On July 3, 2013, the path to become the new Pharaoh of Egypt begun for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. With a coupe d’état, Mayor General al-Sisi toppled with the support of the Egyptian Army President Morsi, elected around one year earlier. During the first democratic election after decades of dominance by the former “Pharaoh”, Hosni Mubarak.
From that moment in time, Field Marshal al-Sisi – promoted in the meantime to the highest ranking in the army – started to build and increase his grip over the secular country, becoming the only uncontested ruler of Egypt and with a number of challenges to face in the near future.
To better understand who is al-Sisi today and where he is leading Egypt, we have to move back to those turbulent days of summer 2013. Mohamed Morsi was the incumbent president and he, together with his organization – the Muslim Brotherhood, was trying to transform the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an expression of political Islam, so something very different from the ideologies that dominated the Arab countries in the past. An example of political Islam is AKP, Erdogan’s party. Indeed, Turkey is one of the two main allies of the Brotherhood, together with Qatar, with the latter being its number one supporter. The small gas-rich gulf-monarchy hosts indeed all the exiled executives of the Brotherhood and is also the broadcasting station for Al Jazeera, that, at the time of the “Arab springs”, was trying to spread the revolution throughout the whole Arab world, pushing the local sections of the Brotherhood towards power.
This premise is necessary to understand from where Field Marshal Al-Sisi’s power came from and how it fit into the regional framework.
While the Morsi government was supported by Qatar with an allowance of $3 billion, the Saudi, the Emiratis and Kuwait could not allow it to take the lead of Sunni countries and thus started supporting Field Marshal Al-Sisi, with a much greater allowance of around $12 billion. They did not want the country to fall within the hands of the Brotherhood – considered as one of its main enemies – nor could they allow it to fall into chaos; Egypt was considered “too big to fail” and any consequence of its fall and the chaos that would have derived from it would have created too many uncertainties.
Thus, here we see the first cause of Al-Sisi’s power: the geopolitical struggle within Sunni countries that are divided over the support to the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Al-Sisi’s rise to power was not only due to the intervention of the other Arab countries; there were also other reasons why the revolution failed, such as social and cultural ones.
First, there was a crucial social rupture in the country: the young people protesting in Tahrir square were educated and cosmopolitan, but they were a minority in a country that at the time had a population of around 85 million people. They were the educated minority in contact with the outer world that soon became disenchanted about its perspectives in the country, above all taking into consideration the recent past that was lived by their parents and grandparents. With Nasser especially, Egypt had a prominent position within the Arab countries being an economic and entertainment power, a country with the best education system of the area that could provide for jobs for the huge majority of its educated citizens. But with time, every area in which Egypt could have been considered a leading nation went into crisis, also due to a bureaucracy that soon became too big of a weight along with a never-ceasing increase in population.
This sort of elite thus failed at creating a compact unit that could actually bring the country toward a democratic future, mainly because of its distance with the great majority of the population.
Another relevant point that allowed the rise to power of Al-Sisi has to be found within the same structure of the army and, thus, of power. Since Nasser, the power has been passed down within the army, from general to general; indeed, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak have all been members of the army. However, Mubarak was preparing to pass down the presidency to his son Gamal, an act deemed unacceptable for the leaders of the Egyptian Army that were bound to a system of passing down the power that dated back to the Mamluk Sultanate.
Hence, exploiting the high pressure on Mubarak and feeling sure about the true power of the army in the country, they deposed the president. They later let the Muslim Brotherhood take power in order to show their inability at ruling and eventually got rid of them too.
Thus, from the interconnection of these events, Field Marshal Al-Sisi rose to power. We therefore have to ask ourselves: at which point is Al-Sisi’s power?
The Global Firepower 2020 – an index ranking 138 countries with respect to their potential war-making capability across land, sea and air fought by conventional means – ranked Egypt in 9th position, being so the first Middle Eastern country in the index, before Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. This is because during Al-Sisi’s presidency, Egypt became the third global importer of arms of $2.7 billion in 2018 where its GDP is $280 billions. However, despite a very low GDP per capita of $2800 per person, the huge economic support the countries of the Arabic peninsula give Egypt cannot be forgotten, crucial for such high expenditures in arms and the survival of the State. Another important remark concerning defense expenditure is that Egypt did not rely upon one single country for its purchases: conversely, it tried to diversify as much as possible, buying from France, Italy, USA and Russia.
And here we see an important geopolitical event: Egypt has been a crucial ally for the USA for decades, especially with the start of the “War on Terror” by the Bush administration, who saw in Mubarak a good ally against extremism and jihadism. However, in 2015 they chose to purchase 24 Sukhoi Su-35 from Russia, making the Trump administration pretty nervous about this new defense collaboration.
To explain this tricky geopolitical move from a country that is well far from being totally independent from external pressure – from Saudis or the US for instance – we have to look West: Libya.
For Egypt, Libya is a crucial issue of national security and it is even more fundamental that the main actor must be someone against the Muslim Brotherhood, i.e. Khalifa Haftar. Thus, a fight against Sarraj’s GNA must be engaged and this implies a fight with Turkey, which is equipped with American F-16s. Despite Egypt also being equipped with F-16s, in order to win, it needs a clear aerial advantage, something that the Russians Su-35 may be capable of providing.
The second crucial geopolitical issue is that of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Taking into consideration that Cairo receives 88% of drinkable water from the Nile, Egypt alone depletes 66% of the total flow of it, and Egypt is also one of the main importers of wheat and wheat products – due to a lack of fields enough watered – the importance the Nile is apparent for the actual survival of the State, and not just the State structure, but the actual people as well.
Hence, while Ethiopia is willing to fill the artificial lake as soon as possible, in order to provide for the needed energy and start exporting it to the neighboring countries, Egypt is clearly averse to this strategy and wants the lake to be filled in the longest time lapse possible.
It is interesting to note that if the two countries were compared in terms of warfare capability, Egypt would appear to be clearly advantaged, being in 9th place of the Global Firepower 2020, while Ethiopia is in 60th.
In conclusion, while there may not be any actual internal opposition apparent within the country, gripped by a police state that also succeeded in radically changing a symbol like Tahrir square, but in fact there are a few geopolitical issues that may or may not challenge Al-Sisi’s power. What is certain is that, in the chaos the Middle East has been through for decades, there are no certain points.