Egyptians are about to hand the keys to their country to Field Marshal and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with very little sense of where he plans to take them. In fact, they know relatively little about Sisi himself, which is problematic given the mountain of challenges Egypt faces. And in announcing his candidacy on March 26—still in uniform, his last act as a soldier—Sisi gave only a few hints.

Sisi emerged into public life only recently. As head of military intelligence, he was virtually unknown to the public until he cooperated with the then president, Mohamed Morsi, to ensure that he replaced Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as defense minister in August 2012 and then ousted Morsi in July 2013. Throughout the ensuing months of questions about whether he would install himself into Morsi’s job, Sisi has remained a man of mystery, receiving Egyptians’ popular adoration yet maintaining a public persona that is distant and undefined.

While citizens in many countries often cast votes for presidential candidates based more on personality than platform, at least they generally have a choice to make—this time in Egypt, not so much.

The presidential election, which will likely take place in May 2014, will be starkly different from Egypt’s hotly contested race of June 2012. Then, campaign season began with a pool of more than a dozen candidates (four or five of them serious contenders) from which Morsi eventually emerged in a hard-fought runoff with a retired general.

Sisi, by contrast, will not face serious competition on either the right or the left. There will most likely be no Islamist contender: Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, now officially considered a terrorist organization, would hardly be tolerated, and Salafi organizations are divided between those supporting Sisi and those boycotting the process. One serious Islamist candidate in 2012, Strong Egypt Party leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, has already said he will boycott this election, as will 2012 leftist candidate Khaled Ali. Candidates from the nationalist camp are unlikely to run against Sisi because they do not want to defy the military, whose leaders announced their support for Sisi’s candidacy in an unprecedented statement that many politically aware Egyptians found startling. The one announced competitor so far, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, will draw some protest and labor votes but the young revolutionaries he attracted in 2012 are now scattered and demoralized.

So, Sisi will cruise to an easy victory in terms of the election itself. And that is where the certainty ends. Egyptians do not know where Sisi stands on a number of key issues or what he plans to do in office. Yet, many do know that their country faces a Gordian knot of security, human rights, political, and economic problems.

Since Morsi’s ouster in July, the security situation has rapidly become the worst it has been in decades. Jihadi terrorist groups that once carried out small attacks primarily in the Sinai have expanded operations to the mainland as well. Now hardly a day passes without at least one policeman shot or a bomb discovered. Several recent attacks have indicated a worrisome trend of escalation in tactics and targets, notably the car bombing of police headquarters in Cairo and the downing of a military helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile in late January. Moreover, political marches protesting Morsi’s removal and student protests have been surprisingly persistent and continue to end in clashes and deaths throughout the country on a weekly basis.

Human rights abuses since the July 2013 coup have been the most severe in Egypt’s modern history, playing out on at least as large a scale as those involved in then president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood in the 1950s. Data are hard to come by in a highly charged and polarized political environment, but from what can be pieced together it seems that since July 2013 at least 2,500 Egyptians have been killed in demonstrations and at least 19,000 have been arrested either for participating in pro-Morsi demonstrations or because of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian government is now explicitly blaming the Brotherhood for the terrorist attacks—although it has not presented any evidence of operational links with the groups carrying them out. The result is that anyone supporting the Brotherhood publicly or even meeting with its members can be prosecuted on terrorism-related charges. Meanwhile, journalists, youth activists, and civil society figures who have dared to question or investigate actions by the military or police have come under intense pressure and harassment.

This crackdown extends to the political sphere as well. Looking ahead to planned parliamentary elections further underscores Egypt’s deeply troubled atmosphere. The Freedom and Justice Party, Morsi’s party and the winner of a near-majority of seats in the last elections, will be excluded or marginalized due to its affiliation with the Brotherhood. And even the secular parties that actively or passively supported Morsi’s removal—the Social Democrats, Free Egyptians, Wafd, and others—are likely to have their chances diminished by the reversion to a Mubarak-era electoral system dominated by individual mandates rather than party lists.

As such, Egypt’s nascent political parties, which were just starting to get on their feet during the country’s brief political opening after the 2011 uprising, might well be marginalized in parliamentary races dominated by money, old families, and ties to the military and security services. The intention—and likely outcome—of doing so would be to produce a parliament that is unable to perform the extensive functions accorded it in Egypt’s new constitution, putting de facto power back into the hands of the president.

