With the likelihood that former Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi will win the upcoming Egyptian Presidential election, remarkably little is known about his views or what policies he will adopt. In the West, most of the commentaries written about him are by those who opposed the removal of the Morsi Government and are at best skeptical of the transition plan instituted by the transitional government. Through my thirty-five year career working with the Egyptian Government and with military officers close to El-Sisi, conversations with those who know him and a closer look at statements of El-Sisi himself, I have drawn some insights into the man, his beliefs, and his philosophy for moving Egypt forward.
Like the majority of Egyptians, El-Sisi is first and foremost an Egyptian nationalist. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, lost their popular mandate when Egyptians saw them acting as Islamic trans-nationalists first and Egyptians second. This view was confirmed when Morsi attended a Sunni scholars conference in Cairo on June 15, 2013 and announced that he was withdrawing the Egyptian ambassador from Damascus and encouraged young Egyptians to go to Syria and fight against the Shia Assad regime. It is this incompatibility between the majority of Egyptians’ and the Muslim Brotherhood's views of government and Islam that generated El-Sisi's comment in his May 5-6 television interview that the Muslim Brotherhood is "finished" as a political force in Egypt.
El-Sisi views Egypt’s fight against Islamic extremism as existential. In a paper that was written in 2006 while attending the U.S. Army War College, El-Sisi warned of democratic rhetoric being hijacked by groups like Hamas, urging moderate Islamic leaders to embrace democratic practices to mitigate the appeal of extremists. Many Egyptians suspected that the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent all Egyptians and divided the people along sectarian lines. This was confirmed when Egypt’s Christian minority was subjected to a vicious pogrom following the removal of President Morsi. The destruction of churches and the burning of Christian homes and shops confirmed for most Egyptians that they faced an existential threat, and they turned to the army to protect them from a recurrence of such chaos.
More broadly, El-Sisi is a pragmatist. He recognizes the challenges facing Egypt are daunting. He looks to the entire international community to help Egypt address its overwhelming economic and security challenges. No country, however, will be tolerated if it disregards Egyptian institutions and Egyptian views of their own domestic politics. Egyptians will not tolerate foreign interference in their internal affairs.
The greatest departure El-Sisi makes from the past is on the question of the government’s relationship with the Egyptian people. All of the post-1952 revolution leaders believed sovereignty rested with the Egyptian government. El-Sisi views the President’s role as being responsive to the wishes of the people, where true sovereignty lies. A decade ago a substantial majority of Egyptians believed that sovereignty rested with the government. Today the majority of Egyptians, including El-Sisi, believe sovereignty rests with the Egyptian people. This is the most important change Egypt's potential international partners have yet to assimilate.
Egypt now operates in an environment where a diversified foreign policy is a necessity. Our decision to suspend military assistance was a signal to Cairo that being overly reliant on the U.S. was not in the strategic interests of Egypt. El-Sisi will look to expand Egyptian cooperation with other important states, including GCC nations, Russia, China, and others. However, El Sisi and other high-level officials in Cairo recognize that Egypt's relationship with the United States will remain a central security and economic partnership. This will provide both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States, if the U.S. can adjust to the new, more independent dynamic in Egypt.
Bannerman is a non-resident Middle east institute scholar and a former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.