Published March 10, 2014
His name is Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and by late April 2014 the highly-regarded 59-year-old field marshal could be Egypt’s next president. It would come as no surprise, Egypt has a strong respect for the military, and more than seven out of 10 Egyptians believe it is good to have the army rule.
And yes -- that is ironic. Hosni Mubarak, a proud military man himself, ruled Egypt from 1981 until he was brought down by the Arab Spring protests in 2011 by a country demanding more democratic leadership.
Following subsequent elections Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood became president, but he was forcibly removed last July by the military after a turbulent year of rule. Critics say his removal flies in the face of any democratic government and makes a joke of the process.
Some argue that Egypt has therefore come full circle. Whether el-Sisi can bring stability and economic growth to Egypt or not, it is clear that the political dynamics of the region are changing and that will present new challenges for the U.S.
And it’s that man Vladimir Putin who again looms large. He has already given a strong endorsement of el-Sisi, even before the Egyptian military leader had announced his candidacy. It’s no secret that Moscow would like to expand its military and other ties with a key ally of the U.S. in the Middle East.
Putin, Russia's president, is also shrewd enough to try and capitalize on a growing sentiment among Gulf countries that the region shouldn’t be as dependant on the U.S.
That’s especially true for Saudi Arabia that hasn’t always been enamored with President Barack Obama’s leadership in the region and at times has been downright frustrated for a variety of reasons.
For one, Washington’s desire to create dialogue with Iran that led to an interim nuclear deal intensified the frustrations, given Iran is the Saudi’s biggest rival.
The Kingdom is also frustrated by America's reluctance to back Syrian rebels; President Bashar Assad is an ally of Iran.
Also, U.S. support for the overthrow of Egyptian President Mubarak, a long-time ally, saw Saudi Arabia reportedly “lose faith” in Washington’s commitment. It was then compounded by apparent U.S. support of Mohamed Morsi.
It is also true that the region's Arab Spring revolution had already created a bit of a rift between the U.S. and the Gulf nations.
All of this is creating opportunities for Russia to make inroads in the Middle East. Putin and el-Sisi reportedly have a lot in common, which led to a meeting in Moscow last month and a preemptive Kremlin endorsement.
But it’s not just political backing, there’s a reported $2 billion arms deal between Egypt and Russia which is being funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt claims it is just “broadening” its diplomatic scope but the message is clear.
Broadly speaking, the United States has seen the Arab Spring as an opportunity for more democracy that will allow more “moderate” Islamic participation while keeping the radicals on the fringes. Russia on the other hand prefers an autocratic leader, one that can stamp out any militant Islamic uprising, a leader such as Field Marshal el-Sisi.
Much to the delight of Moscow and Riyadh, el-Sisi has been instrumental in the crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But make no mistake, amid the many complicated layers of Middle Eastern politics, Saudi Arabia is not about to become a key comrade of Russia. Putin’s support of Syria’s Assad and opposition to Syrian sanctions will make sure of that.
That said a stable Middle East led by Egypt with Moscow pulling some strings would mark a distinct change in the region’s dynamics.
Egypt’s pro-military support means el-Sisi will likely become President; he already enjoys the full backing of state-run media and privately-owned television stations. Even remnants of the old Mubarak regime are reportedly being mobilized in the transition. So what has been gained and what has been lost?
As a journalist who witnessed the Egyptian revolution first hand from Tahrir Square in 2011, I sincerely hope that the Egyptian people can find a government that puts their needs first. An economy can’t grow if its people are fighting each other -- stability should be the first goal.
The history books are filled with leaders who succumbed to the power and the wealth and I hope Sisi has the discipline and the integrity to rebuild Egypt’s future no matter what outside influences are at play.