Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Longing for a leader

The minister of defence may embody the public mood but this does not mean he harbours presidential ambitions, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the weeks leading up to the 30 June Revolution the Tamarod (Rebel) petition was the most widely circulated document in Egypt. It reflected popular anger and frustration at the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Yet on 30 June there were no pictures of any of the Tamarod members who conceived and carried out the petition drive or of representatives of any of the movements that supported it. Political forces had reached a tacit agreement not to carry placards featuring the images of any political figure.

Such, at least, was the case in Cairo and other major cities in the Delta, though it did not always apply in rural Egypt. And now it no longer applies in the capital.

Ahmed Abbas hails from a village on the outskirts of Dessouq in the governorate of Kafr Al-Sheikh. He and a large group of family members and friends headed to Tahrir Square in Cairo to take part in the “Mandate Friday” demonstrations on 26 July. They brought with them ornamented wooden placards bearing photos of Al-Sisi which, Abbas said, took two days to make.

Abbas, and those with him during the 26 July demonstrations, say they are of one mind, that Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is the “successor” to Gamal Abdel-Nasser. This impression was confirmed by his address during the military academy graduation ceremony in Alexandria when, insists Abbas, Al-Sisi spoke to the people.

Few would have missed the significance of Al-Sisi referring to the “Muslim Brotherhood occupation” of the state and the implicit linkage between the Brotherhood’s removal and the “evacuation of the British” from Egypt under Nasser. Nor would it have escaped them that the date of the “Mandate Friday” demonstrations fell on the anniversary of the declaration of the Egyptian republic and the expulsion of King Farouk.

Kamal Matar, who comes from the same village as Abbas, says Al-Sisi is the man for the current historic phase and the people should rally behind him. A history teacher in a secondary school, Matar believes that to liken Al-Sisi with Nasser may be unjust on some levels, but noted “Al-Sisi’s speech touched a chord in everyone’s heart”.

“People have rarely heard such a simple religious speech using the terms that they grew up with. They had never heard someone tell them, from his heart, ‘lift your heads and be proud’. No other person could have inspired people to travel 150km from their village to the capital in spite of the dangers on the roads these days. No one else could have touched their hearts and minds in this way and given politics back its flavour.”

Asked whether they thought Al-Sisi would nominate himself for president Abbas and his friends were unsure. If he did, though, he would certainly get their votes.

In the squares where the anti-terrorism protests Al-Sisi had called for were taking place cars would periodically arrive laden with pictures of the general to hand out to the crowds as helicopters showered Egyptian flags from above. People eagerly picked up both. In addition to these items, there were a number of other signs and banners on display, some voicing opposition to US policy and the Obama administration. It was clear that some agency was distributing all these pictures and signs. It was also striking that some police officers were waving photos of Al-Sisi and chanting in unison with the demonstrators. “Al-Sisi has revived the prestige of the police, not just the army,” one officer told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Military expert General Talaat Muslim is not convinced by comparisons between Nasser and Al-Sisi or the July 1952 and the June 2013 revolutions.

“Nasser’s revolution had a clear philosophy and clear principles, which he proceeded to translate into social transformations and historic achievements such as the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the construction of the High Dam, agrarian reform, free education and an end to the policy of dependency on foreign powers,” says Muslim. “As successful as Al-Sisi has been in firing the passions of the masses in the streets and squares, whether they come from the cities or the countryside or even the intelligentsia — segments of which seem to have backtracked on their permanent rejection of the generals — there is a big difference between the two men. If Al-Sisi were to consider shifting from the role of saviour to that of president he would run headlong into a barrage of criticism. I doubt Al-Sisi is contemplating becoming the next president of Egypt. This does not preclude the possibility of him running for president at some later stage, but until then he has a major role as president-maker.”

“We’re an emotional people,” notes General Hossam Kheirallah. “We let our feelings lead us in everything. When Al-Sisi delivered his brief speech on 3 July announcing the removal of Morsi he had clearly delivered the people from grave injustice and a bleak future. Millions of people felt that he had done them an enormous favour, not just those who were carrying pictures of him but members of the urban middle class and other segments of society. The moment was important. But after he asked for a mandate many must have felt a moment of introspection during which they began to question the aims and purposes of these changes.”

