His announcement on 26 March 2014 was a long awaited formality. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to run in this year’s presidential election was no surprise to observers who, after the 3 July ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, anticipated that the highly popular figure would seek the country’s top post.
With the presidential election slotted for 26 and 27 May and only one other candidate in the running, Sisi’s victory appears all but guaranteed. Not so, claim his closest allies, including the prominent actor Khaled Youssef who is serving as campaign advisor. Youssef insists that those who believe the battle between Sisi and his challenger, Hamdeen Sabahi, to be predetermined do not understand politics. “If Sisi supporters saw that his victory is guaranteed,” Youssef asserts, “they would not participate so actively in his campaign. No, the battle is real, and it is not easy, and it is constantly changing. His supporters have not accepted that the outcome is in their favor.”
The Sisi camp has challenged critics who say the presidential contest is a farce, and yet Sisi’s public and televised appearances remain few. The most notable so far is a pre-recorded interview with ONTV’s Ibrahim Eissa and CBC’s Lamis al-Hadidi that aired on 5 May. Sisi has preferred to meet privately with foreign dignitaries and members of Egypt’s political elite including Jehan and Gamal Sadat, the late president’s widow and son. Sisi did so even before his official bid for the presidency, receiving Vladimir Putin’s endorsement on 13 February two weeks after the Egyptian Armed Forces issued a statement opening the door to Sisi running for president.
For some time now, Sisi has carried himself with the quiet confidence of a seasoned diplomat, or despot, approaching his first decade in power. This was evident as he took to the podium on 3 July, announcing that Morsi had “failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people” and effectively removed him from power. After laying out a transitional roadmap and appointing Adly Mansour, chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, to serve as interim president, Sisi’s popularity exploded and gained momentum over the summer months. Sisi was seen as “[challenging] the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion…[leading] us to victory and never [renouncing] the struggle.” Such refrains were echoed in response to Sisi’s announcement in March, and during more recent campaign events that went unattended by the presidential candidate.
Aware of Sisi’s widespread support, long-time politician Hamdeen Sabahi has nevertheless insisted—albeit in tempered words—that Sisi is to blame for Egypt’s political turmoil since summer 2013. But prevailing in Egypt today is a widespread conviction that Sisi was not responsible for any law or decision issued during the transitional period. It is said that all decisions, whether legal or extralegal, that occurred during this period were not his own and fell outside the scope of his position as Minister of Defense and Chief of the Armed Forces. In other words, Sisi is neither directly nor indirectly to blame for hundreds of deaths resulting from the 14 August 2013 dispersal of pro-Mursi protesters in Rab’a al-Adawiya and Nahda Square (“blame the Interior Ministry!”), the dozens of church burnings that occurred over a three-day period in Upper Egypt immediately afterward (“blame the Islamists!”), the passage of a new and especially punitive protest law in late 2013 (“blame the interim cabinet!”), or the verdict issued on 24 March sentencing to death 529 defendants for the killing of one police officer (“blame the judiciary!”).
But the same people will also tell you that Sisi had nothing to do with more recent events like the verdict on 28 April sentencing 683 defendants to death—also on charges of killing a single policeman and attacking a police station—and the continued arrest and imprisonment of political dissidents. While only some of the April and March sentences have been upheld on appeal, this is the first time in Egyptian history that a criminal court has handed down the state’s harshest punishment en masse. Whichever way you cut it—whether he is making hard but necessary decisions or he plays no part in the turmoil—both Sisi the soldier and Sisi the civilian are infallible. How can this be?
Sisi’s brief televised announcement on 26 March provides a clue. Speaking to Egyptians as a wise father would speak to his children, Sisi says in a nostalgic voice: “The first time I wore the military uniform was in the year 1970. I was a student in the Air Force Academy at fifteen years of age, so about forty-five years ago. It is my honor to wear this uniform in defense of this country. Today, I remove this uniform also in order to defend the nation.” Soon after, the giant-sized posters of Sisi in his military regalia—both with and without his iconic sunglasses—displayed downtown and elsewhere ahead of his official bid were replaced with images of Sisi in civilian clothing in the exact same pose. But that Sisi has in the last month been photographed riding his bike in a tracksuit, and wearing all varieties of crisp suits and ties cannot be chalked up solely to his resignation from the military.
While some may argue the general’s public image has been transformed in order to distance him from the military establishment, this presumption is misguided. It is in fact military rank that undergirds his sha’biya garifa (sweeping popularity), despite Sisi’s lack of experience on the battlefield. Sisi insists that he is not the military’s presidential candidate, while also asserting “the military stands [at] equal distance between him and Sabbahi.” Neither is the latest public image campaign meant to ease criticism from vocal dissidents who continue to oppose Morsi’s ouster, the crackdown on Muslim Brothers and sympathizers, and the existing regime more generally.
