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What to watch in Sisi’s run for president of Egypt

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could face a challenging transition from military man to candidate.
A man stands on a bridge where huge posters of Egypt's Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are hanged in central Cairo February 3, 2014. Egypt is pushing ahead with an army-backed plan for political transition, with presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place within months. Sisi is widely expected to announce his presidential bid and win easily.   REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih  (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX186DU

It's official. Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is now Field Marshal Sisi. He is only the ninth Egyptian army commander to be bestowed this highest of military titles. On Jan. 27, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had announced Sisi's promotion, which was made official Feb. 1, and on the same day "empowered" the defense minister to run for president.

Undoubtedly, the transition of Field Marshal Sisi from military man to statesman is a risky gamble that will shape the future of Egypt for years to come. Thus, it is no wonder that Sisi is taking his time preparing for his next move. There are five aspects of Sisi's expected presidential campaign that he has to carefully deal with to make a smooth transition to the world of open politics.

First, the funding: Running an election campaign is a costly business. If Sisi intends to respect the Egyptian public, he must make known the source(s) of his funding, which should be completely independent from the government. The mysterious widespread distribution of Sisi posters across Egypt is not a good start. Even local Egyptian commentators have raised concerns. Sisi cannot claim he is the champion of a new era if his campaign rejects transparency.

Second, the manifesto: Thus far, no one knows exactly what Sisi's plans are for the Egyptian economy or foreign and domestic policies. The chorus of patriotism and nationalism that surround him mask a deeper, problematic pitfall of inaccurate assumptions. Egyptians are being led to believe by a huge media campaign that Sisi is the answer to Egypt's mess, but without clear explanation of the how and at what price. Many tend to assume that the policies of the current interim government are indicative of Sisi's ideas, but that may not be the case. The simple truth is that no one knows his stance on the issues, because he has never publicly elaborated his views. Nonetheless, once he announces his candidacy, he must provide a clear manifesto that avoids cliches and generalized intentions.

Third, the team: There is a broad assumption that Team Sisi will be more or less a collection of deposed President Hosni Mubarak's men or at least some experts who worked with his toppled regime and are still considered loyal to him. If true, then it will be a gross miscalculation by Sisi and a bad start to his political career. If Sisi is indeed pursuing a fresh start, then he must distance himself from Mubarak's kleptocracy and crony capitalism. The economy will be Sisi's lifeline and his passport to success or failure. Without offering fast and substantial improvements to the daily lives of average Egyptians, Sisi will simply sign his own political death certificate. The public is increasingly impatient after three years of painful turmoil and has high expectations from the mythical marshal they have chosen to trust.

Fourth, the constituency: Although the army chief has a good chance of winning the presidential election, it is the parliamentary elections that represent his biggest challenge. Sisi needs a friendly government that cooperates with him and shares his vision. The easiest way to do that is to rely on the ex-Mubarak election machine, which is the same group that backed and campaigned effectively for Ahmed Shafiq in the previous presidential context. This solution, although easy, is inherently problematic. Relying on the old guard will not only re-empower them, but will also come at a hefty price by allowing a resurgence of their corrupt ways, just like the old days. The public may be fickle in supporting Sisi, but it is not dumb and will not accept the old faces equipped with new nationalistic slogans.

Fifth, achieving stability: Most of Sisi's backers have supported him out of a deep desire to restore stability even at the costly price of repression, but repression has its limits. If it continues, it could plunge the country deeper into a death spiral, triggering ever more agitation and violence. In his platform, Sisi has to elaborate on his plans for achieving stability. Some are speculating that he is leaving the hawks of security to go wild for now, so that once elected he can issue a blanket amnesty and paint himself as a true democrat. That is plausible, but there are other possibilities. It could be a carrot-and-stick policy in regard to his Islamist nemeses or a continuation of the uncompromising anti-Muslim Brotherhood purge, which could jeopardize his quest for stability. It is part of the task of the candidate Sisi to put forward a solution to this conundrum.

In contemporary Egyptian history, three leaders — Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak — have made a relatively smooth transition from the world of arms to the world of politics. The first two relied heavily on their military accomplishments (in the 1956 and 1973 wars) to generate charismatic authority, while Mubarak relied on his skill to manipulate for survival. Candidate Sisi does not have any of these cards to play. For now, he relies heavily on the depth of hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood plus his personal appeal and perceived leadership skills. Perception and reality may soon clash, however, especially if the public begins to spot holes in Sisi's plans and abilities.

By deciding to run for the presidency, Field Marshal Sisi has earned the enmity of many inside and outside Egypt. Moreover, the current crackdown on journalists has already made Sisi reviled by some in the foreign media. Sisi's enemies will scrutinize his every move and decision and home in on any mistakes. He may come to think in hindsight that the coup was probably his easiest mission. Ahead are even more difficult tasks for this novice politician who has, it seems, voluntarily decided to take over the unenviable task of governing Egypt.

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