Egyptian army chief revels in popularity

A poster of General Abdel Fattah al'Sisi hangs near souvenir shops in a tourist area in Cairo. Picture: Reuters
A poster of General Abdel Fattah al'Sisi hangs near souvenir shops in a tourist area in Cairo. Picture: Reuters
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A BURGEONING cult of personality is developing around General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defence minister and head of the armed forces, since former president Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the military in July.

Speculation is growing as to whether he will capitalise on this mass popularity to make a run for presidency in elections expected next year.

Gen Sisi was barely known before his appointment as defence minister. Now, his likeness appears on cakes and chocolates, jewellery designs, coffee mugs, posters, T-shirts and billboards across the country. At pro-military demonstrations, supporters carry placards and don lanyards and even masks featuring the general’s face.

Tellingly, he is increasingly depicted in montages alongside two of Egypt’s military heroes-turned-presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

This growing adoration is encouraged by state-run media, which dedicates TV-spots, articles and radio segments to praise of Gen Sisi’s character, strength and selfless dedication to his country.

“He already plays a major role in the country’s affairs and the interim government appointed after Morsi’s fall can do little without his approval,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Centre, who described the general as the most powerful man in Egypt.

The general’s reputation has not been affected by the fact that hundreds of supporters of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more detained under the military-backed government.

Instead, many of Gen Sisi’s backers see him as having saved traditionally moderate Egypt from Islamist rule.

Mr Morsi’s year in power was characterised by harsh economic conditions, an unpleasant shock after the years of strong growth enjoyed under Hosni Mubarak prior to the 2011 revolution in which he was deposed. In response, many of Mr Morsi’s opponents, as well as disillusioned one-time supporters, appear to have rediscovered a taste for strongman rule.

Karim Elmansoub, a computer engineer from Cairo who runs a group urging Gen Sisi to run for president, said: “We spent one year with the Brotherhood, we saw their true intent and we saw our country was suffering.

“People started to miss the old days and realised it was a paradise compared to now, when we face so many problems every day. That’s why we can’t try again with any person or group or party. We need someone to take us out of this nightmare, and all Egyptians trust in our armed forces.”

Another campaign, called “Complete your Favour”, claims to have a petition with more than 15 million signatures demanding Gen Sisi put himself forward for the presidential role.

Support among his fellow army officers is reportedly growing. “If Sisi does stand, he would do so effectively unopposed,” Mr Hamid said. “Any military rivals would inevitably step aside, the Muslim Brotherhood is in shreds, and potential opposition amongst fractious liberal and left-wing groups is practically non-existent.”

Whether Gen Sisi wishes to is stand uncertain. He has previously said he dies not want to involve himself in politics. In recent interviews with local newspapers, however, he has been more cryptic about his intentions.

Assuming the presidency could be risky – it would deny him the option of shifting blame to a supposedly elected official if the economic and security situation continues to deteriorate.

And the prospect of an army man in power again is likely to alarm rights groups as well as some of Egypt’s international allies.