The transformation of his public image is instead part of a more dangerous movement challenging the presumed confluence of hukm al-‘askar (military rule) with hukm al-istibdad (rule of tyranny). Citing Charles DeGaulle of France and Dwight D. Eisenhower of the United States, Sisi’s defenders argue that former military men have been among the world’s greatest leaders. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser is often launched into such discussions, his shortcomings blamed on a life cut short by his death in 1970. For those who remember Nasser as an icon of Arab unity and a stalwart opponent of international meddling in Egypt’s affairs, they see in Sisi some resemblances, never mind the widely different historical context that Nasser faced during his time. The political capital of Nasserism endures and Sisi supporters are thus not attempting to hide the general’s military credentials but instead to convince the choir that a former officer can lead a thriving democracy over the long term.
But why would a man described as mukhlis (loyal), watani (patriotic), and representative of al-irada al-gamahiriyya (the public will) need to prove his worth? If you ask Egyptians these days what they think of Sisi’s bid for the presidency, you will hear hesitation in some responses. Haga kwayissa wa sayi’a fi nafs al-wa’t (It is both a good and bad decision), they say,‘ashan khayfin ‘alay min kotr hobinna loh (because we fear for him out of our love for him). Il sha’b da mabyisborsh (Egyptians are not patient). Referring to the two uprisings and two failed presidencies of the last three years, these anxieties reverberate even among Sisi’s staunchest supporters. Such anxieties also point to the high stakes gamble of leaving behind the institutional protections that the military provides and on which Sisi has depended for the majority of his career.
As others have noted, Sisi’s choice to run for president makes him susceptible to the same fate that befell Morsi and Mubarak. The profusion of support for Sisi, whether among the public or military sector, may have been enough to convince him to pursue the presidency, but it has not allayed fears that the changing winds of Egyptian politics may eventually push him into the wastebasket of history. This is especially true as any distinction between al-sha’b al-hurr (the free people) and al-gaysh (the military) in popular discourse continues to vanish, their interests understood as one and the same. The military’s critical interventions during the first eighteen days of the 25 January 2011 uprising, and how they are remembered, are to credit for this. Many Egyptians recall being uncertain whether the military would heed their demands for Mubarak’s resignation, or violently disperse their demonstrations leaving the government in tact. That the military sided with popular demand rather than the regime is also what happened during the fateful days between 30 June and 3 July 2013. The story goes that the military removed Morsi from power and “rescued” the country from Brotherhood rule, but only as a result of the massive public outcry not any ulterior institutional motive. The military, it is said, came to the people’s defense. Sisi was catapulted to instant fame for the strongman role he played in this saga, a role he continues to evoke in his awareness that many Egyptians are yearning for solid ground in these revolutionary times.
And so the campaign to soften Sisi’s image continues. This has included publishing his national identity card in Al-Tahrir on 1 April 2014 under the heading “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the Citizen” as a way to understand the man behind the military uniform. Dated March 2014 and bearing a picture of Sisi in a dark suit and tie, the identity card reflects ordinary information one would expect to find: full name, street address, occupation, gender, religious identity, and marital status. More recently, coverage has proliferated of Sisi shedding tears during a press conference as he recalls letters written to him by people willing to endure hunger for his sake. In his first television interview, Sisi spoke about his humble upbringing and admiration for the country’s religious diversity. While Sisi’s popularity may have waned in light of ongoing power outages and recent efforts to compare him to Morsi, the preponderance of support remains high. Public sentiment indicates that the Sisi camp has succeeded in repackaging a beloved military hero in more palatable terms.
Among the many tragedies of Egyptian politics today, and especially over the last ten months, is that many have uncritically accepted Sisi’s visual transformation forgetting that he has already shown us what he stands for. As the youngest member of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that has ruled Egypt on and off starting in February 2011, Sisi was among those who advocated for virginity tests to be performed on women protesting in Tahrir. He remains unapologetic for the October 2011 deaths of dozens of unarmed Coptic Christians during the Maspero massacre in what SCAF defended as the protection of state institutions. If Egyptians have forgotten the horrid images of military tanks crushing people to death, what else has escaped public memory? Plenty, it turns out. It is not uncommon for people to say that the deaths at Rab’a al-Adawiyya and Nahda Square never happened. And if they did, the Brothers were given fair warning of what was coming and, well, terrorists do not have rights anyway.
A wise boy once went against the grain when he said that his emperor’s new clothes were not clothes at all. Eventually, his fellow townspeople agreed and said so out loud. Yet the emperor, with the help of advisors who never called his bluff, continued along his merry way. Egyptians have had many recent opportunities to decide that a president from among the military’s ranks contradicts the basic demands for bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity. The window to assert such resolve has since quickly narrowed. In a depraved twist of fate, many Egyptians today insist hukm al-‘askar is not just the only, but also the preferred option for Egypt’s political future, at least in the near term. Nevertheless, the political winds may shift again sooner than we think, inaugurating unexpected possibilities in their wake.