Egyptian strongman el-Sissi is being pressed to seek the presidency

McClatchy Foreign StaffOctober 24, 2013 

— At a tent in front of the local headquarters of provincial security forces, campaign workers grabbed freshly printed posters bearing the picture of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s defense minister, who overthrew Mohammed Morsi in July and is now the country’s de facto leader.

A recently composed anthem praising the army for moving against Morsi, “Bless Your Hands,” looped over and over through loudspeakers, providing a stirring backdrop to the day’s activities.

As throngs of residents shouted their approval, police officers joined in. El-Sissi, they said, was the only person who could lead this polarized, embattled nation.

This is the look of the most aggressive political campaign in Egypt today as the country moves toward an as-yet-unscheduled presidential election next year. It says something about the state of politics here that the leading candidate is a general who toppled the country’s first democratically elected president and claims to have no interest in public office.

The 2011 demise of Hosni Mubarak was thought to have put an end to Egypt’s tradition of being run by men who’d retired after long military careers. But the vehemence of the draft-el-Sissi campaign has the eerie feel of elections gone by, when Mubarak’s rule was simply ratified every few years.

For some, the call for an el-Sissi candidacy suggests that Egypt is headed back to what it knows, after three years of turmoil.

The nation’s most influential forces are lining up to support an el-Sissi run. Businessmen are financing the effort, state media are promoting it and the state’s security officers are urging citizens to join the campaign.

The military’s spokesman has said repeatedly that el-Sissi won’t run. But el-Sissi himself has been less clear. In a recent interview with the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, the general gave an opaque answer: “I think that it’s not the right time to ask this question under the circumstances that the country is going through.”

The campaign for el-Sissi announced this week that it had gathered more than 15 million signatures.

El-Sissi’s ascending popularity shows how quickly Egyptians want to put behind them the yearlong rule by Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Just two years ago, el-Sissi, who was then the head of military intelligence, had enraged Egyptians when he defended soldiers who’d carried out “virginity tests” on female detainees. That anger helped spur calls for the elections that ended the transitional military government and brought Morsi to the presidency.

But now many Egyptians think their country should be governed only by a president with a military background. The democratic promises of the past three years brought only instability, a flagging economy and incompetent civilian leaders, they argue. It’s time for Egypt to go back to what it knows.

“We have tried Mohammed Morsi, the only civilian man. Unfortunately, it was a miserable year. It was a nightmare to Egyptians,” said Abdel Naby Abdel Sattar, the chief editor of Al Ghada newspaper and a co-founder of the pro-el-Sissi campaign. “One year that took us back 20 years.”

Abdel Sattar said the founders of the pro-el-Sissi “complete your favor” campaign conceived the idea on June 30, when millions poured into the streets calling for Morsi’s ouster.

“We didn’t want to repeat the same mistake of Jan. 25 that brought us Morsi in power,” Abdel Sattar said, referring to the date in 2011 that the anti-Mubarak demonstrations started. “We had to offer the people an alternative or else we will find another Mohammed Morsi in power.”

The group boasts 73 offices and 7,000 members dedicated to collecting petitions to push el-Sissi to run. It said it relied only on donations from individuals. But those individuals are among Egypt’s richest. Among them is Nasr al Qurwas, the founder of the campaign here in Monofeya governorate. His personal fortune comes from the import and export of poultry-farming equipment. He has an office in Romania.

“I have an open budget,” he said of his spending on the pro-el-Sissi campaign. “I pay employees to do the job.” Behind him, workers hurriedly hung large banners emblazoned with el-Sissi’s picture.

“My love of Egypt is the only motive behind my spending,” he said. “I don’t want any job or anything in return.”

That attitude was quickly seconded by Hamed el-Asrag, 59, the head of the history department in the provincial Ministry of Education.

“We will sign with our blood,” he said.

El-Asrag then offered a comparison that many Egyptians make: El-Sissi is the current Gamal Abdel Nasser, the colonel whose charismatic leadership shaped modern Egypt and who also, not incidentally, suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Egypt since Abdel Nasser has been waiting for someone like him,” el-Asrag said. “I believe that this person is Sissi, who will unit all the Arab armies. He liberated Egypt from the Brotherhood, like Nasser, and conquered the American conspiracy that was aiming to destroy the Middle East. How could we not choose him?”

Bolstering the effort are the state media.

“Egypt needs a strong man, not a ‘fortune teller,’ ” read a recent headline in the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper over a column in which the writer, Mamdouh Shaaban, urged would-be civilian presidential candidates not to run.

Some say they’ve seen this kind of campaign before. When Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula to Israeli forces in the Six-Day War in 1967, Nasser resigned in an emotional televised speech. But hundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets to reject his resignation, and Nasser stayed on. Many think the pro-el-Sissi campaign is aiming to do the same.

“We will collect 55 million eligible voters’ signatures, and if he refuses to run for the presidency we will hold an open sit-in in all the squares until he agrees,” el-Asrag said.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @aminaismail

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