Unlike former Egyptian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does not have a political organization to call his own. Sisi has drawn on a broad but disorganized array of networks for political support, including partisans of Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party, tribal and clan leaders, a host of liberal and leftist political parties, big business, and opportunistic pro-Sisi movements. But so far, he has shown no interest in organizing these groups further, and has repeatedly expressed disdain for partisan politics. Sisi’s primary support base consists of the state institutions that brought him to power—particularly the military, which he led from August 2012 until March 2014 and whose senior officers endorsed his presidential bid. Yet an overreliance on these institutions could undermine Sisi’s capacity to address Egypt’s pressing economic problems and leave him vulnerable to a reemergence of popular discontent.
Restoring the stability and prestige of the Egyptian state have been recurring themes in Sisi’s rhetoric since the coup that ousted Morsi last July. Reflecting intense frustration with the revolutionary upheaval of the past three years and the resulting challenges to state institutions, Sisi’s regime has attempted to reestablish the top-down, controlled politics of pre-revolution Egypt. As part of this effort, Islamist political forces have been ruthlessly suppressed, with thousands killed by security forces and tens of thousands more detained. Other opposition groups have also been targeted; for instance, the April 6 Youth Movement was banned and prominent revolutionary activists sentenced to lengthy prison terms. A draconian protest law implemented last November has been used to crack down on demonstrations. Journalists and human rights activists have likewise been harassed, and a draft NGO law could soon place even more onerous restrictions on Egyptian civil society.
This attempt to repress political activity has also influenced the design of Egypt’s elected institutions, which have been structured to limit the reach of popular politics. For example, the new law for parliamentary elections seeks to benefit prominent individuals with ties to big business and the former Mubarak regime, rather than political parties. The balance of power in the 2014 constitution also works against representative institutions in favor of stronger state institutions like the military, judiciary, and security forces.
Though in line with Sisi’s broader objectives, this arrangement creates a dilemma for the president. He has so far refrained from trying to organize his political supporters, perhaps because the idea of a dominant presidential political party is unpopular with the public, the state, and likely Sisi himself. Yet relying too much on the armed forces instead could still pose problems, because Sisi needs the senior officers more than they need him. The 2014 constitution provides the armed forces with enough autonomy to comfortably protect their interests regardless of who fills the executive branch, and the military has also proven itself more than willing to oust unpopular presidents.
As a result, Sisi will be careful to keep the armed forces happy, even if it undermines the chances for reforms that would help to address Egypt’s economic grievances. The military’s extensive business interests—ranging from major infrastructure and development projects to the operation of hotels and gas stations—fuel corruption and crowd out private companies. Sisi’s government already has and will likely continue to expand these interests rather than reforming them. This limiting relationship also applies to the broader state bureaucracy, which will be protective of the status quo and reluctant to implement potentially disruptive changes. Though a more organized political base would not eliminate this problem for Sisi, it would offer him some leverage over state institutions to enact broader reforms.
Yet even though Sisi will do what he can to protect the armed forces, he cannot always count on them to return the favor. Because the military has its own reputation to protect, it is more likely to adopt populist stances when the president takes unpopular decisions. For example, when the border with Gaza remained closed during the Israeli bombardment, a military spokesperson called the closure a “political decision” and suggested the president should open the crossing. In such circumstances, Sisi will likely take the brunt of any public anger, while the military plays to popular opinion.
Egypt’s serious economic problems require major reforms, but Sisi’s lack of an organized support base outside the state may complicate that effort. As long as he remains heavily dependent on the military and other state institutions, he can neither push too hard against their interests nor count on them to always back his policies. This places the president in a tricky situation. If the economy fails to improve because of a lack of action—or alternatively, if Sisi moves too fast with the necessary but unpopular reforms needed to revitalize the economy—he may find himself increasingly isolated in the presidential palace and vulnerable to a reemergence of popular discontent.
Scott Williamson is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program.