Wael Nawara, Al-Monitor columnist, writer, strategist, and co-founder of Al Dustour Party and the National Association for Change.
Egyptians may benefit from a popular president who is disciplined, has experience managing a real job other than giving moving speeches, and can help the people confront some sobering economic realities. Coming after a great revolution against a corrupt regime and its cronies, an uprising which called for social justice, it is going to be difficult to tell Egyptians that they need to implement some harsh reforms and take more responsibility in picking up the country’s economy from its current plunge. Within the atmosphere of deep polarization there are those who are against Sisi—despite his popularity with the majority of Egyptians—and would do everything to make his presidency fail.
On the security front, Sisi spent his entire professional life as a soldier and for several years he was head of military intelligence. But it remains to be seen whether his ascent to power could compel the Muslim Brotherhood to finally accept Egypt’s new reality, or will it further alienate them, making them more entrenched in the path of revenge and violence—prolonging the conflict and jeopardizing the country's chances of restoring a measure of stability necessary for recovery of tourism, investment, and the economy.
Sisi is undeniably very popular. But how he will use his popularity and guard his political capital? Balancing unpopular reforms with quick wins will determine his success.
On the political front, he would need to take measures to resuscitate the democratic process from clinical death, strengthening political parties and allowing sufficient space for a healthy opposition—rather than repeat Sadat’s mistake, forming or allying himself with a political party which is born in power, thus incarcerating political life which will then be reduced back to a single party monopoly. Other important questions facing Sisi include whether he will seek to empower a respected parliament, cultivate an independent judiciary, and allow vibrant media, or nullify these institutions and reduce them to satellites broadcasting a singular voice, his own. In his resignation speech, Sisi mentioned the “flabby” government apparatus, but will he be able to streamline and modernize that seven-million-employee institution? And will his popularity allow him to survive the repercussions when Egyptians experience the social, economic and political cost of restructuring? If successful in the elections, he will have the chance to become an inspiring force for people to actually work and take responsibility of their own lives. But Egyptians will have to be patient for the fruits of change are not born overnight. There is surely a risk that high expectations coupled with slow achievements could exhaust his political capital and lead Egyptians to become impatient unrealistically demanding that things are instantly fixed.
Sisi has made it clear that he believes that Egypt can once again become a great country, but how will he achieve that? His speeches showed courage of a man unafraid to level with the people and tell difficult facts. He talked about the challenging economic realities and the need to work hard to rescue the country’s economy. He warned that he had no magic wand and that rebuilding is everyone’s duty and responsibility. But courage in talking is one thing and implementing actual (inevitably unpopular) reforms is another.
During the coming days and weeks Egyptians will hear many promises from different presidential hopefuls. But promises are only words, often given by candidates who have little or no chance of winning and as such can be too generous. But it is not by words that Egypt can pass through this painful bottleneck. The answers to the tough questions above will reveal themselves through Sisi’s actions if and when he becomes Egypt’s next president.