If you were to walk down the streets of Cairo these past few months, you could be forgiven for believing that former Field Marshall General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced his decision to run for President a lot earlier than last Wednesday. The streets of Cairo are adorned with his image. The bazaars are heaving with Sisi merchandise. So, if his ubiquitous gaze shining down on you wasn’t enough, then you could celebrate his presidential bid by donning your Sisi pyjamas, singing your Sisi songs or chowing down on the temptingly named “Sisi Mix Sandwich”.
Sisi’s cult of personality has been in full swing since the military ousted the Islamist President Mohammad Morsi from office in July 2013. As a result, Sisi has not only been widely regarded as the de facto leader of the country, but its saviour.
Egypt’s ‘Sisi fever’ has all the workings of the personality cults of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. Like Mao and Mussolini before him, Sisi’s humble upbringings are emphasised. In a country entrenched with elitism, Sisi is modestly spoken and appears to be a man of and for the people. The state owned news media has been sure to heap praise onto the would-be President of Egypt, enabling the development of a self-fulfilling mania.
Whilst Sisi is a man of few words, his supporters have been heard loud and clear. Business tycoon Naguib Sawiris declared that without Sisi the country “would face disaster”. Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II called Sisi’s presidential bid his “national duty”. Newspaper columnist Ghada Sherif’s assertion that “he doesn’t need to order or command us, all he needs to do is give us a wink with one eye, or even just flutter his eyelashes” is just one of the many instances where support for Sisi goes from defiant to sycophantic.
Such fervour around an individual in power usually paves the way for authoritarian rule. Thus, the question arises as to why many Egyptians have accepted the cult of Sisi so vociferously. Egyptians are not stupid and since 2011 have shown an intolerance for autocracy. Surely they would be expected to have grown immune to the military’s propaganda machine.
The answer lies in the state of instability that grips the nation. Most Egyptians are still smarting after the rule of the Brotherhood, who although democratically elected did not rule democratically. There have been countrywide terrorist attacks. The Sinai Peninsula, in particularly has been increasing Islamist insurgence since Morsi’s overthrow. It is little surprise therefore that tourism is at an all time low, having dropped 27 per cent in February 2014 from the same time the year before.
Egyptians have never been more divided. Some believe Sisi’s election will unite the nation. However, support for Sisi is by no means nationwide, and it would be misleading to suggest otherwise. For members of the now-illegal Muslim Brotherhood and critics of the army, Sisi’s tenure as President would represent continuing oppression.
Thus, whilst many analysts may resort back to narrative that Egypt simply cannot handle democracy, this ignores the developments within the country and the region over the past three years.
Typically in times of instability, people gravitate towards strong leaders. It is this instability that has given Sisi the political capital that in all likelihood will win him the presidential election later this year. It is this instability that has also allowed Sisi to emerge out of potential disasters unscathed. Last year, the Islamist Freedom and Justice party posted a leaked audio recording online. The recording revealed Sisi’s prophetic dreams, in which he discussed with the late President Sadat that he knew he was “going to be the next President of the Republic”. In February, the military was subject to international ridicule when a chief army engineer unveiled an apparently ‘miraculous’ cure for AIDs and HIV in a televised presentation, in which Sisi and other senior officials were in the audience. The New York Times called the farcical presentation “the latest embarrassment imposed on Egyptians by its leadership”. These events would have no doubt served as deathblows to most politicians’ careers. And yet, Sisi’s feathers weren’t so much as ruffled by either.
There is little doubt that Sisi will be able to ride the waves of popularity into the Presidential office. However, it will be interesting to observe how he will utilise his popularity once in the position of power. The insecurity that plagues Egypt has enabled him to focus his attention almost solely on the country’s ‘threat of terror’. The army’s oppression of dissent has received much support on this basis. However, he is so far yet to broach the topic of the stagnant economy, which is surely going to be the deciding factor of his presidential success. If he isn’t seen to cleanse the political and economic corruption that infects the country, then Sisi’s popularity will become another relic of the revolution. And if Sisi ever forgets the gravitas of the economic situation, he can always take a look at the fake 200 L.E. souvenir banknotes that his face now adorns.
Leena is a recent Durham university graduate. Specific interests include US and Middle Eastern politics.