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Will A Military Leader Become Egypt's New Strongman?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has had a rapid career rise. He was appointed Egypt's defense minister after the Arab Spring outpouring by Egypt's first freely elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. But just a year later, General Sisi helped oust Mr. Morsi and then he began to run the country. Now, his title is Field Marshal Sisi, the top military post. And just this past week, he took the next step to becoming Egypt's next president. The possible rise of a new military strongman raises questions about if the Arab Spring put Egypt on a path of democracy and civilian rule or more authoritarianism. Samer Shehata joins us. He's a political scientist at University of Oklahoma, and he joins us from the studios of KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma. Samer, thanks very much for being with us.

SAMER SHEHATA: Pleasure to speak to you.

SIMON: Why is a field marshal, according to various surveys, so popular in Egypt?

SHEHATA: He's popular for a number of reasons. One, there were many people, of course, who were opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi before he became president. And of course it was a disastrous year in office. And there are many people who, as a result of all of that, are longing for stability and security. And the idea of a military general running the show is reassuring.

SIMON: Samer, any doubt in your mind that General Sisi could win the election?

SHEHATA: No doubt whatsoever. In fact, many of the other potential candidates have already said if Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declares his candidacy they're going to withdraw. The real question is what does it mean for Egyptian democracy? And I think the answer is it doesn't bode well to have a military general as president in a country that has had military strongmen ruling for 60 years. And that's, I think, the great tragedy of all of this.

SIMON: In the end, how much would any Egyptian government would be concerned with the American reaction to their rule?

SHEHATA: Obviously, the military as an institution receives a great deal of aid from the United States, $1.3 billion a year, and of course being on the good standing with the United States provides all kinds of other benefits. If you're dealing with the IMF for a loan or whatever it might be. At the same time, in some ways the United States needs Egypt more than Egypt needs the United States, and that explains why the present administration has been relatively silent on the abuses that we've seen. They need Egypt because of the maintenance of the Camp David Peace Treaty, because of the importance of the Suez Canal, because of the unlimited overflight rights that Egypt grants the United States military and so on.

SIMON: Samer, I feel the need to ask how did this happen? Because it wasn't so long ago that democratic nations of the world were inspired by what seemed to be a truly people's uprising in Egypt.

SHEHATA: But it was an uprising and not a revolution, and that's key. And that is what happened in January and February of 2011 was that millions of Egyptians managed to oust President Mubarak. But the Mubarak regime and the military as an institution remained in place. Autocrats don't give up power easily. The other part of the answer is that the Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi were miserable in power and made all kinds of mistakes. I think both of those things have to be taken into account to understand how we got to where we are.

SIMON: Samer Shehata is a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHEHATA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.