What happens when Sisi, Egypt's hero, collides with Egypt's reality?

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced his long-expected candidacy for president yesterday. He is wildly popular now, but Egypt's myriad problems could knock him down. 

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/REUTERS
People walk past a banner for Egypt's army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in downtown Cairo March 26, 2014.

On Wednesday night, the worst kept secret in Egyptian politics was brought into the open: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who led the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi last year, will be running for president.

"I am here before you humbly stating my intention to run for the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt," said Mr. Sisi in a televised address. "Only your support will grant me this great honor."

Sisi will most likely win by a landslide. Wednesday's announcement had been anticipated for months, and was greeted with euphoria by supporters, who make up the majority of Egyptians. Yet Sisi remains an enigma even as his popularity has soared. The youngest member of the ruling military council that took power after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, Sisi had little public profile until August 2012 when he was appointed as defense minister by Mr. Morsi, the man he would later topple. 

While the contours of a Sisi presidency remain unclear, the challenges he will face are plainly apparent. Decades of decline under President Hosni Mubarak, followed by three years of instability that followed his overthrow, have battered the economy and the rule of law. At the same time, Egypt's repressive security apparatus – a wellspring of grievances for protesters in January 2011 – went unchecked. Popular anger against Islamists that accompanied Morsi’s overthrow has strengthened this dominance.  

In his speech Wednesday night, Sisi asked Egyptians for their patience, but made few concrete promises. Among supporters, however, expectations remain sky high.

"All governments since 2011 have fallen into the trap of over-promising and under-delivering," says Moustafa Bassiouny, an economist at the Cairo-based research center, the Signet Institute. He says that the former army chief's most pressing challenge will be economic stabilization. 

Despite being the country’s first freely elected president, Morsi lost the support of most Egyptians in a span of less than a year, after he failed to make inroads on less acute problems than those now faced by the new leader.

Austerity on the horizon?  

In 2013, Egypt's ran the largest budget deficit in the world, relative to its GDP. Inflation levels reached double digits, hitting poor families the hardest. The average Egyptian family spends around half of its income on food. Unemployment also continues to rise as millions of youth entered a stagnant labor market.  

In a series of leaked recordings, published by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Rassd news website, Sisi hinted that he may pursue harsh austerity measures to repair Egypt's finances, in contrast to his image as a father figure who will be gentle with a bruised populace.

"Sisi is like our father," says Mahmoud Habib, a shopkeeper in downtown Cairo. Pictures of the military man, smiling kindly, are plastered across Mr. Habib's shopfront. "Our economy is bad and things are hard, but we know that he will treat us well and do the right thing."

In the leaked recordings, a different Sisi can be heard. "If I make you wake at 5 o'clock in the morning every day, can you stand it? If we become short of food, can you stand it?" he asked. "Can you stand it if I take away subsidies in one go?"

A fifth of all government spending goes on fuel subsidies; Egyptians can in theory buy cooking gas for a little under 50 cents, compared with an international price of nearly $13 for the same volume. In practice, marketplace corruption pushes the price higher, but still well below market rates.  

Economists say this is crippling the country's finances, but they warn that a swift end to subsidies could prompt a backlash from its main beneficiary and a key political constituency, the middle class. It would also hit the poor hard.

According to Mr. Bassiouny, the sort of structural reforms that Egypt's economy needs are also those most likely to cause social unrest.

"It's essential for economic reform to take place, but it depends whether the aim of the next government is political stability or economic reform," he says.

Taming the security apparatus

Sisi also has to figure out how to reign in an ascendant security apparatus, and an isolated and often politically embarrassing judiciary.

As part of an aggressive crackdown on the once-powerful Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Egypt's weaker secular opposition, from political life, at least 16,000 people have been arrested since last July's coup. 

The crackdown has been among the bloodiest in Egypt's modern history, and has spurred retaliatory violence across the country, sparking fears of an Islamist insurgency.

Egypt-watchers remain skeptical that Sisi will opt for deep reform of the security apparatus. Even if Egypt undergoes a degree of political liberalization on his watch, the interior ministry remains a powerful political force that Sisi needs on his side.

"I expect [Sisi] to say nice things, make a few symbolic and tactical steps, perhaps dismiss some people closely identified with repression. But I don't expect him to opt for all that much on the menu,"  says Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University and longtime Egypt scholar.

"There may be a tactical and limited liberalization in some spheres. But a strategic commitment would be a surprise."

Sisi's military background gives him a key advantage over his predecessor. After decades of decline and three years of acute instability, many Egyptians now favor a strongman president, even if it means a loss of freedom. The hugely popular army is widely viewed as the guardian of the state, in contrast to the wildly unpopular Morsi. 

With such large challenges facing their poster-boy president, however, Sisi has little time to live up to the hype. His failure could yet scar the army’s reputation, leaving Egyptians without a savior.

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