Sisi’s Road to Power

Sisi’s Road to Power

Housam Darwisheh (IDE-JETRO)



On July 3, 2013, Army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi staged a coup d’état against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Muhammad Mursi. Sisi suspended the Constitution, installed an interim government and appointed Adly Mansour, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, to be the interim President (for the duration of 3 July 2013 to 8 June 2014). On June 8, 2014, Sisi was sworn in as Egypt’s president following a landslide election victory almost a year after he ousted Mursi. Sisi’s transitional roadmap consisted of three important steps: (1) drafting a new Constitution; (2) holding presidential elections; and (3) holding parliamentary elections. The first two steps have already been taken. The parliamentary elections are expected to take place later this year.


The 2014 Constitution

The new Constitution was approved by 98 per cent of voters in a referendum held on 14 and 15 January 2014. This Constitution institutionalizes a military-police state in Egypt and diminishes the sphere of civilian politics. Within this state, three political actors now assume the most important positions, namely, the military (with control of its budget), the judiciary, and the Islamists (the only strong and organized opposition).

The Constitution places the authority of the military beyond the control of the executive branch. In particular, the army is exempted from civilian oversight over the defense budget which falls within the purview of a National Defense Council. However, the Constitution does not specify who has the power to approve the defense budget. In addition, the Constitution stipulates that the Minister of Defense must be a military officer chosen by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  In order to quell opposition to military rule, the Constitution allows military trials for civilians and includes counter-terrorism clauses that enable the authorities to intimidate or silence the opposition by accusing the latter of terrorism. In other words, the military has the power to intervene in politics in all levels, which hinders Egypt’s ability to find a balanced relationship between the civilian state and the military establishment.

The judiciary, an unelected institution, has been rewarded for strongly supporting the coup. The Constitution has shifted the appointment of the prosecutor-general from the president to the Supreme Judicial Council. The judiciary is also shielded from legislative influence. Now each judicial body has been granted autonomy and receives its budget in a lump sum, exempt from parliamentary oversight (Brown & Dunne, Dec. 2013). If anything, the judiciary is vested with powers to disband parliament and prevent new elections from being held. Thus, an autonomous judiciary, essential in any democratic setting, has emerged as a powerful political actor by being an ally of the military regime. The judiciary has helped the regime to persecute its enemies and the opposition under the newly enacted Protest Law and Terrorism Law by declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘terrorist organization’, jailing journalists and protestors, and banning the secular April 6 Movement that played an important role in the January 25 uprising in 2011.

The Constitution virtually returns to the pre-2011 era by prohibiting the establishment of religiously based political parties and threatening the existence of more than 15 Islamic parties established since 2011. The prohibition provided by Article 74 seeks to preclude strong opposition, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, and to curb the potential of other rising Islamic opposition. Moreover, Article 237, which requires the state to fight ‘terrorism’ and cut off its funding support, is really aimed at combatting the opposition (again mostly targeting the Muslim Brotherhood and its financial resources).


2014 Presidential Elections

Whereas thirteen candidates contested the 2012 presidential elections, only two candidates stood in the single-round 2014 elections. The leading candidate was Sisi, the former Army Chief who staged the coup against Muhammad Mursi and was supported by the army, other state institutions, private and public media, and the business community. The other candidate was Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist Nasserist politician, leader of the Egyptian Popular Current and third in the 2012 presidential election won by Mursi, who claimed to have the support of the poor and the youth.  

Unlike the closely contested 2012 presidential election, the 2014 election result was a foregone conclusion: Sisi would win. Egypt’s de facto leader after July 3, 2013, Sisi did not mount a grassroots electoral campaign and did not appear in public to mobilize people to vote for him. Instead, he constantly appeared on pre-recorded TV interviews during which he did not talk about his electoral program but he offered his vision for Egypt and made emotional speeches on patriotism. Sisi neither made populist promises (such as to create a massive number of jobs or to present a clear economic agenda to boost the economy) nor gave democratic pledges (of more inclusive and less repressive politics). Instead, he vowed to achieve security and stability for Egypt and asked Egyptians to support him in his ‘war on terror’ in Sinai Peninsula and against the Muslim Brotherhood. Before and during the campaign period, Egyptian media glorified the army as the ‘guardian of the revolution’ and exaggerated Sisi’s popularity by portraying him not as a candidate as such but as a president. The media, saturated with pro-Sisi stories, images and music videos, endlessly exhorted, admonished and even warned the public to vote in the name of patriotism. There were, moreover, abundant and huge posters promoting Sisi, part of his well-funded campaign run by the teams of Ahmad Shafiq, Amr Mousa and businessmen belonging to Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Since Sisi lacked a political party, his campaign relied on the army and Mubarak’s patronage network to mobilize votes for him. 

