CAIRO — He might as well already be president. His photo is on every wall in Cairo. His constant television appearances, broadcasts of his speeches and video clips glorifying the army eclipse the presence of interim leader Adly Mansour.
Even Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s mention of his night visions from 35 years ago, in which he dreamed of being head of state, are being scrutinized down to the finest detail. A few months away from an Egyptian presidential election that appears to have already been won, the army chief has already put on his Pharaoh outfit, metaphorically speaking.
“The best term to describe al-Sisi would be dictator despite himself,” the Lebanese-Iraqi blogger Karl reMarks (whose real name is Karl Sharro) says sarcastically. “Time will determine to what extent he will be reluctant to fill this position. What is certain is the fact that he is showing several symptoms usually associated with Arab dictators.”
But al-Sisi’s vast numbers of supporters within the interim government — which he created as soon as the army ousted President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 — eagerly cast him in a different light. “He’s a man who listens, actually quite discreet, who only answered to the call of the people,” says presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi.
During the Economic Forum in Davos, then-Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi — who has since resigned, although al-Sisi remains defense minister — even compared him to France's General Charles de Gaulle. “Al-Sisi is pressured by the people to be candidate,” he said. “It was like this for de Gaulle and Eisenhower before him. Those campaigning for al-Sisi to be in power are not in the army. It comes from the street, and most of all women. Don’t forget he’s a handsome man.”
A rock star in Cairo
It’s true that since last summer a real “Sisimania” has seized the Egyptian capital. Whether on fantasy chocolates, coffee mugs or large T-shirts worn as pajamas, images of the nation’s “savior” are everywhere. In them he wears a kepi, his face masked by thick sunglasses — sometimes with pyramids in the background, other times next to a lion, or even under a flying eagle. The man nicknamed “the new Nasser” — a reference to Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser — even managed to excite the nationalist streak of Egyptians. Thanks to a presumed photomontage, al-Sisi poses next to the man who overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and sounded the death knell of the Egyptian monarchy.
“Egypt chooses you,” says a message on one of the new al-Sisi portraits around the 6th October Bridge, which overlooks the feluccas that are lacking tourists on the banks of the Nile. This vast marketing operation is one of the many campaigns orchestrated by powerful businessmen who are betting on this new hero to revive the economy. Even if that means forgetting about the democratic aspirations of the January 2011 revolution.
“The time for mourning is over,” says Engi, the head of a startup who prefers to turn a blind eye to the new wave of repression striking dissident voices. “The former revolutionaries know only how to say 'no,' without offering any appropriate solution. It is time to get to work, to rebuild the country. And for this, we need a strong man like al-Sisi.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and al-Sisi in Cairo on April 24, 2013 — Photo: Secretary of Defense
Tarek, an English professor who voted for Morsi in June 2012, says he wanted to give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance, hoping they would put an end to the corruption and absence of justice of the Mubarak years. “The problem is that they wanted to handle the country like their brotherhood, in an authoritarian and religious way, by excluding liberals. And this is the result.”
Apart from the only other presidential candidate to date, socialist Hamdin Sabahi, Tarek says there is no one besides al-Sisi. “So I support him by default. [...] Maybe, deep down, our people aren’t ready for democracy yet.”
Who is al-Sisi?
So is al-Sisi a power-mad, kepi-wearing autocrat, as his detractors keep describe him? Or is he the faithful product of a military institution? Someone who, after the Brotherhood meltdown, was chosen to restore a system that, from Nasser to Mubarak, has always played a key role in the country?
“He’s a humble and pious man,” says a high-ranking army official who prefers to remain anonymous. “He’s a good leader, very intelligent. He loves his people. He deserves to be president.”
In fact, al-Sisi — who hasn’t expressed himself in international media save for a rare interview with The Washington Post last August — has a past and a personality that are as impenetrable as his sunglasses.
Little is known about this 59-year-old military man with a working-class background, except that he studied at the military academy before completing his training in the United States. Appointed as chief of military intelligence a few months before the revolution, he immediately joined the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a very closed circle of generals that took charge of the transition after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The first time the general public heard of al-Sisi, the context was rather unflattering. It was because of his unwavering support of the notorious “virginity tests” inflicted on several women protesting on Tahrir Square. The army defended it by saying it was intended to “prevent soldiers from any rape allegations.”
But in August 2012, when Morsi designated him to replace the aging Marshall Tantawi as head of the SCAF, he was lauded. A religious man — his wife even wore the niqab when they were in the U.S., an American diplomat confirms — al-Sisi evidently earned the trust of the Brotherhood president, who naïvely thought he could co-opt him. But as Morsi learned the hard way, al-Sisi is a true military man whose blind loyalty is to the army.
“The army is not trying to take over power,” al-Sisi insisted a few days after Morsi’s June 2013 ouster. But each new decision looked like another step towards his political ascent. There was the constitutional referendum in mid-January, during which it received 98% approval. And there was the anniversary of the revolution, the day after which al-Sisi was promoted from general to marshall.
Even his recent visit to Moscow, originally intended to discuss buying Russian weapons, turned into a campaign appearance after Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his public blessing in the Egyptian presidential election.
But the political breakthrough of the army does annoy some Egyptian military men. “The army should defend the country, not run it,” says retired General Adel Soliman, who is proud to say that, unlike al-Sisi, who was too young at the time, he took part in the war against Israel (1967-1973). Now head of a think tank specializing in defense, he lashes out at the “new ‘showbiz’ politics of the young generals, who are running the risk of forever tarnishing our image if al-Sisi fails to run the country correctly.”
The challenges awaiting the next president are huge. The Muslim Brotherhood, now considered a “terrorist organization,” is keeping the pressure on by protesting every week. Their mobilization is not as dead as the pro-army media claim it to be. The man who is now Marshall al-Sisi is also on the blacklist of the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis Jihadists, who recently threatened to target him personally.
As for the economic challenges, they are colossal. For the time being, the country is surviving only because of generous support from its allies in the Gulf. But a third of Egyptians currently live beneath the poverty line. It’s a social time bomb that the future head of state will have the delicate task of defusing.