With the new constitutional referendum out of the way, Egypt’s Defense Minister and virtual strongman Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi faces three hard decisions about where to go next: Should he stand for the presidency himself or run a chosen candidate? If so, who? And when would be a good time for the vote to take place?
He has settled one question, DEBKA Weekly's sources in Cairo report: The vote for president will precede parliamentary elections.
His reasoning is simple: The new constitution approved last week by a 98 percent popular majority substantially reduced the powers of the next president, while expanding the independent status of the Egyptian military and relieving the generals of political and government oversight for their policies, decisions and operations.
The military will furthermore be solely responsible for appointing the defense minister. Neither the president nor the prime minister will be empowered to oppose such appointment.
The new rules therefore place the army chief firmly in position as Egypt’s strongman. His powers will exceed those enjoyed by the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, or indeed his successors in post-revolution Egypt, while elected political institutions suffer attrition.
Democracy in Egypt continues to wither.
Run for president or back a tame candidate?
Accounting for the lethal crackdown on continuing protest, the interim president’s advisor on strategic affairs Mostafa Hegazy said Tuesday, Jan. 21, that the authorities have no argument with political activists – only with “lawbreakers” who must bear the consequences of their actions. It is up to the courts, he said, to determine the morality of their beliefs. “Some actions are criminal under the law and are brought before judges whose work is not subject to outside interference.”
The persistent political instability plaguing the country since the Muslim Brotherhood and its president Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power last July confronts Gen. El-Sisi with a dilemma: Run for president himself with victory a near certainty – then install a tame defense minister and army chief; or else, hold on to those two powerful posts and get a puppet president elected.
Our sources say the general has only a few days to make up his mind. For now, he leans towards the first option, calculating that as president he will install his own loyalists in the defense ministry and military command and so retain control of Egypt’s two centers of power – the civilian and military establishments – i.e., have his cake and eat it.
One clue to his choice was an opinion he offered privately in his inner circle that a president has the advantage of being fully respected in most cases as the highest authority in the land – both domestically and in the realm of foreign relations.
El-Sisi needs a competent partner for major unfinished tasks
So which way will he jump?
According to our sources, El-Sisi has approached interim President Adly Mansour as a possible presidential candidate in the coming election. But he has also, surprisingly, broached the subject with Gen. Murad Mowafi, whom Morsi sacked as director of intelligence.
The prospect of Mowafi’s comeback as El-Sisi’s dark horse in the race for president has not exactly enthused their fellow generals or political circles. But DEBKA Weekly's sources say it makes sense in the light of the strongman’s current priorities.
1. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has been kicked out of power and outlawed as a terrorist group, it is far from being wiped out and has resorted to its subversive methods as a troublesome nuisance on the streets of Egypt’s cities. El-Sisi still has to finish the job of eradicating the Brothers’ influence. For this he needs a competent helper.
2. The Sinai Peninsula is a hotbed of swarming Al Qaeda and Salafist forces which continue to plague Egypt’s armed forces, often in league with the Brotherhood underground.
The major offensive he embarked on last year to root out the jihadist networks still needs to be finished.
3. One of the keys to this goal, the general believes, is the removal of Palestinian Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is the offspring of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and dedicated to supporting the parent movement and armed action. Gaza provides the Sinai jihadists with a support system. So long as Hamas rules the enclave, El-Sisi sees no prospect of the Egyptian military reasserting its authority in the Sinai Peninsula or containing the Muslim Brotherhood’s subversive activities.
The Nile dispute with Ethiopia hangs over Egypt’s water supply
4. For Egypt, resolving the dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile waters is an existential imperative. The general hopes to manage this peacefully, but if not, he is ready to consider going to war for control of the river’s sources.
Earlier this month, three rounds of negotiations among water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, on the negative impact of the construction of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam on Egyptian water security, ended in discord.. About 98 percent of Egypt’s population lives in the Nile valley. The Ethiopian dam will draw off one-fourth of its fresh water, generating a shortage that would badly affect its food supply and industry and therefore impact national security. The Egyptian minister walked out of the last meeting of the three water ministers in Khartoum, accusing the Ethiopians of intransigence for refusing to invite international experts or offering guarantees against downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, suffering ill effects from the new dam.
El-Sisi thinks that Gen. Murad Mowafi, due to his thorough grounding in this and other pivotal issues, is the man best qualified to deal with them as his senior collaborator. The defense minister’s willingness to advance this powerful figure to high office attests to his self-confidence in the position he has carved out since his ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood last July. But Mowafi is not cat’s paw. Some sources in Cairo and around the Middle East think El-Sisi’s position may not be as unassailable as he thinks, and underestimating Mowafi as a potential threat might be a mistake.