet [the] demands of Egyptian people. I will not refuse [this] request.” Yet two days later, the military denied that any such words were ever spoken. Whether this was sensationalism by the Kuwaitis (unlikely), a political maneuver by Sisi to appear to be a humble candidate (perhaps), or a conspiratorial dictate by foreign powers (just as likely as the former), it is clear that Sisi is not an ambitious cult of personality like Nasser was.
When the Egyptian people protested against Mubarak’s dictatorial rule and demanded democratic reform, what they were really asking for was the freedom, representation, economic parity and stability that they hoped democratic rule would deliver. Morsi did not bring such change. Sisi, on the other hand, is a new face. He is promising these changes before he is promising democracy — while also pleading for the difficulty and time it will take to achieve such results. As a military general, he is sober enough to understand that democracy will not lead to stability, but rather that stability might lead to democracy. Once this equation is implemented and understood by the whole of the Egyptian people, only then will Egyptians find the freedom they have been chanting for these past three years.
To reach such goals, though, Sisi needs not only prove his competence, but his wisdom as well. First, he must begin to follow the path of the Turkish military in creating an environment that is conducive to reconciliation between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more liberal minded populace. This can be achieved by establishing a non-amendable constitution that guarantees the rights of all groups in Egypt. An electoral system must also be established so that the votes of those receiving services from either the Muslim Brotherhood or from wealthy “Tammany Hall” like Egyptian millionaires — plutocrats who increase their “beneficence” during election cycles — are not overrepresented. The military must also not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to become a terrorist-militant wing of the opposition, and rather encourage them to become an integral part of the legislative process. Furthermore, Sisi must allow for pro-business policies that will move power away from a bloated Egyptian public sector. Finally, there must be a promise of a social safety net, which will open the path for many poor Egyptians to find political freedom without becoming chained down by economic servitude—a servitude which has taken away any real representation of their interests and opinions.
Egypt is still the heart of the Arab World. Its new leadership can buck the country’s long past of poor policies and misuse of power. Sisi now has a golden opportunity to return the land of the Nile into the cosmopolitan center that it once was. Egyptians want positive reform and change, without resorting to extremist policy shift. They are determined to reshape their society into a regional economic powerhouse, and the only question that now remains is whether Sisi will be the fair executor of such a difficult task, eventually shifting Egypt away from military rule, and into a free enterprise — or whether he will only return to the same pharaonic policies that have been followed by Egyptian rulers of its past.