The date of the forthcoming presidential election in Egypt has yet to be confirmed, but it is already generally accepted who the winner will be. Defence minister and leader of the armed forces, Field Marshall Abdul Fattah al-Sisi looks all but set to become the next president of the Arab world’s most populous country, despite not having officially announced his candidacy.

The 59-year-old army chief was a relative unknown until he took a leading role in the coup to remove President Mohamed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed government from power in July 2013. When the interim cabinet was subsequently sworn in, Al-Sisi was retained as defence minister, and quickly came to be seen as the figurehead of the caretaker leadership.

This was particularly evident in his frequent public addresses during the military’s violent clampdown on the pro-Mursi sit-ins that took over Cairo’s main squares in August, as protesters demanded the president’s reinstatement.

Populist image

Since then, Al-Sisi has been working to strengthen his image, forging useful alliances abroad and at home, interpreted as him laying the groundwork for a presidential bid. His populist style has won huge support among secular-leaning Egyptians.

Ironically, it was Mursi himself who initiated Al-Sisi’s elevation through the ranks in 2012, appointing the then intelligence chief as military head and defence minister after forcing Mohamed Tantawi into retirement. Tantawi, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), had been interim ruler of Egypt for more than a year, following the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. After his election, Mursi dismissed Tantawi in response to an earlier military order that curbed presidential powers and gave increased authority to the council. At the time, it was seen as the latest twist in the battle between the Brotherhood and the army for control of Egypt.

At the beginning of 2014, Scaf controversially gave its overt approval to a potential leadership bid by Al-Sisi. The resignation on 24 February of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, along with his cabinet, has also been received by analysts as part of Al-Sisi’s efforts to win favour from Egyptians ahead of the election. The new interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab is seen as a much more proactive leader and has pledged to combat terrorism and attract increased foreign investment into the country. He is also well connected with the military.

“The resignation of the cabinet is to avoid a possible contamination of Al-Sisi’s bid for presidency due to public dissatisfaction with the [former] government. He wants to give his presidential bid some legitimacy,” Oliver Coleman, senior analyst, Middle East and North Africa, at UK-based consultancy firm Maplecroft, told MEED at the time.

Since then, in early March, interim president Adly Mansour issued the Presidential Election Law and an election timeframe is expected to be announced imminently, setting the stage, in the absence of any credible opposition, for a one-man race for presidency to begin.

“The Arabtec [low-cost housing] deal should not be seen in isolation from Al-Sisi’s potential bid for presidency”

Wael Ziada, EFG Hermes

Al-Sisi has established solid ties internationally. In February, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said he would support the army chief in his bid for the presidency, saying Egypt was the “cornerstone for stability in the region”. Al-Sisi has also overseen the strengthening of relations with several Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE pledged billions of dollars in aid after Mursi’s overthrow, helping prop up the country’s ailing economy. In March, Al-Sisi visited Abu Dhabi to attend the conclusion of a joint military exercise. He is already close to Riyadh, having served as military attache in the kingdom during the Mubarak era.

In a further sign of strengthening Egypt-UAE relations, he signed a $40bn deal with the UAE’s Arabtec Holding for a housing project in Egypt in early March. The contract was signed directly with the defence ministry and involves the construction of 1 million low-cost homes. It has been seen a politically motivated move to help Al-Sisi win votes by portraying him as a proactive leader ready to tackle social problems.

“In our view, the current election law, his recent public speeches and the announcement that the military would launch a new initiative to build housing units for low-income people along with Arabtec are preparing the ground for his campaign,” reads a recent research note from the US’ Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Worrying trend

Wael Ziada, head of research at local investment bank EFG Hermes, tells MEED: “The Arabtec deal should not be seen in isolation from Al-Sisi’s potential bid for presidency. It is a move that might help a candidate as much as it helps the country.” He expresses concerns about Al-Sisi and the army playing such a prominent role in the multibillion-dollar scheme. “The real risk is having the army play a role it shouldn’t be playing,” he says. “It is a role that should be played by other institutions. But the fact that the army is part of the deal suggests it is perhaps the only institution external investors of such size can speak to or trust, and that is a serious issue.”

The election law has also been seen as a means of strengthening Al-Sisi’s bid for power. One of the clauses causing controversy is the article that makes the Presidential Election Commission’s decisions immune to appeals. Critics of the law have said the amended clause is unconstitutional and strengthens the incumbent government’s position.

Not only is Al-Sisi’s propaganda machine in full swing, he also faces limited opposition in his potential bid for presidency. In February, Hamdeen Sabahi, a left-wing politician, announced he would join the presidential race. Sabahi came third in the elections in 2012, and was seen as the more liberal alternative to either an Islamist candidate or someone with links to the Mubarak regime. But as yet, his campaign has made little noise, with many dismissive of the seriousness of his bid.

Egypt’s former chief of army staff, Sami Anan, had also toyed with the idea of launching a presidency campaign, but confirmed in mid-March that he would not be running. Meanwhile, Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and the man who narrowly lost out to Mursi in the 2012 vote, has given his backing to Al-Sisi.

Al-Sisi will not face competition from Brotherhood-backed candidates either. The organisation has been increasingly marginalised since the July coup and Egypt’s courts officially banned all activities of the organisation in September. Mursi and several other key leaders were arrested and are currently on trial in Cairo.

The Brotherhood, meanwhile, continues to reject the legitimacy of the interim government and calls for Mursi to be returned to power. It boycotted the referendum on the new constitution held in January. The organisation is expected to call for its supporters to boycott the presidential polls as well, but this will just boost Al-Sisi’s share of the vote. With the usual political channels closed off to the Brotherhood, some supporters are turning to more violent ways of expressing their frustration. Terrorist incidents have been increasing since July last year, with the most recent attack occurring on 15 March, when gunmen shot and killed six soldiers at an army checkpoint outside Cairo. The military blamed the Brotherhood for the attack, although it has denied the accusation. Nonetheless, the rise in terrorist-related activity is only likely to further galvanise support for the army and the desire for a new strongman to lead the country.

Although the current political environment is primed for Al-Sisi to announce his bid for presidency, he continues to only make vague allusions to his potential bid. “Any person who loves Egypt cannot turn his back to his people if he felt a genuine desire on the part of a large number of them to call on him to undertake a national assignment,” he said via the state media service in early March.

Seeming reluctance

Some insiders detect reluctance from the army chief, saying Al-Sisi would rather not take on the responsibility of sorting out the huge social and economic problems facing Egypt. “Many of the decisions the president will make will not be immediately welcome, as it will have to start with a difficult restructuring,” says Ziada.

That the last two presidents of Egypt fell foul of public opinion and are currently on trial is just further evidence of the dangers of ruling the country. Al-Sisi is perhaps wise to give his potential presidency bid due consideration.

Key fact

Al-Sisi signed a $40bn deal with the UAE’s Arabtec to build a million low-cost homes for Egyptians

Source: MEED