A forewarning about the extent of Idolization of Field Marshal Abdulfattah al-Sisi came to me on Wednesday night, after the Egyptian defence minister and supreme commander of Egypt’s armed forces issued his call for mass protests to give the military a mandate to confront violence on the streets of Egypt. A friend messaged me: “I’m in love with Sisi. What a strong guy! Eh dah! Finally someone I respect.”
The notion that democracy is a mess and Egypt is a mess – and democracy in Egypt is therefore a double mess – has been bouncing around since 1952 when the military swept to power and ditched a discredited monarchy and party political system and then used the groundswell of popular support, aided by mastery of newly developing mass media, to cut colonial ties with Britain. Military power as a means of sorting out chaos remained self-servingly as part of the state mindset ever since, and Sisi’s actions play big-time to that idea today. His task has not been too difficult: both the revolutionary leftists and liberals who began the Jan 25 uprising and the Islamists who won elections in its aftermath fell perfectly into the traps set for them by an ancien regime far from ready to go or accepting of the message of the streets.
The public case that the military has developed against deposed Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi over the past four weeks involves in essence a rejection of everything that the revolution was about. Mursi and other Brotherhood figures escaped from Wadi Natroun prison during the revolt and the Brotherhood several days after Jan 25 decided to throw themselves into it (while still conducting secret talks with the regime), but this has now been recast as “an attack on police installations, officers and soldiers; storming Egyptian prisons and destroying buildings; deliberately placing firearms in Wadi Natroun prison, enabling prisoners to escape, escaping himself (Mursi), and destroying public buildings in a time of fitna (strife), premeditated murder of some prisoners, officers and soldiers, and kidnapping some officers and soldiers”. At the same time, Mursi is to be held in detention for a further 15 days for investigations over “communicating (takhabur) with Hamas to try to undertake hostile acts in the country”.
The implication of these charges is that the military, security and bureaucracy who were the core of Mubarak’s police state want to take revenge for the revolution in toto. Many leftist, liberal and Arab nationalists activists took part in what could be deemed acts of vandalism and violence against symbols of the state during those three weeks – revolts against state apparatus as vicious as Mubarak’s are never 100 percent peaceful – and those acts have been glorified as central elements in its success: burning the National Democratic Party HQ just off Tahrir Square, storming the state security building in Nasr City, and indeed if activists had succeeded in doing the same with the ministry of interior and the Maspero state media building the subsequent course of events may have been far different. By the same token, anger over the kowtowing to Israeli, Saudi and American dictates in foreign policy in the fading years of Mubarak’s rule was shared by most if not all those who took part in the protests – it was not true, as writers like Thomas Friedman liked to claim that this was a revolt with purely domestic concerns.
Jan 25 Fitna
The charges against Mursi appear to have come after the Muslim Brotherhood refused to back down in its insistence on continuing street mobilizations against the coup – it is rather odd, after all, that a man we are meant to believe was such a traitor was left to rule the country for the past year. This could suggest that perhaps the military doesn’t realize the import of such charges that negate the essence of the revolution they claim they are protecting (now it’s a fitna), though that’s doubtful since the fact of continuous military and security abuse of human rights is evidence enough that the Mubarak state never accepted the logic of the revolt.
Today, 18 months later, a saviour has come to clean up the mess. And what a saviour he is. Spectacularly misjuding the man, Mursi made Sisi his defence minister and head of the supreme council of the armed forces after assuming office last year. In January Sisi was calling all political forces including the president himself to take part in compromise talks and in April when the Tamarrud (Rebellion) campaign of signatures calling on Mursi to step down was underway he charmed audiences with “I want to tell you something – do not worry about Egypt” to rapturous applause. Then a week before the Tamarrud protest he said the army’s “manliness” would not allow it to leave Egyptians “scared and frightened”, after the set-piece June 30 Tamarrud protest he issued a 48-hour ultimatum, and on July 3 he said Mursi had failed to meet the people’s demands and a new hand-picked president would take over on an interim basis.
After over two weeks of protests, during which the main events were first violence against Islamists (army killing of 55 protesters at dawn outside Republican Guard HQ in Cairo, three women protesters in Mansoura) then fighting between pro- and anti-Mursi factions that left 14 dead and a bomb in Mansoura that killed one and wounded 28, al-Sisi appeared again with another ultimatum. Speaking at a military graduation ceremony, al-Sisi exhorted Egyptians to “get on the streets and give the army authority to take firm action against violence and terrorism”. An army spokesman followed by announcing a 48 hours ultimatum for the Brotherhood to join al-Sisi’s “roadmap”, a deadline that ends on Saturday.
So at this climactic moment with the army promising force to clear the streets of Islamist rejection, Sisi supporters are at their most ecstatic and the ecstasy perhaps expressed itself most clearly in an article by columnist Ghada Sharif in al-Masry al-Youm today, an article in which we might say she metaphorically threw off her undies.
“If al-Sisi says we should go onto the streets, then we’ll go to the streets,” Sharif wrote, the ping of her knicker band clearly audible. “To be honest, he doesn’t need to ask us or order us to do anything….a wink of one of those eyes, or a snap of his fingers and we will all answer the call. Egyptians are in love with this man! If he wants to complete his stable of four wives, we are at his beck and call…or if he just wanted to use us like captured sex slaves, we wouldn’t turn up our noses at him.” They were off. She went on: “That’s the Sharia I’m talking about! Don’t bring me some troglodyte with a two-metre beard and tell me to apply the Sharia with him. If he runs for president, I can assure you that everyone would vote for Sisi, even those who would have opposed him if he ran in the last election. Well, maybe everyone except Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, that crypto-Muslim Brother.” Sharif waxed on, most lyrically: “Today we can say that Nasser has risen again in the form of Sisi, who is smart enough not to commit the mistakes of the military council before. We adore this man and we love his spokesman too! Such a guy! And the hell with anyone who aggravates them!”
Now, there is no doubt that this hero worship represents a large swathe of public opinion right now. Military spokesmen have denied Sisi has presidential ambitions, but the man has apparently courted the adoration. With his soft voice, young years and dashing black beret cocked to the side, he is a far more compelling figure than Mubarak – or his tired successor Tantawi – ever was, and his talk of acting in the higher interests of the state is far more convincing than it ever sounded from the mouth of either. His chances of the passing off an act of mass violence to impose the military will are higher than anyone else’s. But post-Jan 25 that doesn’t necessarily mean even Sisi will get his way.