For the next two days, some Egyptians will take to the streets to perform yet another hollow electoral rendition of national will. They will “choose” between Egypt’s present ruler and soon to be president, former Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and his unconvincing opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi. Some will take to the streets to vote for the “good omen”: “Sisi and only Sisi.” In the face of the ongoing and violent destruction of politics, others will take shelter at home or work.
But whatever they do over the next two days, most Egyptians will have experienced a new cult of personality over the past year. For some, it has been a perceptual carnival. It promises to deliver the watchwords of the right: the ever-illusive “security” and “stability.” For others, it is a low-grade visual and aural assault.
Commentators, singers, and propagandists have elevated Sisi as Egypt’s charismatic heartthrob. Last year, adoring followers gushed over what a real ragil (man) he was for ousting the big bad Muslim Brotherhood wolf. The Egyptian security forces’ killing of hundreds of Egyptians and the wounding of thousands of others at Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda squares in August 2013 did not shake this manly status. In many circles, it reinforced it. These were “terrorists” after all. That ominous label would become a crucial mechanism to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters from the category of the Egyptian, indeed the very contours of the citizen. Perhaps this is why mass death sentences of 1,212 people have not caused more outrage.
Back in August 2013 and in the wake of the Rabeaa dispersal, old regime figures, a broad swath of liberals, as well as many of the country’s literati and intelligentsia insisted that it was a bloody but necessary transition of power. Sisi did what had to be done and “bless his hands.”
It was a “red wedding” of sorts. And every wedding needs a groom. The guest of honor was our man Sisi. In his low bedroom voice and through dark sunglasses, he plays various roles at once: the dream interpreter, the destined prophet, the savior. He is a triumphant guiding hand. He has boundless affection for the people of Egypt. He is the father, the husband, the son. He is Nasser, he is Sadat. He is the man of the past and the man of the future rolled into one. He is folksy but soft. He is strong. He is religious. He is a man’s man.
He is a woman’s man too. Suffering from short-term memory loss is a requisite for buying this bit of the persona. In March 2011, Sisi was the King of Virginity Tests. It was just yesterday, it seemed, that he touted this brutally circular logic: the torture of women’s bodies was the best way to protect the military from the accusation of the torture of women’s bodies.
But Sisi and his crew have proven adept at recovery. Indeed, his first televised interview included “an extended monologue” in which Sisi professed his “astonishment” at the “awareness” of Egyptian women. He draws on a long-standing archive of images and words that depict Egypt as a Woman. Students of history will find nothing new here. Egypt as a Woman has been a driving force in the quest for national prosperity and its productive and reproductive imperatives for at least a century now. Sisi builds on this tradition by shaping his ideal Woman. She is frugal but elegant. She saves “electricity by going around the house turning off the lights.” She is loving but firm. She is calm, she is soft, she is rational. She is at her best at home. It is her role as the domestic manager, and her capacity to preserve “our bigger house—Egypt” that Sisi has, like many before him, mobilized to confine and define woman, man, and nation.
This confinement did not stop a group of “representatives of women” from chanting “you are the father, you are the brother, we chose you, and we will follow you” at their meeting with the zaeem (leader). Enveloped in the folds of this admiration, Sisi modestly implored women to get out the vote, especially with their husbands and families who are “under your control.”
But women are not supposed to simply admire our man. They are supposed to desire him. He is, we are repeatedly told, “handsome.” Some have been so moved by his chivalrous demeanor that they broke into song: “we love you, oh Sisi.” I can only hope, Sisi responded, that I deserve this love.
And while his enactment of charismatic destiny falters at times, it has still inspired a comparison to that much more flamboyant and eclectic performer, Muammar Qadhafi, whose fashion sense and travel entourage made him the Michael Jackson of the Arab authoritarian clique. At the core of Sisi’s less innovative performances are displays of familiar ideals of masculinity.
The affirmation of Sisi as “handsome,” as subjective and misguided as such an assessment may be, comes in direct juxtaposition to Egypt’s last president, Mohamed Morsi: his esotropic eye; his penchant for suits just a size too small and a tone too shiny; and his bad luck that those moments of self-adjustment were caught on camera. In contradistinction to Morsi’s fumbling presidential performance, we are now in the midst of a relentless spectacle that relies on the performance of statesmanship.
There are many differences between these two opposing figures of manliness: Morsi and Sisi. But there is one common thread. Both men relied on identity as a substitute for politics. Both men focused on defining the category of the Egyptian as an exclusionary one. Under both men, the core issues of state brutality and economic injustice fell comfortably to the wayside.
But even amidst the relentless attempts to substitute identity for politics, courageous people challenge and shape what it means to be a woman; what it means to be a man; what it means to be free. We learn from women, who fought against the state’s authority to puncture and define their flesh. We learn from countless people who offered body parts and lives in the struggle against state brutality. We learn from academics, falsely accused of treason, from students sentenced for five years in prison for protesting. We learn from journalists, activists, and bloggers suffering solitary confinement and extended detention as they hunger, write, and think for freedom.
The last year has caused a retreat of sorts. For a time, revolutionaries took the stage and began dismantling it. They experimented with forms, with ideas, with meaning, with power. As Lina Attalah so presciently put it on June 30, 2013, these people have gone “back to the margins.” Those insisting on stability and security are hopeful that this is where these radicals will remain. But even amidst the enveloping fog, cartoonists, video jockeys, filmmakers, comedians, and artists creatively hack the cult of personality.
Perhaps it is only from the margins that the battle for politics can continue. After all, it is those initiatives from the margins, like the hashtag campaign intikhbu al-ars, (Vote for the Pimp) that puncture authority, the cult of personality, and the claim to define what and who is Egyptian.
And it is the biting power of humor that provides the most relief amidst the haze.
This article is published jointly with Jadaliyya.