Originally published in The Independent, 10 August 2013
As Egyptians were coming to terms with the chaos and bloodshed that blighted the holy month of Ramadan, a number of the country’s wealthiest businessmen sat down for a dinner of lamb kebabs and stuffed courgettes.
Among them were two of Egypt’s most prominent television moguls; Mohamed el-Amin, head of the hugely popular CBC channel, and Ahmad Bahgat, the magnate behind Egypt’s first-ever private station, Dream TV. Hosting them all in his Cairo home was Hassan Rateb, another wealthy TV channel boss.
But one of Mr Rateb’s invitees did not quite fit the profile of the assorted businessmen and anti-Islamist politicians who were present that evening – Murad Mowafy, Egypt’s former spy chief and the man who is now being courted by influential powerbrokers to become the country’s next president.
Just two years after Egyptians revolted against the military-backed regime that held power for sixty years, the Independent can reveal that powerful business figures are now pushing for an army man to make a bid for power.
According to a source who was present during the dinner, Mr Mowafy was on the guest list that evening because TV channel bosses were trying to persuade him to run for Egypt’s top job at the coming elections.
“They were telling him to go for the presidency,” said the source, speaking to The Independent. “They were saying he would have their total support if he did.”
The source, who asked not to be identified, said Mr Mowafy neither confirmed to his hosts nor denied that he would be considering a run to succeed Mohamed Morsi. “He seemed to be declining more than accepting, but he never said anything directly.” The Independent tried to contact the TV bosses who were present but received no response. But the revelation that Egypt’s ex-intelligence chief – along with other rumoured military figures – is being touted as a candidate has triggered a wave of soul-searching and debate among some liberal and secular politicians, most of whom realise the enormous implications of replacing Mr Morsi with a former military man.
“If the next President of Egypt is from a military background then this will be a negative sign,” said Ahmed Khairy, a liberal politician. “Critics will say to us, ‘you said this was not a military coup, but now you have a President from the military’.”
Following the toppling of Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, Egypt’s generals appeared at great pains to emphasise that the coming transition would be civilian-led. A former judge was immediately anointed as the new interim President – part of the point-by-point transitional road-map that was quickly announced.
Since then, the initial hopes that officers would steer clear of politics have begun to dissipate. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s commander in chief and leader of the coup that toppled Morsi – who also holds two cabinet posts – gave a speech last month in which he called on Egyptians to grant him a mandate to crack down on ‘terrorism’ by staging mass rallies across the country.
Some observers questioned why Adli Mansour, the interim President, had not been tasked with delivering the speech.
General al-Sisi himself has been touted as a prospective presidential candidate. A mild cult of personality has begun to develop among those Egyptians who credit him with rescuing them from the perceived threat of Brotherhood rule. Other names whirling around the political party rumour mill include Sami Anan, the former chief of staff who was also dismissed by Morsi after his election, and Hossam Khairallah, a former air force captain who ran for the Presidency last year.
The prospect of a military candidacy would be met with met by incredulity among some Egyptian revolutionaries. “The Egyptian revolution was about overthrowing the power of a military which had governed for itself for 60 years,” said Aalam Wassef, a film-maker who has taken part in rallies opposing army intervention in Egypt.
It would also land Egypt’s liberal and secular parties in a quandary. Many are currently debating whether to rally around a single candidate to maximise their chances of a non-Islamist victory. If a credible military contender emerged, it would leave them juggling the temptation of electoral triumph with the implications of backing a traditionalist war horse.
Yet with the military’s stock on a high amid the perpetual unrest, what might have been unpalatable last year now seems a realistic prospect.
“Having someone with an army background is not a reason to reject him,” said Shehab Wagih, a liberal politician. “We will not deal with a military guy who is still in the army, but if we are dealing with someone who is retired we are dealing with an average citizen.”
Likely leaders: Top brass
Sami Anan was the chief of staff dismissed by Mr Morsi. He was the right-hand man of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who led the military council which ruled Egypt.
For those who can still remember the 2011 revolt, Murad Mowafy may be the old regime candidate. He was the former head of the notorious mukhabarat, or secret police.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
Not a likely contender right now – but if he ran, he would win by a landslide. Egypt’s top soldier has been tipped as a possible candidate, but has so far remained tight-lipped.