Middle East
4:41 pm
Mon November 18, 2013

Back To The Future: Calls Grow For A Military Ruler In Egypt

Originally published on Mon November 18, 2013 5:27 pm

For nearly three years Egyptians have battled for a different, and better, future. But the transition has been tumultuous, filled with pitfalls, death and disappointment.

Today, many are ready to settle for a return to the pre-revolution status quo: a strong, military man who can guide Egypt back to stability.

At the Kakao lounge in central Cairo, teenage girls sample chocolates that bear the face of Egyptian military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The chocolates depict Sissi in sunglasses, Sissi saluting and Sissi's face in ornate chocolate frames.

Sissi became a hero in the eyes of many Egyptians on July 3, the day he answered a call from millions of people protesting Mohammed Morsi's rule. On that day, Sissi led the military coup that ousted Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who'd become Egypt's first freely elected president just a year earlier.

"If you cannot find a way as a ruler to counteract your opposition then leave the throne," Sissi said in a speech later that month.

Until then, the general was a largely unknown figure who had been promoted to military chief by Morsi himself. Since the coup, Morsi's followers have been hounded; more than 1,000 have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more detained. But much of the country seems willing to gloss over the bloodshed and move on to what they hope will be stability.

The reason, many Egyptians say, is Sissi.

Bahira Galal, the owner of the chocolate shop, says if Sissi runs for president, she'll vote for him. And she's not alone. Analysts say the biggest question going forward for most Egyptians isn't what will be in the constitution. The question is whether Sissi will be on the presidential ballot.

The Campaign For Sissi

So far the general has been coy, but his supporters haven't. A number of groups are popping up, calling for Sissi to run when the election is held sometime next year.

One of those groups is Om El Donia — or Mother of the World — a phrase Egyptians and Sissi famously use to describe their country.

At the offices of a liberal political party, Mamdouh Nahhas, the coordinator of the group, explains why Sissi must be president.

"He is the man of the moment," Nahhas says. "He hears the people's pleas."

In this crowd Sissi can do no wrong. He understands how everything works, they say. It is the army that paves the roads, pumps the water, the army that will save Egypt.

Maha Sherif, another Sissi supporter, says laws and the constitution can be changed later, but the most important thing is the president. The president, she says, will give us sovereignty and stability.

That sentiment is widespread here, and criticizing the military has once again become a red line. Bassem Youssef, a popular TV satirist, made fun of hysterical Sissi supporters. He was lambasted for it and taken off the air by his channel the next week.

Military Opposition

Some Egyptians, however, are trying to remind the public of the abuses under military rule — some of which continue.

A small group of protesters rallied recently outside the building where the drafters of the constitution were meeting. They want the new constitution to include a ban on military trials for civilians.

Revolutionary singer Ramy Essam says he came to the protest to remind people that if the military leadership returns to power, so will its dirty policies.

"I can't act like I'm not happy that the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi are gone," Essam says, "but at the same time I want people to understand that the army is just as bad."

But Essam in in the minority with his thirst for reform.

"It seems to me that the fundamental structures of Egyptian political life in the Egyptian state, the ones Egyptians thought so much needed reform back in 2011, seem to be reasserting themselves, reasserting control," says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Brown says that the debate around the constitution has been secretive and rushed. People don't really know what's in the document, and they're scheduled to vote on it in December.

"Sissi represents order and competence and not much else because he has very little political record," he says.

If Sissi does decide to run, Egyptians who overwhelmingly support the army will likely say yes. And Brown says that means the new Egypt will look a lot like the old Egypt.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For nearly three years, Egyptians have fought for democracy and the way of life they hoped would come with it. But the transition has been tumultuous, with pitfalls, disappointment and death. Well, today, many are ready for a return to the pre-revolution status quo, a strong man in power who can guide Egypt back to stability. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At the Kakao lounge in central Cairo, teenage girls sample chocolates. They bear the face of Egyptian military chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Sissi in sunglasses, Sissi saluting, Sissi's face in ornate chocolate frames.

GENERAL ABDEL-FATTAH EL-SISSI: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Sissi became a hero in the eyes of many Egyptians on July 3, the day he answered a call from millions of people protesting Mohammed Morsi's rule. On that day, Sissi led the military coup that ousted Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who'd become Egypt's first freely elected president just a year earlier.

EL-SISSI: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: In a speech after that month, Sissi declared, if you cannot find a way as a ruler to counteract your opposition then leave the throne. Until then, the general was a largely unknown figure who had been promoted to military chief by Morsi himself. Since the coup, Morsi's followers have been hounded; more than a thousand have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more are detained. But much of the country seems willing to gloss over the bloodshed and move on to what they hope will be stability.

The reason, many Egyptians say, is Sissi.

BAHIRA GALAL: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Bahira Galal is the owner of the chocolate shop. She says if Sissi runs for president, she'll say yes, yes, yes. And she's not alone. Analysts say the biggest question going forward for most Egyptians isn't what will be in the constitution. The question is whether Sissi will be on the presidential ballot.

So far, the general has been coy, but his supporters haven't. Groups are popping up left and right calling for Sissi to run when the election is held sometime next year.

MAMDOUH NAHHAS: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: One of those groups is Om El Donia, Mother of the World, a phrase Egyptians and Sissi famously use to describe their country. At the offices of a liberal political party, Mamdouh Nahhas, the coordinator of the group, explains why Sissi must be president.

NAHHAS: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: He is the man of the moment, Nahhas says. He hears the people's pleas. In this crowd, Sissi can do no wrong. He understands how everything works, they say. It is the army that paves the roads, pumps the water, the army that will save Egypt.

MAHA SHERIF: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Maha Sherif, another Sissi cheerleader, says laws and the constitution can be changed later, but the most important thing is the president. The president, she says, will give us sovereignty and stability. That sentiment is widespread here, and criticizing the military has once again become a red line.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Bassem Youssef, a popular TV satirist, was lambasted just for making fun of hysterical Sissi supporters. He was taken off the air by his channel the next week. But some Egypt are trying to remind the public that under military rule there were also abuses, some of which continue.

A small group of protesters rallied recently outside the building where the drafters of the constitution were meeting. They want the new constitution to include a ban on military trials for civilians.

RAMY ESSAM: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Among these protesters, revolutionary singer Ramy Essam says he came to remind people that if the military leadership returns to power, so will its dirty policies.

ESSAM: (Through interpreter) I can't act like I'm not happy that the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi are gone, but at the same time I want people to understand that the army is just as bad.

FADEL: But Essam's thirst for reform is in the minority. Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

NATHAN BROWN: It seems to me that the fundamental structures of Egyptian political life in the Egyptian state, the ones that Egyptians thought so much needed reform back in 2011 seem to be reasserting themselves, reasserting control.

FADEL: Brown says that the debate around the constitution has been secretive and rushed. People don't really know what's in the document. And they're scheduled to vote on it next month.

BROWN: Sisi represents order and competence and not much else because he has very little political record.

FADEL: And if Sisi decides to run, Egyptians who overwhelmingly support the army will likely say yes. And that Brown says, means the new Egypt will look a lot like the old Egypt.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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