Egypt’s army chief rides wave of popularity towards presidency
Growing numbers of Egyptians applaud General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s hardline approach to Muslim Brotherhood
Egyptian chocolate-maker Bahira Galal does not hide her support for Egypt’s army chief, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Customers at her plush boutique in central Cairo are offered a choice between chocolates coated with his face and others embossed with messages of adulation. One carries his official portrait. Another shows him in sunglasses. “Thank you, Sisi, from the bottom of our hearts,” reads a third.
Galal had the idea back in August, shortly after Sisi’s troops cleared a camp of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing up to 1,000. There was outcry abroad, but many Egyptians “wanted to show support in whatever way they could”, said Galal, a representive of a large chunk of the Egyptian population who view the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.
Galal’s chocolates are just one manifestation of a huge wave of popular support for General Sisi, the intensity of which has not been matched in Egypt since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the widely loved autocrat who ruled the country during the 50s and 60s. “I don’t know how to make anything but chocolates. So that’s how I show my support. It’s my way of participating,” she said.
Many Egyptians laud Sisi for rescuing the country from ex-president Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist whose opponents felt was trying to rob Egypt of its moderate character. After nearly three years of post-revolutionary chaos, they also see Sisi as the restorer of stability – despite a rise in state-sponsored killing since Morsi’s ousting.
“There’s this feeling that the country was a little bit lost. There haven’t been any stable institutions for quite a while – and the military was seen as the last bastion of stability and recourse,” said Bassem Sabry, a prominent Egyptian columnist.
“So when Sisi stepped forward and did what he did, it was seen as a heroic act, taking a last-step measure to save the country from an ailing economy and a religious autocracy.”
Love for Sisi is visible on most streets in Cairo. Posters of the general hang in shop windows as businesses take advantage of the Sisi mania by rebranding their products in his image. A jewellery maker designs necklaces that incorporate his name.
A kebab company sells the Sisi sandwich, according to a new blog – Sisi Fetish – that documents much of the adulation. One photographer’s wedding business went viral after he circulated an image of a bride and her bridesmaids wearing army-branded gowns and holding pictures of the general. A man in Suez even named his newborn son after Sisi, reported one newspaper, which printed a copy of what was said to be the baby’s birth certificate as proof.
“Staff at the hospital where the baby was receiving his vaccines were so delighted with the name that they refused to take money from the father,” El Fagr reported.
Some hope the mania persuades Sisi to run for president in Morsi’s place. The general says he has no plans to do so, but such is his popularity that few dare announce their own run until Sisi rules himself out for certain.
“We will not accept anyone except Sisi,” said Refaei Nasrallah, the head of one several groups gathering petitions calling on Sisi to run.
“The next president must have at least 70% of the population backing him, otherwise political divisions will ensue just like last time. Sisi is the only man with that much backing in the country,” added Nasrallah, collecting signatures near where Sisi grew up. “No one else has his clout.”
Between a fifth and a third of the country still back Morsi. A small minority openly criticise the authoritarianism of both the Brotherhood and the army.
But the vast majority of Egyptians back Sisi despite the many failures of the military junta (known as Scaf) that governed Egypt following Mubarak’s exit in 2011, and despite activists’ warnings that a Sisi presidency would be likely bring a revival of Mubarak-era authoritarianism.
The situation is due in part to the army’s decades-old popularity, argues Bassem Sabry, and the fact that many Egyptians – following a turbulent two-year democratic experiment – remain more comfortable with a strongman at the helm.
“Egypt hasn’t had a strong democratic experience, except for a brief period in the 20s and 30s when there was some experimentation. But for quite a while there was this idea where you had one central figure at the top that parliament and state institutions were subordinate to,” said Sabry.
He has three further explanations why Scaf’s unpopularity has not affected Sisi: “Many of the people associated with the revolution itself, who were the biggest critics of Scaf, lost popularity along the way. Second, the year under the Brotherhood was seen as worse than the year under Scaf. And third and most important, [Scaf’s] leaders have changed.”
Back at Galal’s chocolate shop, buoyed by the success of their Sisi franchise, the owners will soon unveil a new series of chocolates coated with the face of Anwar Sadat – Egypt’s strongman during the 70s. But they are in no doubt which will prove most popular.
“Sisi, of course,” said Galal’s husband, Sherif. “You can’t compare them.”