Written by Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Abdel Fattah el-Sissi inherits with his election to the presidency of Egypt a heavy burden that few share in the Middle East. At 60 years old, he is the oldest military man to become President since the Egyptian Revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Mohammad Naguib was 52, Nasser 34, Sadat 54, and Mubarak 53. Sissi is the first president who has not participated in a war with Israel.
His ascendency to power was quick, ruthless, and surprising. When deposed President Mohammad Morsi appointed him as Minister of Defense in 2012, few if any could have guessed that a year later he would be orchestrating a coup that would overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood with a crackdown that would leave thousands of its members killed and jailed. A brilliant tactician, he led his allies and foes to believe that his religiosity would be supportive of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. When the moment was ripe, Sissi moved to repair a historic mistake made by the Muslim Brotherhood, after it sought to emasculate the Egyptian military and deny it its traditional role as the gatekeeper, power broker, and guarantor of modern Egypt.
If Sissi manages to overcome the predictable attempts on his life by extreme Muslims, it is highly likely that he will hold his position for at least the two presidential terms (until 2022) allowed by the present Constitution (which can always be altered in the future). Beyond all the election campaign slogans and considering the challenges ahead, there is no doubt that he will have to act very swiftly in order to meet the many priorities on his agenda. Restoring security on the domestic scene within Egypt and especially in Sinai is paramount.
Sissi must know that Egypt is deeply divided between the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and those who opposed them. Even though Sissi won a crushing victory in the May 29, 2014, presidential election, only 25 million out of 54 million registered voters participated in the voting process. Moreover, new social movements such as “Tamarod” have heightened the level of internal debate as they question the legitimacy of the military acting as the rulers of Egypt. The inter-religious conflict between Muslims and Copts has contributed to huge strains on the regime, which seeks to control potential outbursts against the Coptic minority.
Currently, the regime has no choice but to continue the repression against its domestic enemies. By choosing to subdue the Muslim Brotherhood, Sissi in fact has decided that the other half of the population that identifies with the Brotherhood either has to accept the regime’s choice and acquiesce or go underground in order not to be hunted by the security apparatus. However, in line with his election agenda, Sissi will have to prove to the Egyptians that he is seeking to act as the president of all Egyptians and not only as a representative of a small ruling class, and that his decisions will reflect the interests of Egypt as a whole.
The Egyptian regime has signified in recent months that it will not tolerate the presence of terrorists on its territory. Sissi has chosen the Second Field Army to carry out the job in Sinai, including along the border with Israel and Gaza, supported by the different branches of the Egyptian intelligence community. The eradication of the jihadists in Sinai is of crucial importance to the national security of Egypt, since terror in Sinai could jeopardize Egypt’s huge financial interests in the Suez Canal, a maritime artery separating the Egyptian mainland from Sinai that provides billions in annual income and is a symbol of Egyptian sovereignty. Moreover, past experience has shown that jihadist organizations inside Egypt have chosen Sinai as a safe haven for their training. Indeed, because of the implications for Egypt’s paramount security interests, Sissi will have to maintain a close grip on the Gaza Strip, which has proven to be a safe haven for many terrorists who escaped from Sinai. In other words, Hamas in Gaza will be kept under pressure and, to a certain extent, under siege by the Sissi regime.
Following his election, Sissi will have to concentrate on recreating the legislative body that has been dissolved and reconstruct the structure of government. Egypt has always been a state of law and order, and Sissi will be loyal to this tradition. However, since he ran for president as an independent, it remains a question how Sissi intends to rule with a parliament. Will he encourage the creation of a political party, or will he ignore this issue for the time being? Reviving the defunct National Democratic Party would only attract sharp criticism and nurture an image that Sissi is certainly not interested in.
Beefing up the state structures with loyalists will be an arduous task. Sissi will have to replace all the governors appointed by Morsi (if any still remain), fill the state jobs with his followers, and closely monitor the nominations of commanding officers in the extensive and much feared intelligence apparatus. While Minister of Defense, Sissi put certain loyalists in key positions. In the aftermath of his election, it is only logical that he will move to extend his support within the armed forces, the Republican Guard, his personal staff at the presidency, and the Military Police, whose role was central in quelling the Cairo sit-ins in August 2013. As a loyal heir of the Egyptian military establishment, Sissi has fought to preserve and fortify the unique, preferred position of the military under the new Constitution. Under Sissi, Egypt will no doubt be more “militarized,” as he has been very busy in restoring Egyptians’ pride in their army after it had been under attack during the Muslim Brotherhood interlude in power.
The first item Sissi must tackle is the economy and restoring confidence in the Egyptian system. The amelioration of the situation of the poor and the middle class was Sissi’s battle cry during his campaign. Since 2013, Sissi has been very active in securing Arab Gulf money in order to cover the cost of imports. This was easy money, since the Gulf rulers (with the exception of Qatar) welcomed Sissi and saw him as a potential ally against Iran and domestic irredentists. However, Sissi knows very well that this money, even though not conditional as is the American aid program, will not solve Egypt’s gigantic problems. Securing an interlude in the economic field is essential, since unrest can very quickly develop and express itself in riots and demonstrations that could be exploited by Sissi’s enemies and undermine the regime. Sissi will have to make a serious effort to create jobs for the millions of unemployed Egyptians, university graduates, and former army officers. The creation of jobs will come only if a serious effort is made to generate growth and a better distribution of wealth. Emigration to neighboring Arab countries could become a central issue under Sissi. Already today, millions of Egyptians have found alternative employment in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iraq, and Libya. The regime will probably continue to encourage such a trend, since this generates money that is transferred to the families left behind in Egypt.
