Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, according to most interpretations, faces a stark decision—run for President of Egypt and confirm both the fears and hopes of different parts of Egyptian society, or stand back, all shades-of-Cincinnatus, and allow someone else to take the helm. Amid calls from prominent Egyptian figures supporting a possible run (not to mention an initiative calling on the government to “[rename] all of Egypt’s major city squares in his honor”), Sisi may indeed choose to make the move soon, or even have privately made up his mind to do so already. However, there is another possibility to envision—a forecast that is neither more nor less charitable in its interpretation of his ambitions, but somewhat more strategic and better for the country.
Undoubtedly, Egypt’s next president will face immense challenges, many of which are primarily economic—among them effectively combating unemployment, restructuring the subsidy-dependent economy so that it better helps those most in need, and bringing state finances into closer balance,. Security concerns will undoubtedly remain, and repairing social divisions will certainly be a prominent issue itself. While the next president cannot fix these problems on his own, as the country’s leader he will stand to take the blame if conditions do not improve. Would Sisi truly want to go from being the focus of obsequious adulation from a considerable part of the population to the man who will, among other things, be held responsible for the success or failure of the Egyptian economy to deliver broad gains to all? What is gained by grabbing for the figurative crown now as opposed to eight years hence?
Why eight years? According to the draft Egyptian constitution—surely to be approved in the January 14-15 referendum—the post of defense minister, presently occupied by Sisi, is rendered entirely independent of presidential authority for the first two terms after the constitution comes into force. Considering the extent to which the draft constitution defers to the military in general, the defense minister will effectively continue to run the state-within-a-state that the Egyptian armed forces and their associated economic holdings constitute. Sisi’s immense statutory authority and public popularity would give him in particular an outsized degree of power behind the throne, certainly allowing him to influence the decisions of any incoming president. Sisi would himself be free to focus more on the security issues facing the country, augmenting the personal narrative surrounding him as not only the one who rescued Egypt from Morsi, but also the one who rejected immediate personal gain in order to stabilize the country.
From an international perspective, Sisi’s rejection of the presidency would be the vastly better outcome. Seeing the man who deposed the prior president take office himself—even through an election—would present a much worse appearance than virtually any other plausible candidate taking the position. International observers—and potential donors—would likely be far more satisfied to see a civilian take the role, and while no Egyptian would want to be seen as making choices based on foreign considerations, such concerns certainly would come into play. Even donor states that have been utterly supportive of Egypt thus far may prefer to see someone aside from Sisi become president, if only for the sake of appearances.
Of course, refusing to run now, when the office is so clearly within his grasp, could also be seen as a risk. It does not, however, appear to be a risk greater than that presented by running now. One could argue that the next president may try to marginalize him, or change the constitution’s provision insulating the post of defense minister from presidential authority. Both of these possibilities seem extremely remote, considering his personal popularity and the unlikelihood of such a revision to the constitution, which would require a two-thirds majority of parliament and a public referendum, in the next few years. Alternatively, plots could emerge to discredit him and force a retirement from public life, but these same plots could emerge against a President Sisi as well. None of these possibilities, however, seem to pose a greater risk than failing to meet the diverse demands of the people as the first president under the new constitution, which could endanger his hold on the office directly.
While he has avoided making any definitive statements about his intentions, Sisi has not been silent on the topic of the presidency. When the Washington Postdirectly asked in an August 2013 interview if he would run for the office, Sisi dodged the question, describing himself as a person who “[does not] aspire for authority.” Other responses from that interview reveal a man who, at least publicly, considers himself to be a servant of the Egyptian people. In another interview, this time in late November 2013 with the Kuwaiti paper al-Seyassah, Sisi responded to the question of his potential candidacy largely with vague questions of his own about satisfying “the people” and “foreign powers,” concluding with the remark, “In any case, let’s see what the days bring.”
Unfortunately, the clearest declaration yet of the future Sisi sees for himself comes from an unverified audio recording purportedly from an interview with Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm. In the recording, Sisi supposedly tells of a dream involving a conversation with the late Anwar Sadat, part of which has Sisi telling Sadat, “I also know that I’m going to be the president of the republic.” The full description of the dream is replete with symbolic visualizations and allusions, revealing (if indeed it is genuine) a man with overtly grandiose visions of his own importance to the future of Egypt. This would be entirely contrary to the comparatively humble image that he has so far projected in all of the on-the-record portions of his interviews. At the risk of reading too much into it, though, it is worth noting that nothing in the telling of the dream indicates when Sisi could, by his actions, expect to fulfill his own prophecy.
Clearly, Sisi must choose a path soon. It is not, however, a simple choice of “run” or “not run.” There is a third option—“run later.” This path holds him somewhat apart from the immediate domestic political fray and difficult economic choices that may or may not yield the quick results that people demand. In addition, this path looks better to international supporters (and detractors, for that matter) of all stripes. All things considered, staying in uniform for the next eight years, solidifying his role in the national narrative, and considering the presidency in 2022 may be the best choice both practically and personally. If things do not look good, he might even decide not to run then, instead choosing to remain in popular belief as the military man who rescued the country rather than another name in the list of politicians who were unable to meet his people’s needs.