Andrew is the deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has nearly 10 years of experience working on the Middle East for the U.S. Government and has conducted extensive research on multiple countries in the region. From 2014 to 2017, Andrew served as the Director for Egypt and Israel Military Issues on the National Security Council (NSC), where he was responsible for coordinating U.S. policy towards each of these countries. While at the NSC, Andrew was deeply involved in the Obama Administration’s efforts to modernize U.S. military assistance to Egypt. He also participated as a member of the U.S. delegation that negotiated a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding on security assistance to Israel, the largest aide agreement in U.S. history. Andrew also worked at the Department of State in a variety of policy and analytical roles related to the Middle East, serving in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and at the U.S. embassies in Doha and Cairo. He earned a B.A. in Political Science from Dickinson College and an M.A. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. Andrew’s work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among other outlets.
What March’s President Election Says about Sisi’s Hold on Power
Egypt’s March 26-28 presidential election, in which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s won a second term with 97 percent of the vote, was a farce and the actual balloting does not provide a meaningful measure of his public support. Nevertheless, the way in which Sisi managed the election, ratcheting up repression and angrily and ruthlessly quashing military-linked candidates, demonstrates that his hold on power depends in large part on the military’s loyalty, or at least its acquiescence. The fact that challengers even emerged from the military establishment in the first place suggests that such support has declined, a trend that has rattled Sisi.
It is hard to know if embryonic signs of dissent will grow into more significant military opposition to Sisi, much less support for his eventual removal. The Egyptian military is generally a risk-averse institution, and would be especially reluctant to act against one of its own. As we saw in 2011, the military did not remove Mubarak until it concluded, after 18 days of mass grassroots protests, that it had no other option. And so far, Sisi has been able to snuff out any burgeoning discontent within the military.
Yet, as the 2011 uprising also demonstrated, there are conditions under which the Egyptian military is prepared to force a change. The armed forces fear instability above all else, and the possibility of chaos, in the form of sustained large protests or general disorder, can cause it to act. The military’s posture towards Sisi likely will be driven by its assessment of what is riskier: keeping the president in power or removing him. Moving forward, this suggests that Sisi’s political survival will depend primarily on whether he can keep the perceived costs of his removal—such as the unavailability of acceptable alternative leaders and political uncertainty—higher than the costs of his remaining in power, such as the reputational damage that the military could suffer from continuing to support a president who has manifestly lost public support.
Whether the military leadership will eventually move against Sisi may hinge on how it views his management of two main challenges: the economy and security. Should either issue threaten to strain military cohesion—the armed forces’ unity of purpose and respect for the authority of the leadership—senior leaders may be even more inclined to take the drastic step of forcing Sisi out. Sisi must prevent further deterioration in the public’s living standards, which, when combined with popular mobilization around other grievances, has the potential to trigger public unrest that could elicit a response from the military. Most of Egypt’s nearly 100 million people, many of whom have long struggled with poverty, are enduring even greater hardship under Sisi. Egypt’s security establishment has long feared a “revolution of the hungry” in which the economically dispossessed would spontaneously rise up against the political system.
Alongside the need for revitalizing the economy, Sisi must avert a substantial decline in security conditions in the Egyptian heartland. Providing security is central to the military’s image as the defender of the Egyptian nation, and an abject failure to fulfill this duty could provoke public disenchantment with the regime or even seed doubts in the military about Sisi’s ability to cope with the country’s top threats, such as violence from jihadist groups. Although a significant worsening of the security environment is less likely to provoke popular demonstrations than a continuing decline in living conditions, if the military leadership holds Sisi responsible for such a deterioration, they could feel compelled to act.