Happy birthday, general

“Where else have you seen Sisi today?”

This is the question around which Sisi Fetish, a new contribution to Egypt’s thriving landscape of political satire, was born. The blog sheds light on how the popularity of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commander in chief of Egypt’s Armed Forces, is expressing itself these days in a variety of quotidian gestures, from pictures printed on chocolate bars to a woman’s public display of personal attraction to the general on the opinion pages of a daily newspaper.

Beyond the humor they evoke, both the love letters and the chocolate can be interpreted as gestures of true appreciation for a man who is seen as delivering virility and chivalry at a time when others are mired in political fiasco. Alongside other gestures, they became a reason to prompt the media to step into line with Egyptians’ readiness for the rule of another military leader.

This assumption falls in a larger context of talk of the revolution’s failure and of a return to the times that preceded it. It is an assumption conveniently aligned with pre- (and post-) revolutionary analysis that insists that people are not ready for democracy — a predetermined analysis uttered by those who never liked how unsettling the revolution promised to be for certain established notions.

But Sisi’s popularity, much like anything else, cannot be de-contextualized from a more specific framework. His star only rose the moment he stood against former President Mohamed Morsi by ousting him from power in July. Sisi’s move capitalized on growing disenchantment with Brotherhood rule, which was often described as a faction turning the state into a clan. Many Egyptians thought to redeem this state by raising signs claiming it back and by protesting against the Brotherhood, while the military, with Sisi at the front line, could not define itself at any other time in any better way: as the saviors of the state and its ultimate pillar.

Sisi’s popularity is also gripped by a sentiment not far from frenzy, a supernatural frenzy, much like the concerted hatred toward the Muslim Brotherhood and fear of their terrorism. These are perhaps the extravagances of revolution, alongside the impatience revolution inevitably produces as an intense event full of promises. Three years later, the intensity of the event is translating into an intensity of emotions, in both their glorifying and demonizing extremities.

On the ground, the current presence of the military since it chose to oust Morsi has meant the voiding of the political space. In his proclaimed war against what remains of the Brotherhood and the perceived threat of their retaliatory “terrorism,” Sisi has actively declared that no voice shall go beyond this battle. In other words, a trading of freedom for security, reminiscent of all Egypt’s postcolonial regimes, is being played back. Accordingly, there is no space for politics.

Almost four months after Morsi’s ouster, no other civilian forces have stepped up to fill the political space hegemonized by the military. Most organized civilian powers have chosen to align themselves with the military, with little to no negotiations around the roadmap designed by the generals and some of its critical components such as the constitution.

The question then becomes: Can Sisi’s popularity be sustained past the perceived specter of the Brotherhood? If Sisi is investing in his war with the Brotherhood to drum up more public acceptance every day, how far can he go? Wars are bound to end — especially as the Brotherhood is proving on a daily basis that it is in a deep crisis with regards to its own survival. Can politics be reduced to a constructed war on terror if the animosity that people who like Sisi feel toward the Brotherhood wanes as the latter slowly fade out of the political spectrum? What about urgent socio-economic questions kept on the shelf? How long can they be kept there once this war is over, at least in people’s minds? How long can a state define itself through an enemy once this enemy has ceased to exist?

And if Egyptians are given convincing options in the form of reformist politicians, would they glorify Sisi unconditionally because they like men with military ranks and hats? Time is better off answering these questions, but we had a sneak peek at the people’s political taste in the 2012 presidential elections, when a dozen men contested for the post. While Morsi made it to the presidency after a run-off with Ahmad Shafiq, a man with a military background, the first stage of the elections left us with an important, often overlooked figure. The total number of votes for the top three candidates after Morsi and Shafiq, none of whom represented the military nor political Islam in its strict form, exceeded those that went to either Morsi or Shafiq. This 43 percent, this majority, expressed its views differently when the political space was actively filled with negotiations and arguments.

Today, when Sisi’s image is raised alongside that of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser it forces reflection about Egyptians’ lust for strong military leaders at tumultuous times, in a moment of conflated histories. But beyond their shared battle with the Brotherhood — which is naturally different for each of them — the similarity between the two figures can at best only hold on rhetorical levels: They are saviors of the state. But what state was Egypt imagined to be back in the 1960s and what contract did it have with the people then? And what is that state today and what contract can it afford to have with its people now? The answers differ deeply. Back then, a new republic was being born and it had its own promises to the people. Today the remnants of this republic stay on in the form of a series of consolidated and incumbent institutions that hold no vision beyond their own individual survival. Beyond populist rhetoric, Sisi’s Egypt needs to carve out some new promises to survive. But does it have any to offer? 

This article was jointly published with EgyptSource, a blog affiliated to the Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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