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Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the cult of personality

By Musa Khalil in Cairo
Posted on Friday, 25 October 2013 16:06

Ever since his appointment as military chief in August 2012 after an extensive purge of the command by President Mohamed Morsi, al-Sisi has been an enigma.

His wife, said to wear the full face veil, was cited as evidence of his Islamist leanings. A paper he authored when studying at the United States Army War College in 2006 made the case for an Islamic basis for democracy in the region.

Morsi appeared encouraged by Sisi’s apparent affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology. He believed Sisi would remain faithful, until he issued Morsi an ultimatum that was followed by a swift coup on 3 July.

Since then, Sisi has taken his place in a gallery of historic villains in the Islamist pantheon alongside the likes of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

While he formally handed power to a judge after ousting Morsi, becoming defence minister and deputy prime minister, Sisi is seen as the real leader of the country.

SiSi rises to the top

19 November 1954 Born in Cairo

1977 Graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy

2008 Commander of Northern Military Region- Alexandria

12 August 2012 Became defence minister

3 July 2013 Overthrew Morsi’s government

16 July 2013 Became deputy prime minister

In just two months, his soldiers and police have killed hundreds of mostly unarmed Islamists – at least 400 in the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp alone in little under nine hours on 15 August – turning the protest into a worldwide Islamist symbol of victimhood.

An Al Qaeda-affiliated group that tried to kill the interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim pledged it would target Sisi as well.

Ibrahim survived an attack on his convoy on 5 September.

But, among the wider population, Sisi enjoys a level of popularity not seen since Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser mesmerised crowds who urged him to stay on as president even after he humiliatingly lost the Sinai to Israel in a week of war in 1956.

Sisi, said one diplomat who is closely in touch with him, appears to love every moment of it. His face has appeared on posters across the country, on chocolate bars, shirts and coffee mugs.

He has become the muse for songs, love letters and poetry published in newspapers and aired on radio. He often appears in posters juxtaposed with Nasser, the man who crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954.

Looking the part

Sisi, who has rehabilitated the armed forces’ standing after the maladroit leadership of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in the period following Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011, has already exploited that appeal to great effect.

As Morsi’s followers took to the streets in their thousands demanding his reinstatement, Sisi gave a speech that, in the words of one diplomat, “spooked” even the closest foreign allies of the military.

Decked in sunglasses and formal regalia – looking very much the part of a military dictator – Sisi called on Egyptians on 24 July to rally in their millions to grant him a “mandate to fight violence and terrorism”.

The appeal appeared unscripted and took President Adly Mansour and prime minister Hazem Al Beblawi by surprise. “I have never asked you for anything before,” Sisi said in his speech to wild applause from the crowd.

Millions heeded his call and rallied in Cairo on 26 July. The military invited foreign journalists that night to ride helicopters and to film the scene late into the night, even as police gathered on a street near Rabaa to confront Islamist protesters marching out of the square.

By morning, 81 of the Islamists were dead in a prelude to the full-scale operation that entirely cleared the square on 15 August in the worst mass killing in the country’s modern history.

Meanwhile, the military and police have rounded up more than 2,000 Islamists, including the Brotherhood’s senior leadership, to full-throated support from the domestic media and liberal and nationalist parties.

Following the Rabaa dispersal, Islamists torched dozens of churches across the country and attacked police stations, leading to an even harder clampdown on the Brotherhood.

With the Brotherhood’s organisation in tatters, there are now no political forces in Egypt with strong reach and networks that can step in to rule the country by the time presidential elections are held, possibly in May.

That vacuum and Sisi’s popularity have set off end- less speculation that the general will run for election himself.

On 11 September, President Mansour sketched out some of the details for the country’s political transition.

He appointed new members to the Supreme Electoral Commission, which will oversee a new constitutional referendum a month after the committee that is proposing amendments to the currently suspended constitution completes its work.

Amr Moussa, the chairman of the constitution-drafting committee, says that the work should be complete by early October.

Several military men have already expressed interest in con- testing the election. One of them is Sami Anan, a former chief of staff.

Others include Sameh Seif Elyazal, a retired general close to Sisi, and Murad Muwafi, a former intelligence chief that Morsi also dismissed. But they are not likely to run if Sisi decides to campaign for the presidency.

He has denied having any such ambitions. “By God, this is not military rule, and there is no desire to rule Egypt,” he said in a televised speech to army officers.

But some diplomats following the murky politics of the military believe Sisi may have bought into his popular characterisation as a leader on a par with Nasser and may run.

A firm hand

There have been hints of a tacit acceptance, at least, that he will be the next president. One newspaper supportive of the military ran pictures of him posing in civilian clothes.

His spokesman said that he would be free to run if he resigns from the military. But most tellingly, the three main candidates who lost out to Morsi in last year’s election have all publicly expressed support for Sisi to become president.

Privately, one aide to a leading ex-candidate said Sisi had no choice but to run, being the only leader with a firm enough hand and support to run the tottering country.

The country’s economic problems have continued unabated. The transitional government expects that the national budget deficit for the 2013-2014 fiscal year will reach 9.1% of gross domestic product.

The finance ministry said in July that it would have to address the burden of fuel subsidies and reconfigure the state’s role in the electricity and petroleum sectors.

In the event that he runs, Sisi is likely to promote chief of staff General Sedki Sobhi to defence minister. Sobhi is seen as even more hostile to the Brotherhood than Sisi.

Such a move would bring the military back to the centre of the country’s political gravity, after the men in khaki decided, for several months at least, to allow a civilian president to experiment with presidential autonomy while granting the military all its economic privileges.

It was a role the military had been hesitant to take on again, following 18 months of rule before Morsi’s election in which its reputation suffered and its forces were spread thin.

It now enjoys unprecedented popularity, and Sisi appears susceptible to the siren’s call. ●

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