After Nasser, Nasser?
On the 3rd of July 2013, after a series of large protests across the country, the first democratically elected president of Egypt was deposed by the military. By some, this was understood as the bitter end to the Egyptian population’s democratic aspirations; others deemed it a second chance that would ultimately lead to further progress towards these goals. Either way, there was great uncertainty over who would lead the country forward. From the onset of political change in Egypt, the grassroots 2011 revolution had no clear figurehead. Since then, the nation has struggled to establish a legitimate leader with meaningful approval across the board. Even former President Mohamed Morsi, while popularly elected, was only backed by a niche of supporters in the conservative Muslim community.
Very few alternatives to Morsi have ever gained any sort of political prominence, while the political parties established since the revolt have struggled to put their leaders on the map. The leadership of Egypt since the coup has consisted of a revolving cast of old faces: Mohamad El Baradi, former head of the IAEA and interim vice-president, resigned after two months; Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, has wholeheartedly supported the recent military coup; Ahmed Shafiq, former Air Force general, remained silent since his defeat by Morsi in the 2012 presidential election. Among others, all of them faltered after initial momentum.
A New Leader Emerges
On the night of the 3rd of July 2013, the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces appeared on national television to announce the ouster of Mohamed Morsi from the Presidency and to suspend the constitution. Few knew his name, but few have forgotten it since that watershed moment: General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Born into a family of modest means, Sisi was able to ascend the ranks of the Egyptian military to become General Commander of the armed forces. Unlike some of his military counterparts, such as Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) leader Mohamed Tantawi, up until the events of summer 2013 Sisi had managed to maintain a relatively low profile among the civilian population. Whether out of admiration or out of spite, his political eminence appeared to have grown almost overnight to become an Egyptian household name.
In his seven months as strongman of Egypt, Sisi has accumulated a plethora of political laureates from various sections of Egyptian society. Recently, the interim president Adly Mansour promoted Sisi to the position of ‘Field Marshall’, the highest Egyptian military rank. Also, his military colleagues publicly endorsed Sisi to run as candidate in the next presidential elections. But perhaps the most emblematic and validating support stemmed for the Egyptian masses. Sisi’s popularity was almost ubiquitously spread out geographically and across social strata. With an unprecedented 38% turnout and a staggering 98% in favour, the 2014 referendum on the constitution has empirically cemented the population’s approval of General Sisi.
Nonetheless, this admiration is not all encompassing. The violent ouster of President Morsi has been criticized by wide subsections of the Egyptian population, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, human rights activists, and pro-democracy groups like the Third Square. The rest of the world has had mixed feelings about the event. But many governments, including the United States, refrained from publicly describing it a coup d’état in the immediate aftermath of Sisi’s rise to power.
The question remains: what does this all mean for the future of democracy in Egypt? The ongoing tumultuous political situation has generally been interpreted with a certain level of bleakness. After all, a coups d’état followed by the emergence of a popular military leader is reminiscent of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power 62 years ago. The 1952 revolution was welcomed by the masses with hopes that it would bring suffrage and social justice; only to engender decades of harsh military rule. President Morsi’s short term in office represents the only moment in Egyptian history where the country was led by an Egyptian civilian as opposed to a monarch, military leader or foreign power. This can appropriately be interpreted as the military taking back power after a failed experiment with civilian rule.
Still, while drawing parallels with the past can be informative, it presents a narrow view of the ongoing situation. Since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has slowly but surely evolved. The salient variables and geopolitical considerations from that time have mostly become archaic or obsolete. Notably, the military led by Abdel Nasser seized control of the country in part because of the eminent threats to Egyptian sovereignty and the King’s ineptitude to act accordingly. In the past three years, the Egyptian population has developed a previously unseen culture of political activism. The army’s actions in July 2013 seem to have been catalyzed by the general outcry of the population all over the country. Some have even called it a ‘popular coup d’état’. As long as the population remains politically empowered, why would it potentially allow General Sisi to take the presidency and abuse his power? It seems irrational to believe that the Egyptian people would have double standards in that regard.
It is also important to remember that the political wing of the regime- The National Democratic Party – has been officially disbanded. Unless he hastily founds a proxy or joins an existing party, Sisi will run as an independent. Most parties in Egypt are newly founded; under the shadow of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and therefore, they have so far had little electoral success. With a relatively neutral president and leader of the FJP eliminated, dozens of new Egyptian parties finally might be able to establish themselves and perhaps eventually have a chance at contesting the presidency. This is of course an optimistic view but not a far-fetched one.
Democracy is a struggle that is not easily won. As long as Egyptians pursue it, it remains a possibility. General Sisi is not intrinsically anti-democratic and could in theory bolster pluralism in Egypt. If the masses check and balance his policies and actions – as they did with Morsi – there may still be light at the end of the tunnel.