The United States. Egypt’s relations with the U.S. administration will be at the heart of its foreign policy. Sissi, himself a graduate of the U.S. War College, has expressed himself rather harshly on the U.S. role in Egypt since the ousting of President Mubarak. In very undiplomatic wording, Sissi has accused the U.S. of turning its back on Egypt, encouraging and bolstering the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to existing Middle Eastern regimes, and punishing Egypt by stopping aid and weapons after the army’s crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in August 2013. Never in the past has anti-American sentiment been so high in Egypt. It will probably take quite some time before confidence is restored between the U.S. and Sissi, if at all. Sissi understands that the U.S. can neither be ignored nor isolated. Sissi needs the U.S. in the Israeli and Ethiopian contexts and cannot disavow the U.S. role in the Gulf States as protector of the petty monarchies against Iran, nor can he underestimate its efforts to quell al-Qaeda in the Middle East and North Africa.
Most probably Sissi will adopt a very careful approach vis-a-vis the U.S., while keeping his intentions in the dark regarding any moves toward a rapprochement with Russia. Sissi has shown the Obama administration that, through his Gulf partners, he can very quickly find the money for alternative arms purchases. However, as a military man he knows that he cannot break with the U.S. and turn completely toward Russia. Neither Russia (nor China) can serve as an alternative for an army almost totally reliant on U.S. weaponry. Any dramatic change in this field would take years and affect the level of Egyptian military preparedness.
Israel. Sissi’s knowledge of Israel stems from the period when he served as Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, which during the presidency of Mohammad Morsi was responsible for the ongoing dialogue between Israel and Egypt. Sissi negotiated with Israeli representatives about the redeployment of the Egyptian Army in Sinai in the wake of the terrorist threat in the peninsula.
Egyptian politicians had always claimed that the terms and conditions stipulated in the annex to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel infringed upon Egyptian sovereignty and that they were to be discarded. Nevertheless, under Sissi the negotiations that took place allowed a meaningful change in the redeployment of the Egyptian army in Sinai – a de facto alteration of the peace treaty duly accepted by Israel. Moreover, since the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979, U.S. officials and politicians have signified to Egypt that the continuation of American aid was conditioned upon Egypt honoring the treaty.
The events that took place in August 2013 surrounding Morsi’s removal from office, which led to the American “punishment” of Egypt, created a new situation by “liberating” Egypt from its conditioned economic and military assistance. The U.S. stopped part of its economic aid and delayed the delivery of weapon systems. Egypt did not react and chose to ignore the implications. As a matter of fact, the peace treaty with Israel was now being honored on its own merits and not as an imposed condition for obtaining American economic and military aid.
Oddly enough, it was the pro-Israel lobby in Washington that mobilized in order to convince the U.S. administration to continue its economic and military assistance to Egypt. As things stand today, there is a convergence of interests between Egypt and Israel regarding the Sinai and Hamas, which leads to an assessment that no major changes will occur in the near future in the pattern of relations between the two.
Ethiopia. A major problem Egypt will have to confront is the issue of the construction by Ethiopia of the mammoth Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which affects the fragile balance of water designated for Egypt (see Ethiopian Dam over Blue Nile Raises Specter of Conflict with Egypt, Jerusalem Issue Brief, June 13, 2013). Egypt and Sudan are particularly dependent on water from the Nile. Both countries claim that Ethiopia’s diversion of the Nile violates a colonial-era agreement, amended in 1959, which gives both of them rights to 90 percent of the Nile’s water. This agreement had allocated 55.5 billion cubic meters of water to Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic meters to Sudan. That agreement, first signed in 1929, took no account of the eight other nations along the 6,700 km. (4,160 mile) river and its basin. Those African states south of the historic frontier of the Muslim Arab world – notably Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo – have been agitating for a decade for a more equitable accord and are anxious to develop the water resources of the Nile Basin.
In fact, it is not the diversion of the Nile that is the source of concern. While letting water through such dams – Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia already have several – may not reduce the flow greatly, the filling of the reservoir behind any new dam does mean cutting the river’s flow for a time. Evaporation from reservoirs can also permanently reduce water flowing downstream.
Under former President Morsi, negotiations were conducted with the Ethiopians to no avail. Egyptian politicians and former military leaders hinted at a possible military operation to destroy the planned dam. Negotiations continued under the interim regime without reaching any conclusion. However, it seems that Ethiopia is not impressed by the bellicose Egyptian language. Egypt has no choice but to compromise with Ethiopia. In this realm, it is highly likely that all sides will need American mediation and intervention.
The Arab World. Sissi has evaded clear positions relating to the present situation in the Arab world, with the exception of Qatar. The only emphasis was on his preferred relations with the Gulf and Saudi monarchies, whom he cherishes for their assistance and support of his regime and their virulent opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. From his regime’s behavior, it is obvious that Egypt will act to combat Islamic radicalism and extremism, and there will be zero tolerance for terrorism and harm to Egyptian economic and national interests. Since Sissi is viewed by many as a 21st- century Nasser, the Egyptian regime might be drawn by attempts to revive alliances whose main aim would be to deter Iran, and to signify to the U.S. that it will have to deal with a new breed of leader different from the one they knew during the Mubarak years.
Sissi faces great challenges. His actions will be judged immediately on their merit. Egyptians as well as allies have very high expectations from his tenure as president. It will not take long to know if he is up to the task.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
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