Egypt’s Sisi has won the race before it begins
by Abdallah Schleifer
One cannot say the brief announcement that former Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made late last night came as a surprise.
Does his resignation from the army, which automatically means he is no longer defence minister, mean he has also resigned as vice prime minister? Not necessarily, but if the present, relatively new, cabinet is to oversee an election in which Sisi will be a candidate then presumably he will abandon that post as well.
According to local press reports, the electoral campaign will begin within a week but the race is over before it has begun. The latest Egyptian opinion poll indicates that 51 percent of those polled say they will vote for Sisi but only one percent say they will vote for his sole opponent, at present, Hamdeen Sabahi. That is quite extraordinary considering how well Sabahi ran in the crowded first round of the last presidential election, coming in third to everyone’s surprise. But then some of Sabahi’s most influential supporters from the previous election have already declared support for Sisi and urged Sabahi to step down for the sake of national unity.
But tonight Sisi indicated that his sense of national unity was inclusive and he insisted in that strong yet calm manner that has contributed so much to his popularity, that potential candidates should not hesitate to run against him.
So the question now is not who will win but what Sisi will do once elected –presumably his first task will be to fashion a serious political party capable, in alliance or on its own, of securing a working majority in the new parliament. But what will happen after that?
Well, from the personally frustrating fact that at 10:30 pm I am trying to write this column in a dark apartment relying on the slight illumination coming off the laptop screen and two battery driven lamps, I would give priority to Sisi coming to grips as soon as possible with the once again chronic power cuts in Egypt.
Eliminating power cuts could be a great and quick confidence builder. But it would seem obvious that beyond confidence building massive public works - to generate employment and spur more consumer spending - more must be undertaken as quickly as possible. Given the track record of languid performance and corruption when carried out either by the ministries or private companies, army management of public works projects - with its superior track record - would be the better choice. Such a step, along with increased purchases of natural gas to drive Egypt’s power plants, will require significantly more spending.
Whatever the case, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a deep investment in the success of a Sisi government which is at the heart of the Gulf states’ (minus Qatar) campaign to mop up the Muslim Brotherhood.
Of course the other major concern would be to re-establish a sense of stability, undermined by the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising and never re-established in the years that have followed. That sense of stability is critical to get shuttered factories back into operation, shuttered shops re-opened and new investments poured in by both Egyptian and foreign investors. That is why some observers suggest that the draconian sentence to death for 529 members and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood this past Monday was part of a very successful operation over the past six months to restore stability in the face of widespread attempts to disrupt the country by supporters of former President Mohammad Mursi.
The case in Minya
Indeed the area of Minya was a seething hot-bed of pro-Mursi sentiment and demonstrations – perhaps the strongest center of pro-Mursi sentiment in Egypt - but now it is remarkably calm. Muslim Brotherhood members and radical Salifist allies who once controlled the streets are now too intimidated by massive arrests, shoot outs with security forces and now this numbing sentence, to launch any sort of disruptive campaign. At most there are small sporadic marches at night that quickly disperse before security forces reach the scene, and Muslim Brotherhood members are no longer so outspoken in public.
But for public opinion abroad – not to mention all Egypt’s human rights groups and a sector of the Cairo’s middle and upper classes - a shadow has been cast over Sisi’s announcement by that incredible decision to sentence 529 persons to death for killing one man - the deputy commander of a district police station and attempting to kill two others, as well as seizing weapons from the police station and setting it on fire.
There is video of the police officer being severely beaten and kicked by at most two dozen men out of a crowd that could have numbered a few hundred, but the deputy commander was still alive when taken to hospital. There he died whether from still more beating by a mob of a dozen or so young men who forced their way into his hospital room or at the hands of two doctors in attendance, according to allegations by the deputy commander’s wife.
How can 529 men be guilty of the murder of one man? Accomplices perhaps, but accomplices none the less, effectively vicious cheering squads for murder. For attempted murder and destruction of property, the death penalty is never issued. The penalty is reserved for first degree murder or arguably for belonging to a group classified as terrorist, but the outlawing of the MB happened many months after the brutal events in Minya where other police stations were attacked and churches set on fire on the day two massive Muslim Brotherhood sit-in protests were dispersed with excessive and deadly force responding to provocation and scattered gunfire.
Shock and condemnation
Considering the broad shock and public condemnation several months ago when an equally enraged member of the judiciary sentenced a number of girls - all Muslim Brotherhood high school students - to 12 years imprisonment for having briefly blocked the Alexandria Corniche, it is impossible to imagine that on the eve of declaring his candidacy for president, Sisi or the interim president he had put into office last year, or the new prime minister could have influenced the judge in Minya to issue such a verdict. That earlier sentencing of the Brotherhood girls was quickly rescinded and already somewhat embarrassed statements coming from the foreign affairs and justice ministries suggest that this sentence will not be upheld by a higher court considering an appeal by the defense.
It is important to bear in mind that Minya suffered more than any other city in Egypt when pro-Mursi forces went on the rampage in August 2013. And given reports of the arbitrary nature of the trial with the defense attorneys dismissed before they could give evidence, and barred from returning to the court the next day when sentencing was made, it is much more likely that this was another case in which personal anger displaced the administration of justice. Bringing the judiciary to order, to administer justice not revenge, should be high on de facto President-Elect Sisi’s agenda.
Cross published on Al Arabiya and TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”