Egypt’s Former President Goes to Trial as Army Chief Eyes Top Job

Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi looks poised to claim Egypt's presidency as the man he ousted from power last year goes to court

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Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

Then defense minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo in 2012.

The field marshal’s face is everywhere in Cairo. Hanging throughout the capital are portraits of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the country’s Defense Minister and leader of Egypt’s armed forces, newly promoted to his superlative military rank, and the presumptive favorite to become Egypt’s president. The posters are plastered to shop windows and overpasses, painted in frosting on cupcakes and held aloft in wedding photos.

In the city center, vendors hawking bags of chips and SpongeBob toys on sidewalk pallets also sell Sisi memorabilia. In one image he smiles faintly, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. In another, the officer’s profile is placed over an image of a lion.

Said Mubarak, a 51-year-old grocer, no relation to the deposed Egyptian President, has Sisi’s official portrait hanging on the outer wall of his shop on a side street in central Cairo. On Tuesday morning, he sat behind the counter of his shop, watching a news broadcast of the trial of former President Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist politician deposed by Sisi last July.

“He was a military man and he’ll be strong in government,” Mubarak says of Sisi. “People don’t have to like him. People want a strong leader, exactly like [former president] Gamal Abdel Nasser.” By executive decree, presidential elections are expected sometime between February and April.

Another middle-aged man stepped into the store. He picked up a small packet of laundry powder and dropped a few coins on the counter. “What do you think of Sisi?” the shopkeeper asks him. “Sisi feecy,” the man scoffs. “Forget Sisi. Egypt will never be a democracy.”

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) gave its approval on Monday for Sisi to run for president, paving the way for the general to formally take the reigns of state power after his armed forces ousted Morsi. The former president appeared in court in a glass cage facing charges of killing guards while escaping prison during the January 2011 uprising against Mubarak, though Morsi asserts the court proceedings are illegitimate and his lawyers insist he is innocent.

SCAF’s announcement comes after months of speculation and pleas from other public figures for Sisi to run. The military chief is still basking in a wave of public adoration since removing Morsi’s democratically-elected but deeply unpopular government following a wave of protests. He is considered a prohibitive frontrunner should he choose to run, lofted by the fervent nationalism of supporters who seem him as the charismatic and virile leader needed to restore Egypt’s glory.

Others see him as having backed the interim government’s violent crackdown on political opposition in which more than a thousand have died, and hundreds jailed, including even dissidents who opposed Islamist rule.

Either way, the presidency for Sisi represents both an opportunity and a political gamble. Due to his perceived popularity and the institutional backing of the armed forces, a Sisi presidency would likely be far stronger than Morsi’s chaotic administration, but would also expose the field marshal to political risks from which he is currently insulated in his role as the government’s de facto strongman.

In the three years since a popular uprising ended the three-decade dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak, key institutions within the Egyptian state, such as the judiciary and the Interior Ministry, have consolidated their own autonomous power. A politically-empowered presidency backed by the military, some analysts argue, creates the conditions to restore a top-down order in which the executive trumps other arms of the state.

“We know all of the very real, tragic downsides of a recentralization of power into the office of the presidency, particularly if that office is going to mismanage and abuse that authority, but we also in some ways underestimate what the alternative scenarios look like, because they are also quite dire,” says Michael Hanna, an expert on Egyptian politics and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City. A president with less of a popular mandate, analysts point out, would have little ability to rein in Egypt’s vast police and security apparatus, though it’s unlikely that Sisi or any of his rivals are much interested in curbing its powers.

People close to the military establishment also argue that Sisi could use his popularity to implement otherwise unpopular policies. After three years of instability, Egypt’s economy is struggling, and the state faces calls from economists and the International Monetary Fund to shrink its outsized bureaucracy and cut subsidies. Subsidy cuts in particular would cause real economic pain for ordinary Egyptians—and possibly trigger more unrest.

“We need a strong president who will act supported by the people of Egypt,“ says Sameh Seif Elyazal, a former army general and the chairman of the Gomhouria Centre for Political and Security Studies in Cairo. “If there is a time when he will ask the people to bear with him, and maybe suffer a little bit economically, then they’ll accept his plans,” he says. “Cooperation with General Sisi will allow tough economic plans to be implemented.”

Egypt’s economic troubles are just one example of the many deep and protracted problems dogging the Egyptian state. The country’s next leader will also face crumbling infrastructure, a chronic energy crisis, ongoing political unrest and an insurgency based in the Sinai. Sisi’s aura as the savior of Egypt could fade as he wades into the muck of daily affairs of state.

“He needs to find out: does he have a program to deal with the poverty line or not, because the minute he steps out of his uniform, it’s a farewell party from the military. He doesn’t have their backing anymore,” says Hisham Kassem, the former editor of the widely-read privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. “If he does not deliver hope and reasonable, tangible changes in the country, there is going to be a third uprising.”