Even so, el-Sissi is not acting like a man with small ambitions. At only 57, he was one of the youngest generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when Morsi appointed him minister of defense and military chief in August 2012. Unlike the other older SCAF brass, el-Sissi is charismatic, enjoys the spotlight — and as he has demonstrated in word and deed — is willing to boldly step into the political arena. People sometimes referred to his predecessor, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, as Mubarak’s lapdog. No one thinks Gen. el-Sissi is on anyone’s leash.
Still, the brash general is playing a dangerous game – and not just because he is threatening a large, battle-tested Islamist organization that has survived decades of abuse and persecution. It is hard to believe that el-Sissi’s provocations sit well with many members of his own officer corps. Egypt’s younger officers have no interest in being detested by the public. While they may once again be heroes, they remember from their brief period in power after Mubarak’s fall how quickly the Egyptian people turned against them. Surely, the officers know that the military’s perceived political neutrality is the biggest explanation for the popularity they enjoyed prior to Morsi’s removal. If the situation descends into greater violence, how much longer will the secular opposition stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the generals?
Indeed, the technocrats and liberals who joined the interim government’s Cabinet at the behest of Egypt’s generals should start asking themselves some hard questions about whether they should remain in these posts. As el-Sissi recklessly raises the probability of even bloodier confrontations, it should be abundantly clear that they have lent their names to a junta, not a genuine democratic transition. It’s a growing disgrace for Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Laureate and the most internationally recognized Egyptian leader, to be a fixture in the military’s faade. While el-Sissi incites a volatile public to take to the streets, ElBaradei takes to Twitter to issue incoherent messages urging nonviolence. (On Wednesday, he tweeted, “I pray to God that we understand that violence doesn’t dress wounds, it opens new ones.” You do not need to be allied with the generals who are flirting with violence to issue bizarre pleas.)
If the military continues to hold onto the political strings behind the scenes or worse — if Gen. el-Sissi trades his uniform for a suit and tie and makes a bid to be Egypt’s next president/pharaoh — what will the last two years have meant? How will what follows not be just a rehash of the military dictatorship that Egyptians rose up against? Because right now the only difference is that the Egyptian people are going out into the street because a general told them to.
William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.”