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Egypt's President-In-Waiting Kicks Off Campaign with Hardline Vows

Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has promised to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood if elected later in May. This may cause more, not less, instability.
May 6, 2014, 6:40pm
Photo via AP

Egypt's former army chief, and almost certainly its next president, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi launched his run for office on Monday evening with a promise to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi made the comments in an interview aired by two private Egyptian TV stations, his first as a presidential candidate. He also used the opportunity to back a heavy-handed protest law, insist that the military would not rule the country, and reveal his wife had insisted he run for president.

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Asked whether he would “finish” the Brotherhood if he was voted into office in the May 26 and 27 polls, Sisi replied, “Yes. Just like this.” He added that "all Egyptians reject reconciliation with the Brotherhood," according to local media. "All" in this case presumably doesn't include the thousands of people who are actually members of the Islamist organization.

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Sisi removed Egypt’s former president Mohamad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power after mass protests last summer and installed a military-backed government in their place.

'This means the opposite of what Sisi wants. It means more instability. If you don’t include the Muslim Brotherhood, that gives them more of an incentive to play spoiler.'

Since then, authorities have cracked down hard on the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of Morsi’s supporters during violent clashes with security forces and jailing thousands more. It was declared a terrorist organization at the end of 2013 and is often blamed for bombings across the country (even when others, such as al Qaeda-inspired Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claim responsibility), as well as accused of involvement in other losses of life.

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Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, told VICE News that Sisi portrayed himself throughout the interview as the man to bring much-needed stability to Egypt. However, Hamid warned that his refusal to reconcile with the Brotherhood may make this a virtual impossibility. “This means the opposite of what Sisi wants. It means more instability. If you don’t include the Muslim Brotherhood, that gives them more of an incentive to play spoiler, making Egypt more ungovernable. I just don’t see how you can just will away a whole part of your population. It’s unrealistic and it hasn’t succeeded in the past. You can’t really eradicate a group like the Muslim Brotherhood. They’ve very entrenched in society.”

Former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidential campaign launched a video on April 29 specifically targeting young voters, titled ‘My idea initiative – Egypt’s youth will build its future.’ Video via YouTube/Alsisiofficial.

Sisi also declared his backing for a controversial protest law introduced in November that requires demonstrations to be pre-approved by police and slaps violators with up to three years in jail as well as large fines. Sisi described those who didn’t support the legislation as wanting to sabotage Egypt, despite his use of mass protest when removing Morsi from power last year.

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“He’s doubling down on these positions. His whole rise to power is premised on seeing the Brotherhood as enemies to be destroyed or eradicated,” Hamid continued. “Clearly Sisi sees himself as the only person who can stabilize Egypt. His approach prioritizes repression and I think those that were hoping that Sisi would turn to national reconciliation should put those hopes to rest.”

'Any responsible Egyptian who is capable of stepping in to save the nation, must do so… the country is being targeted from inside and out.'

However, Hamid added that even if Sisi did want to engage with the Brotherhood, he would likely be unable to without alienating his deeply nationalistic backers. “We can’t look at Sisi in a vacuum, he’s responsible to his hardline base of supporters who want to see him continue the tough stance against the Brotherhood.”

Since Morsi’s ouster, many have seen Sisi as the most powerful man in the country. In recent months he has been the subject of a burgeoning cult of personality, with posters, billboards, cakes, and jewelry, bearing his image visible across Egypt. On Monday, however, he denied that he had been running the show since last July.

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Sisi, who resigned his military position in March to launch his candidacy, has previously denied that he had any political ambitions. Nevertheless in leaked audio in December, he appeared to discuss a bizarre series of dreams, where he explained that he felt fated to become Egypt's next president.

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On Monday night, however, Sisi described the presidency as a national duty which had been thrust upon him. "Any responsible Egyptian who is capable of stepping in to save the nation, must do so… the country is being targeted from inside and out," he said, according to Ahram Online.

Sisi added that his wife had suggested he must run for president, telling him: "You don’t have any other option, we love you but the nation will be lost."

If successful, Sisi will be the latest in a long line of Egypt's military leaders. However, he maintained that the army had not ruled the country for 30 years, and would not if he was elected.

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Sisi also claimed that there had been two assassination attempts on his life since Morsi was removed from power. He did not elaborate on the circumstances of these plots, but would, no doubt, be the most highly prized target in the campaign of attacks against security forces carried out by militants in the region.

Perhaps as a result, Sisi has decided to send minions to rallies held by his supporters rather than following the campaign trail approach taken by his only rival, Hamdeen Sabahi. It is unlikely that Sisi will have to try very hard in any case. A survey conducted by local polling center Baseera showed that 72 percent of those who planned to vote supported Sisi, while only 2 percent backed Sabahi.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck