El-Sissi holds powerful place in Egypt's shattered political scene

The Associated Press

In this image made from video broadcast on Egypt's State Television, Egypt's military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks in a nationally televised speech, announcing that he will run for president, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. In a nationally televised speech, el-Sissi said he has resigned from the military. Wearing military fatigues, he said it was the last time he would wear it and that "I give up the uniform to defend the nation" and run in elections expected next month. (AP Photo/Egyptian State Television)

Associated Press + More

The military's Morale Affairs department has a strong influence with Egypt's privately owned media. It meets regularly with the managers of the country's main biggest TV stations, which are owned by prominent businessmen who have strong ties with the military or are ferociously anti-Islamist.

Morale Affairs and military intelligence conduct frequent public opinion polls, which are not released, but which are fed to el-Sissi, several military officials told The Associated Press. Several polls, for example, measured public opinion on the crackdown on Islamists, and the officials said one showed strong public opposition to any reconciliation with the Brotherhood — though the officials released no information on the polls and it was impossible to know their content. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

El-Sissi took steps to secure his position during his last weeks in the military.

In one of his last public acts in uniform this week, el-Sissi inspected a new Rapid Reaction Force, which officials described as an elite unit to be deployed for threats to national security and to combat terrorism — a term used in reference to riots and protests by the Brotherhood.

El-Sissi orchestrated a reshuffling of the military's top officers to put close associates in key posts. In changes announced the past few days, his former chief of staff Sedki Sobhi, a lieutenant general, was promoted to full general and named defense minister and head of the military.

After long negotiations, former military intelligence chief Mahmoud Hegazy — whose daughter is married to one of el-Sissi's sons — was named the new chief of staff, passing over the head of the air force who had widely been seen as the likely successor to the post.

On the civilian side, his campaign organization already includes figures prominent from the eras of Mubarak and previous presidents. Among them are Amr Moussa — a former Arab League chief and foreign minister who ran for president in 2012 — and veteran journalist Mohammed Hassanein Haikal, a political insider who was once an aid to iconic leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.

Also backing him are an array of political groupings and liberal parties, some created after the fall of Mubarak in 2011, others arising since Morsi's ouster, set up by leading figures from Mubarak's former ruling party or former top officers from the security agencies.

Notably, he is not a member of a political party. Under Mubarak, the ruling National Democratic Party was a key tool for his rule, running all levers of government and society — with the help of the security agencies. So far el-Sissi has shown no sign of repeating that — though that could change. El-Sinnawi said he will likely work through existing parties, but suggested that if those prove too disorganized, el-Sissi could seek backing of independents who would exploit parties' weakness and sweep the vote in parliamentary elections.

In comments to fellow officers before Morsi's ouster that were later leaked to the press, el-Sissi acknowledged that the state had been "dismantled" after the 2011 uprising and "now its structure is being rearrangement" — a recognition that the old status quo is gone and old rules no longer apply.

One key question early on will be whether el-Sissi uses his political strength to seek some form of reconciliation with the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies that would ease their protests and find some way to include them in the political process.

A move for reconciliation would be a dramatic one, since neither side has shown any readiness for it. The military-backed interim government has waged a relentless crackdown on the Brotherhood and other Islamists. Security forces have killed hundreds as they crush pro-Morsi protests, and around 16,000 people have been arrested, including most of the Brotherhood's leadership.

At the same time, Islamic militants have stepped up attacks on police and the military, killing dozens in bombings and shootings and stoking a fear of terrorism among the public. Authorities have blamed the Brotherhood for orchestrating the violence, a claim the group denies.