Egypt’s presidential candidate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was asked in a recent interview how he would resolve the unemployment problem if he were to become a president. His answer was nothing but a farce. He proposed that a thousand grocery vehicles be loaded with goods and three people be employed per vehicle to operate them and sell the goods at cheaper prices. The project would be funded by banks, Sisi specified. His naive answer appalled his interviewers and caused a wave of mockery on Facebook and Twitter.
During the interview, Sisi’s answers offered more theatrics than substance and one found it hard to take him seriously. Not only did he seem careless, but he also gave no compelling answers to the many questions that were raised in the interview.
In short, Sisi’s recent interview reveals that he has no strategy, no policy substance and no coherent vision for the future. His electoral programmes seems similar to his interview: fuzzy, dubious and conspicuously inane.
He has utterly failed to provide or to allude to any concrete plans on how to deal with Egypt’s daunting problems such as corruption, budget deficit, power cuts, and unemployment, not to mention foreign policy. The only thing that Sisi was straightforward and clear about was restoring security through repression.
A manufactured ‘security’ hero
Sisi, who ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president in a coup last summer, is nothing but a mere “manufactured” hero. Since he announced his candidacy in March, Egyptian media has persistently portrayed him as the “saviour” who would rescue Egypt from the bad guys, namely: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Over the past few months, media anchors, politicians and public figures have ardently endorsed Sisi without asking him for a platform or a strategy, claiming that he doesn’t need to provide one.
Some of them have gone as far as rebuffing and criticising anyone who would call on Sisi to provide a political platform. State and private media have been “idolising” Sisi for more than 10 months, setting up a full-fledged personality cult. This media-sponsored Sisi mania has already put him above any criticism weeks before he is to be elected Egypt’s actual president. Not surprisingly, Sisi is consciously behaving as if he is superior to other political figures and an acting ruler of his people.
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It is clear by now that Sisi will be able to get into the presidential palace campaigning only around the issue of security. He has been able to stoke the fire of people’s irrational fears of a violent Islamist insurgency and to capitalise them. Pro-Sisi media has been particularly successful in promoting such fears and legitimising the brutal repression against activists and political opponents.
Indeed, if Sisi is good at anything, that would be fear-mongering. Given his long experience in running the military intelligence apparatus and defence ministry, he has demonstrated his skill in deepening people’s fears and sense of insecurity. Not surprisingly, he is able to get away with the killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters and the arrest of thousands of others.
Moreover, Sisi seems keen on distorting the very idea of democracy by linking it to violence and instability. In a recent meeting with journalists, he lambasted those who focus on democracy instead of “focusing on the challenges and problems that are facing the society”. Interestingly, he stressed that democracy in Egypt might take around a quarter of a century to be established.
No future for the Brotherhood?
When he was asked during the interview about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi unequivocally answered: “They are finished.”
Sisi’s pledge to eliminate the Brotherhood was expected for many reasons. First, Sisi’s greatest achievement, from his supporters’ perspective, was that he removed the MB from power last summer. In order to maintain their support, Sisi would have to continue the crackdown on the Brotherhood, no matter the cost.
Second, Sisi’s regional support is contingent upon his ability to crush Islamists. Indeed, this goal is the foundation of the bargain between him and his Saudi and Emirati allies. The more he suppresses Islamists, the more money and support he would get. Third, eliminating Islamists would lend Sisi a certain level of international support under the banner of the “war on terrorism”, which would also keep the US military aid flowing to Egypt.
Yet the question is: Can Sisi really destroy the Brotherhood? Egypt’s recent history suggests that destroying the Brotherhood is nothing but a fantasy. When Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser arrested, tortured and executed thousands of Brotherhood members in the 1950s and 1960s, many thought the movement would vanish.
However, it came back to life in the 1970s, more powerful and vigorous than before. The same scenario repeated, when Mubarak tried to eliminate and marginalise the MB by putting their leaders on military trails in the 1990s and 2000s.Yet throughtout his reign the Brotherhood remained the main opposition group.
True, the current wave of repression is unprecedented and it has weakened the MB. However, its members still have the ability to adapt and coexist with it. The Brotherhood is not a mere “religious cult” or a “political party” but rather a massive social movement that has firm roots in Egyptian society. Moreover, dismantling the MB, if successful, would lead to more instability, as it might fragment the group and make it difficult to contain more radical factions.
If Sisi’s recent comments and interviews could tell us something about Egypt’s future, it is that his presidency would create more problems. With him as a president the precarious socio-economic situation in the country is unlikely to change any time soon.
Khalil al-Anani is Adjunct Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. He’s also co-editor of Elections and Democratization in the Middle East (2014) and the author of the forthcoming book, “Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics”.
Follow him on Twitter: @Khalilalanani