Kheirallah points out that people who display Nasser’s picture today did not live under his rule. “They have only heard about him, that Nasser was an officer of modest rank but had a huge impact on society. But there were some very dark points in his record, especially with respect to rights and freedoms... Egypt does not yearn for an army leader in the long run, it yearns for a civilian president. There is also the matter of the international community and international policy. Military intelligence, however capable, will not be the agency capable of changing that.”

It is the Muslim Brothers, perhaps, who are most inclined to link Al-Sisi with Nasser. Mohamed Al-Gohari, a young Muslim Brother, insists “Nasser was a Muslim Brotherhood member who turned against the Muslim Brothers who made the [1952] Revolution and who tarnished their image and imprisoned them after the revolution”.

It is the stereotypical image of Nasser in Muslim Brotherhood literature. Referring to this “betrayal”, an official from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, argued “Al-Sisi in 2013 was reproducing the Nasser scenario of 1954.” This is the narrative Muslim Brotherhood and FJP leaders are marketing among their rank and file in the pro-Morsi squares.

Some observers are keen to draw a distinction between the personalities of Al-Sisi and Nasser. Military affairs expert General Gamal Mazloum argues Al-Sisi has simply exercised his role as a military commander within the framework of the military’s avowed mission and if his pictures were waved during rallies it is simply an expression of the public’s gratitude.

“We should not confuse issues,” insists Mazloum. “There is a roadmap drawn up together with national political forces. To accept the idea of the [general as] leader is to accept a military role in politics. It is better for the military establishment to remain out of politics in everything but matters related to national security.”

He adds that when Al-Sisi first made his mark as a director of military intelligence “he had a clear and positive position with respect to human rights and he believed that it was important to change many military policies with regard to areas of interaction with civilians, most notably regarding military trials and virginity tests, for example.”

General Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Centre for Military Studies, agrees. “Al-Sisi is a patriotic military man who is acute to the needs of the moment, aware of when to take decisions and of the need for resolve in carrying them out, and conscious of the potential ramifications and repercussions of decisions.”

“Perhaps this explains how he could succeed in restoring the army’s prestige among the people and significantly enhance its combat efficacy in less than a year. Perhaps, too, this is why the people see him as a leader, especially after the corrupt clique that has ruled Egypt for decades.”

According to reliable military sources, when Al-Sisi served as director of military intelligence he warned about the dangers of the “hereditary succession scenario” that sought to usher Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, into power. He frequently urged the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, of which he was the youngest member, to signal its opposition to this scenario. He submitted exhaustive reports on the subject to Hussein Tantawi which eventually led to a contingency plan envisaging four possible responses to the succession scenario.

After the 25 January Revolution Al-Sisi began to use surveys to gauge opinion at various levels of the Armed Forces. Some polls were conducted three times, most recently following the 30 June Revolution. According to one military expert, Al-Sisi was in constant contact with officials at all levels of the military establishment in order to sound out their views, especially since November when he had to shoulder responsibility for countering mounting deterioration in the country. He was keen to discuss important issues, including the performance and attitudes of the presidency, with even the lowest ranking officers whose opinions he listened to before taking any decision.Ezzeddin attributes the successes of Al-Sisi’s approach to his proficiency in military and political science, his competence and efficiency, and his outstanding strategic abilities, and “when such an individual appears in the midst of a crisis in which there is there is no popularly approved leadership there will be a general desire to clear the way for his emergence”.

An important point stressed by Mazloum is Al-Sisi’s religious piety. Kheirallah agrees: Al-Sisi, he says, is known throughout the army as a devout Muslim who objects to all attempts to interfere in people’s faith and their relationship with God, which is a creed he has sought to instil in military academies since becoming minister of defence. This was apparent in Al-Sisi’s speech in Alexandria when he said that the creed of the Egyptian military was to draw a sharp distinction between true devotion and those religion merchants who sanction bloodshed in the name of God and the Sharia. That Al-Sisi voiced so succinctly what the vast majority of Egyptians believe helps explain how he could move them so powerfully.

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