Candidacy of former general polarizes Egypt | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 28.03.2014
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Candidacy of former general polarizes Egypt

Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the army general who led the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, formally announced he was resigning from his post to seek the presidency; a position he is all but expected to win.

In a televised speech on Wednesday (26.03.2014), General Al-Sisi announced he was resigning from the military to run for president. While the long-anticipated announcement was greeted with euphoria by many Egyptians seeking a strongman to lead the country out of turbulent times, the news evoked anger and dismay from both Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the activists who took to the streets in 2011 to end the country's history of dictatorial regimes.

"He is not hungry for power. By accepting to run for presidency and take off his military uniform, he is stepping down not up," said Dalia Ziada, executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, who was in a café with friends when she heard Sisi's speech and went out celebrating after the announcement. "It was very clear in his speech yesterday that he understands the responsibility and looks at the position as a duty, not as a prestigious thing," she said.

Online, supporters of Sisi posted photos and music videos celebrating the military man whose face for months has adorned posters in shop windows, on billboards and even candy wrappers.

Wearing his military uniform in his address, the former minister of defense struck a chord with his support base when he sought to assure them that he would restore Egypt and bring stability.

“I will fight every day for an Egypt free of fear and terror. I say again what I have said before, we would rather die before Egyptians are terrorized,” Sisi said, hinting at the military-backed government's fight against Islamist extremists and unabated street protests.

Stability vs. polarization

Dalia Ziada

Sisi is seen as the man for stability, says Ziada

"The fact that the majority of Egyptians want him to be president, would give us some stability," said Ziada. "That is because those Egyptians would be patient with him, obey him, and help him lead us through this very tough phase."

But not all are pleased. In a Muslim Brotherhood press statement, leader Ibrahim Mounir said that an Al-Sisi presidency would "neither bring security nor stability to Egypt."

For others, like the revolutionaries who took to the streets in 2011 and occupied Tahrir Square, his official announcement confounded fears that the counterrevolution was complete and that the country was returning to an era of strong man politics.

"Well, at least I got a January 25 t-shirt to prove it happened," wrote Sarah Carr, a British Egyptian journalist to her Twitter account, referring to the 2011 uprising.

"It was expected and far from a surprise. The past eight months have been a build-up to reach this point,” said Salma Shamel, an Egyptian activist. “It means unprecedented polarity and division that we're going to face in the coming years.”

The polarization and cult-like following that has surrounded Al-Sisi has also caused great concern. "The atmosphere will make him a dictator," said Hossam Eldin Ali, a liberal political activist. "I'm afraid and worried for [the future of democracy]."

Dark horse candidate

Ägypten al-Sisi - Unterstützer

Many Egyptians are avid supporters of al-Sisi

But while reactions were widely split, very little remains known about what exactly a Sisi presidency would mean for Egypt. The former minister of defense, who less than two years ago was virtually unknown to many Egyptians, rarely speaks to the media and has revealed very little in terms of his economic or political policies.

"Egyptians don't know much about Sisi and don't know much about what he will do to get the country out of the terrible security, human rights and economic problems that it has right now; yet they are just handing the country to him," said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Presumably he'll speak a little bit more about his views and his plans during the campaign, but there won't be any other viable choice at that point."

With the Muslim Brotherhood declared a terrorist organization and several viable candidates already declining to enter the race on grounds that the army chief's election is all but guaranteed, Sisi faces little competition. Only Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist who ran in the 2012 elections has said he would enter the race. However, no date has yet been set for the presidential ballot.

"Egypt has now moved away from political contests," said Dunne. "There will not be real competition, so Egyptians in effect don't have a real choice here."

Daunting challenges

One of the most pressing issues that the country faces is the economy, where rising unemployment, poverty, power outages, fleeting investment, increasing government debt and a battered tourist industry.

Michele Dunne

Sisi faces little competition, says Dunne

In past speeches, Sisi has expressed concern about Egypt's daunting economic challenges, calling massive youth unemployment and government dependence on foreign aid "unacceptable."

Once his campaign begins, Sisi reportedly will spearhead two major economic projects, one related to housing and another for development of the Suez Canal zone. Both will include extensive military involvement and funds from the country's Gulf state backers.

"It's a very statist and populist approach and it's not what I think the IMF would recommend," said Dunne. "There is nothing wrong with infrastructure projects as part of a plan to revive the economy, but the question here is, what is the role of the private sector? The small and medium sector are really what are going to generate the most jobs in the end, and at least so far, we don't have the sense that he sees that.We see the army with this infusion of Gulf capital as what is going to get the country moving."

Others agree that Sisi's economic policy likely will mean much more state involvement.

"On the economy, we can't really say for sure, although as a representative of the military, he obviously favors considerable state intervention in the economic sphere," said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

Bildergalerie Ägypten Dritter Jahrestag des Aufstandes 25. Januar 2014

The Egyptian military has been cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood

Crackdown continues

In regards to political and security strategy, analysts say there has been little indication of his plans beyond expanding the crackdown against Islamists that is already in full swing.

"We don't really know much about his political views one way or another beyond his overall approach to stability and his use of repression," said Hamid.

Egypt is in the midst of one of the harshest crackdowns in decades with estimates of more than 2,500 Egyptians killed, more than 17,000 injured, and more than 16,000 arrested in protests since the military ouster of Mohamed Morsi.

Sisi's announcement also came just days after a court in Minya sentenced more than 500 supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi to death for the killing of one police officer, a ruling the received widespread condemnation.

Hundreds more are still on trial and both Egyptian and foreign journalists are imprisoned, accused of damaging Egypt's image and being members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

"His message is ‘I'm the one who can bring stability to Egypt,' even though he's presided over one of the most unstable periods in recent Egyptian history," said Hamid.

Whatever his political, security and economic policies, many say he is taking a great risk running for president.

"We don't know how long of a honeymoon Sisi will have and how much he will be able to get done," said Dunne. "But events in Egypt keep moving faster than we all predicted. I'm not sure many people thought the whole Morsi presidency would implode in one year. Egypt is a very volatile place."

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