In contrast, having very little financial support or media coverage, Hamdeen Sabahi depended on a grassroots campaign with frequent public appearances. Unlike Sisi, Sabahi had an electoral program. He wanted to end ‘terrorism’, achieve social justice and seek retribution for the martyrs of the January 25, 2011 ‘revolution’, address poverty and unemployment, and pursue economic self-sufficiency. To capitalize on Sisi’s lack of an electoral program, Sabahi’s campaign invited Sisi to a ‘live’ telecast public debate with Sabahi. Sisi declined. However, Sabahi was able to obtain no more than 3.9 percent of the votes, which meant that he had overrated his popularity and ability to compete against Sisi. Indeed, Sabahi was criticized for helping to legitimize, domestically and internationally, an election that Sisi was certain of winning. Sabahi had miscalculated if he expected that anti-regime revolutionary forces would vote for him in order to block the return of the old regime. Voters were apparently apathetic towards an election the result of which was a ‘foregone conclusion’. Sabahi also made the strategic error of presenting himself as a revolutionary and reformist, rather than a viable alternative to Sisi. On many issues, such as fighting terrorism and proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood, Sabahi’s campaign overlapped and converged with Sisi’s. In fact, Sabahi had openly supported the coup against Mursi, called Sisi a hero of the July 3, 2013’s ‘revolution’, and backed his transitional roadmap. Sabahi erred, too, trying to rally mainly the youth, who were unorganized, ideologically polarized and badly divided between supporting and opposing Sabahi’s decision to contest in the election. Finally, Sabahi committed the strategic mistake of not allying with the Islamists who constituted the best organized political force in the country, capable of mobilizing people in all previous elections held after Mubarak’s overthrow.

Sisi aimed for a high turnout for the election, calling for at least 40 million of the 54 registered voters to vote. A high voter turnout was important to Sisi to show strong popular support for the military coup and his leadership, to convince his international partners, USA in particular, that Sisi’s roadmap has sufficient support to restore stability, and to bolster his legitimacy by gaining more votes than Mursi’s 13 million votes in 2012. However, Sisi did not win the ‘turnout battle’ (Nawara, May 27, 2014). For many Egyptians, there was no genuine electoral competition: Sisi was assured of victory due to the support of state institutions, and the majority of those who voted were pro-Sisi. In contrast, voters had cast for a total of thirteen candidates in the 2012 presidential election and the majority rallied behind Mursi in the second round to forestall the restoration of the old regime.


The Parliamentary Elections

According to the military’s original plan for transition, parliamentary elections were supposed to take place before presidential elections. The eventual decision to hold presidential elections first had the objectives of strengthening Sisi’s control over state and society, bolstering the legitimacy of a government of unelected officials, and promoting the military’s legislative agenda through executive decrees without any parliament challenge. A few days before Sisi was inaugurated as President, the interim president, Adly Mansour, passed a new law for parliamentary elections. Many political parties criticized the new electoral law because it would weaken the representation of political parties while allowing wealthy individuals and powerful local figures with ties to Egypt’s security forces and Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party to control Parliament. According to the new law, of the 567 seats, 420 will be elected on an individual basis, 120 on party list (although individuals may form groups and contest the seats allocated for party lists), and 27 seats will be appointed by the President. This law differs significantly from the law under which the 2011–2012 parliamentary elections were held. Then, two thirds of the seats were allocated to political parties and only one third to independents. Sisi does not belong to a political party but individuals loyal to him and the Mubarak regime are expected to control Parliament, thus undermining its legislative authority by effectively placing it under executive control. Subsequently, Mubarak’s NDP will be resurrected, only under a different name.

Moreover, figures of the old regime are poised to return to power. On the one hand, an appeals court ruled on July 14 that leaders of the NDP, which was dissolved after the January 2011 uprising, would not be barred from running for elections. On the other hand, the regime has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘terrorist organization’ while its Freedom and Justice Party faces litigation calling for its dissolution. It is not likely that the weak and divided secular and liberal political parties, which lack organizational capacity and grassroots constituencies, can stop the patronage networks that thrived under Mubarak from dominating a new parliament.


Sisi’s challenges

Between the coup and the presidential election, private and government-run media demonized Mursi and glorified Sisi. It would be more difficult for the media to sustain this kind of campaign now that Sisi is President if he is incapable of meeting Egypt’s urgent socio-economic needs of increased investment, employment creation, and provision of facilities for infrastructure, education and public health. Sisi did not have an electoral program to address such needs. In fact, one can get no sense from his campaign interviews that Sisi had any solution to Egypt’s problems. For instance, when asked what he would do to solve Egypt’s energy crisis and power cuts, Sisi could only recommend ‘energy saving and using LED bulbs’. He suggested, too, that the bread shortage problem would be solved if people were to ‘save bread’. And his idea for tackling unemployment was to buy and supply thousands of grocery cars for unemployed youth to sell groceries around the country. Like other previous presidents, he promised to build massive infrastructure, reclaim desert land and extend provincial boundaries.

Egypt’s other acute problem comes from the massive rights abuses that the regime has committed against its people since the military coup. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the authorities have committed widespread torture, mass killings (of more than 1,400 deaths), and imprisoned from 25 to 40 thousand people. Besides, hundreds of prisoners have been issued death sentences. Just on March 22, 2014 alone, for example, 529 Brotherhood members were sentenced to death.

Sisi moves to consolidate his rule without political inclusion and meaningful opposition will not be easy. Few socio-political forces have a stake in the system. Sisi is likely to rely on even more coercion if his policies do not result in prosperity, stability and dignity, particularly for unemployed youth. But the recent history of the Middle East has shown that exclusion and excessive use of force to stay in power eventually created an environment in Egypt’s neighbors, Syria and Iraq, that favored the advance of radical organizations like the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant known as (ISIS).  


Ottaway, Marina. December 2013. “The Egyptian Constitution: Mapping Where Power Lies”, Viewpoints No. 47, Woodrow Wilson Center.

Brown, Nathan & Dunne, Michele. December 2013. “Egypt’s Draft Constitution Rewards the Military and Judiciary”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  

Nawara, Wael. May 27m 2014. “Sisi Loses Turnout Battle in Egypt’s Election”, Al-Monitor.