During the First World War the British government used a highly effective and innovative series of propaganda posters in which Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener pointed at the viewer declaring “Your country needs you” or variations on that phrase. Almost a year after declaring that there was no personal ambition in his decision to oust the elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, General Abdelfattah al-Sisi has finally declared he will run for the presidency in a propaganda declaration that heavily played on the theme that “Egypt needs you”.
The choreography and the message were managed to inform citizens that the army as the embodiment of the Egyptian state and identity had deemed his presidency and Egyptians’ support as necessary to save the nation. In a speech doused in menacing sentimentality (and abusing the platform of state television), Sisi said he was addressing Egyptians in his army fatigues “for the last time” as he stepped down from his post as minister of defence to answer the call of the nation. The backdrop was a garden, mimicking the imagery of U.S. presidential politics.
The theme was respect, or rather, disrespect – disrespect brought about by the uprising. He did not blame the protest movement specifically but the implication was clear. “What Egypt witnessed in the last years in politics or media, internally or externally made this country occasionally trespassed. It is time for this disrespect and this intrusion to stop,” he declared. “Disrespecting Egypt is an adventure with consequences that Egypt is not a playground for any internal, regional or international party and will never be.”
The Egyptian state must be pieced back together again after the deconstruction of perfidious international Islamism and the naïve revolutionaries who enabled them, and ordinary Egyptians would be wrong to think they have an option to join in the project. “We need to recognize that we are destined to do all in our powers to overcome future difficulties,” he said, describing this as a “joint effort” and a “contract” that requires hard work. This is a moment akin to 1952 and 1973 when the army stepped up to save the nation, Sisi implied, with his reference to “big victories” that Egyptians had achieved before when they stood together.
Once again, and true to all of Sisi’s speeches over the past year, there was little in the sense of a concrete vision. There were hints at Nasserist paternalism, with references to unemployment, health services, education and housing, and an interesting reference to living on foreign hand-outs, but there is nothing to suggest that in reality Sisi will diverge from the path of Mubarak’s Western-backed neoliberalism within the framework of a police state.
What is striking is how this affirmation of national salvation, almost a year after Sisi took to the political stage, comes just at the point that his anti-Islamist alliance collapses and another narrative of opposition to state authoritarianism plays out on the streets. The security services and the judiciary have ferociously gone after those standing in the way of the reaffirmation of the military republic. In the very week that Sisi issues his order to rebuild the country, an irritable judge in Minya sentenced 529 people to death for their role in violent protests following Morsi’s removal. Police are shooting dead protesters – who include youth, leftists, workers – almost every day as the institution enacts its personal drama to re-establish its prestige and avenge the humiliation it suffered on Jan 28, 2011 when stations were torched around the country and security forces withdrew from the streets. Figures for those in detention range from 16,000 to 21,000.
Sisi says he’s fighting terrorism, but it would more appropriate to say he is fighting those who refuse orders to obediently perform their allotted role in the reconstruction of a failed state.