Economic issues loom large as well and might be the most likely to stoke popular unrest if neglected. Egypt faces an urgent energy shortage; years of government energy subsidies have left heavy industry with half its needs unmet and consumers facing increasingly frequent blackouts. Unemployment remains dangerously high, especially among the youth, and laborers are becoming restive, as they have repeatedly in recent years. Government spending on subsidies and on Egypt’s 7-million-person bureaucracy is unsustainable without large and frequent infusions of cash from the Gulf states—a short-term plan at best. Bringing government spending back to a sustainable level would require painful austerity measures that might spur additional unrest. Reviving economic activity would require bringing back investment and tourism on a large scale, which will happen only with an improvement in the security situation.

The military-backed government in place since the coup against Morsi has been operating in crisis mode. The big question is whether, once Sisi is president and the post-coup political road map is nearly completed, he will begin to take actions to cut through this knot of problems.

So far there is no sign of a political or security strategy on Sisi’s part to move beyond the full crackdown mode in effect since July 2013. But Sisi did express concern about Egypt’s “enormous” economic challenges in his March 26 speech, calling massive youth unemployment and government dependence on foreign aid “unacceptable” and suggesting that Egyptians will have to make sacrifices.1

Once his campaign begins, Sisi reportedly will champion two economic megaprojects, one related to housing and another for development of the Suez Canal zone. Both projects will feature extensive military involvement and capital from the Gulf, particularly the UAE. These initiatives suggest that Sisi’s instincts on economic policy will be populist and statist, as one might expect from someone who has spent his entire adult life in the Egyptian military, rather than focused on reform or directed toward enlivening business and investment. They also will reinforce concerns that businesspeople express privately, namely that the military will increasingly crowd the private sector out of large areas of the economy.

In theory, the presidential candidate will have the chance to clarify his stances on these issues in the coming campaign. While 2014 is unlikely to feature a serious presidential debate (again, unlike 2012, when the two initial front-runners effectively ended their races with their performances in Egypt’s first-ever televised debate), there will undoubtedly be plenty of public speaking opportunities for Sisi. If he takes them and begins to define his political persona, his answers to five questions should shed light on how he might address Egypt’s massive challenges:

  1. Does Sisi acknowledge that the country has been through a period of unparalleled internal conflict and polarization and that national healing is now needed? He hinted at this during his March 26 speech but then quickly moved to suggest that unnamed “internal, regional, and foreign” enemies were to blame.
  2. Does Sisi extend olive branches to those who have felt excluded and harassed since July 2013—youth, journalists, civil society, critics of military rule—not to mention supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood? New Egyptian presidents typically are magnanimous and try to show that they are leaders of the entire nation. In his speech, Sisi suggested that any Egyptian not being prosecuted should be considered “a full partner,” but that is hardly comforting with tens of thousands in prison and mass trials of hundreds ongoing.
  3. Does Sisi express a commitment to implementing human rights protections in the constitution? Acknowledging the security services’ excesses and promising to institute a serious transitional justice process (Egypt has already had several unserious ones) would be key. There was no hint of this in his first speech, but rather a promise to “rebuild the state.”
  4. Does Sisi express a commitment to political pluralism and take steps to reopen political space for both secularists and Islamists? He gave only the briefest of nods to democracy in his March 26 speech.
  5. How does Sisi discuss the role of the public sector, and particularly the military, in the economy as opposed to that of the private sector, and does he acknowledge that only a vigorous and free private sector can generate the jobs needed for Egypt’s huge and growing labor force? Sisi did say in his speech that productive capacity in “all sectors” should be revived and hinted that Egypt cannot depend on Gulf donors indefinitely, but he said nothing specific about the roles of public and private industries in generating jobs.

Of course, even if Sisi says many of the right things during his campaign, there is no telling whether he will actually take the steps Egypt critically needs, such as reforming energy subsidies or starting the long-overdue process of police reform. But right now, the problem is that no one knows whether he even thinks those steps are necessary. And even if Egyptians start getting answers during the campaign, it will already be too late to reverse course because of the lack of other viable presidential candidates. Having handed Sisi the keys, Egyptians will be along for the ride, unable to do much more than shout from the backseat in the hope of getting the attention of the mysterious man driving the car.


1 The quotes from the March 26 speech are the author’s translations.