Strongman of Egypt: How General Al-Sisi Took the Revolution's Thunder
by Manar Ammar
Bahira Galal is a sweets maker in Giza. Her shop is in the rising middle-class neighborhood of Mohandiseen, where she makes and sells a novelty item: chocolate treats with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s picture on top. Galal is "showing support for the army" according to a local report at al-Watan news.
"I like al-Sisi very much and think of him as a national symbol because he saved the country from the deposed president’s danger," Galal said.
Her sentiment towards the Egyptian general is not unique. In fact, al-Sisi's image can be seen almost everywhere, from posters on cars and shops to little personal items, and even heard on TV songs.
Since President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the army in early July after mass protests against his regime, General al-Sisi’s star has been rising — not only in Egypt, but in the strong reactions his military rule has evoked across the region.
Al-Sisi, as Galal and her peers see him, is a hero who saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood and is now battling a war on terror, with the approval of Egypt's majority. The violent armed attacks from Brotherhood affiliates on police stations and governmental institutions has only seemed to cement al-Sisi’s appeal, rallying millions behind him.
Morsi could not know on August 12, 2012, that he was appointing the man who would force him out of power only 10 months later. The 58-year-old general, who studied for one year, in 2006, at the United States Army War College, is the youngest member to be made a part of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Under fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak, he was the head of military intelligence and commander of the Northern Military Region in Alexandria in 2008.
In seeking to replace the old guard generals, Morsi may have seen al-Sisi as the right candidate due to his reputation as a devout Muslim. The appointment received warm welcome from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, who praised Morsi for choosing "a military leader who prays." Shortly after his appointment, a picture of al-Sisi leading a prayer group of soldiers was shared and cheered on social media.
In early July, the military's overthrow of Morsi became an easy task after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets demanding he step down and calling on the military to protect them. Al-Sisi gave all parties 48 hours to work out differences, threatening that the army would otherwise intervene with a "road map" for the future. Morsi rejected the military proposal and said he would "protect his legitimacy with his life." Clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters during the countdown.
"We [the military] rather die than see Egyptians afraid," al-Sisi then said in a televised speech as he deposed Morsi, suspended the constitution and appointed Adli Mansour, the head of the Constitutional Court, as interim president.
Al-Sisi’s decision was met with widespread celebration as Egyptians held posters with his image high in the air, and he emerged to many as a national hero. But to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Sisi quickly became "a traitor" who had deposed their democratically elected president, foreshadowing more violence to come. Al-Sisi later told The Washington Post that "simple Egyptian people were crying in their homes" after he took over.
In the subsequent weeks, the violent response from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood saw scores killed and a number of churches and police stations attacked. In one case, the Kirdasa town police station was raided by militants as gruesome videos of the attack burst out on social media websites.
In one video, militants killed the Kirdasa police chief and dragged and beat his dead body in front of the camera. The Egyptian Ministry of Interior has said over a 100 of its police force has been killed in recent weeks.
Middle-class, religiously-moderate Egyptians who were largely the driving force behind the revolution welcomed the state of emergency and the curfew for the sake of bringing an end to violence. Today, al-Sisi’s image in the press depends on which bent it is coming from: the national, leftist and liberal media tend to portray him as the defiant patriotic leader who is fighting an enemy that seeks to drag Egypt back into the Dark Ages, while the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates paint him as a traitor realizing an "American-Zionist" plan to divide Egypt, and have called for al-Sisi's removal and trial.
But in popular terms, not since Gamal Abdel Nasser, the regional and international symbol of anti-colonialism in the 1950s and 60s, have Egyptians been so attached to a leader as they are now with al-Sisi.
Even after more than 500 people died in the attack and evacuation of two large sit-ins of Morsi backers, many Egyptians support the military’s choice of using force — even if unequal and lethal — to disperse the protests and stabilize the streets. Liberal media aired footage of armed protesters shooting at the police, dispelling the belief that the sit-ins and protesters were all peaceful. They also aired national love songs in support of the military, with some channels showing a side bar that read, "Egypt fights terrorism."
Al-Sisi spoke openly about why the actions taken against Morsi and leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood were necessary. He accused Morsi of having close ties with Hamas and allowing Jihadists to enter the country and train in Sinai during his year in power. One leader in that group told the press that the prison breakout which freed Morsi during the 18 days of rage in 2011 was in fact orchestrated by Jihadist groups, and he named Hamas.
Now, while Morsi remains held at an undisclosed location, accused of treason and inciting violence, al-Sisi has become a public candidate for the office. Last week, the movement that sparked the June 30 protests, Tamarod, or Rebel, said it would support General al-Sisi for president if the current security situation lingers. Leftist leader and former presidential nominee Hamdeen Sabah expressed his approval for al-Sisi’s nomination.
Al-Sisi’s supporters see this as a needed step for the country to regain stability, and for the road map toward democratic rule to be implemented. But al-Sisi was not so forthright about his willingness to accept the position. He told the Washington Post that he "does not aspire for high office" and that Egyptians’ love "is all what he wants."
The increasing calls of support for al-Sisi have made some Egyptian liberals uneasy; though they may support the military in its effort to curb militant Islam attacks, they have not come to agreement on a military president in post-revolution Egypt. And for the Islamists, the goal has clearly shifted from reinstalling Morsi to deposing al-Sisi.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Constitutional drafting advisers were named as the newly appointed government appears more on track toward reviving the country’s economy. The following weeks will paint a clearer picture of the road map for Egypt -- as well as the true aims of General al-Sisi as he attempts to steer the country away from further violence.