CAIRO – Having secured victory in a referendum on a relatively liberal constitution that he championed, Egypt’s military chief is turning his attention to the country’s overwhelming array of problems — from health and education to government subsidies and investment, insiders said Thursday.
The revelations offer the latest indication that Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is planning a run for president, capping a stunning transformation for the 59-year-old officer who started in the infantry.
He was widely seen as an obscure and acquiescent subordinate a year and a half ago when then-President Mohammed Morsi promoted him to defense minister in what has emerged as a colossal political miscalculation.
In swift succession, el-Sissi threw Morsi in jail along with hundreds of his Islamist cohorts, his Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist group with membership in it banned, and a carefully orchestrated personality cult appears to have been successfully engineered for the general.
El-Sissi remains an enigma: Little is known about his private life, other than he is married with four children. His daily activities and whereabouts are generally hidden from view.
Although there are few credible public opinion polls in Egypt to know for sure, el-Sissi appears to have struck a chord through a combination of cunning moves and a personality that offers something for everyone in a country that is highly polarized along religious and socio-economic fault lines.
“It appears that el-Sissi’s populist power is derived from his ability to instill optimism, joy and pride in the hearts of many Egyptians,” Adel Iskandar, an expert on Arab affairs who lectures at Georgetown University, said in a post on social media this week. “The Muslim Brotherhood, the January 25 (2011) revolutionaries, and anyone who opposes the country’s current trajectory must contend with this new fact.”
It was evident this week that many people voted for el-Sissi as much as for the new charter.
Many, particularly women, kissed posters of the general after casting their ballots or chanted: “El-Sissi is my president.” He had asked women to take their spouses and children to the balloting, and the response was overwhelming, with women dominating lines outside polling stations in Cairo and other big cities.
A popular video on social networking sites hyped the sentiment.
“All of Egypt’s women listened to el-Sissi when he asked us to come out and vote. . . . If he needs anything else, he only has to tell us and, God willing, we will not disappoint him,” a female voter said on the clip.
In el-Sissi’s neighborhood of Gamaliya, as in much of the country, he is regarded as a savior and a hero.
In a small alley where he once lived, an office bore this sign: “Headquarters of the campaign asking el-Sissi to run for president.”
A banner nearby declared: “The people of Gamaliya congratulate el-Sissi on his birthday.”
“He is a man that we will all follow, and not just because he comes from Gamaliya,” said driver Mahmoud Farouq, a father of four, who was sitting in a coffee shop.
Sohair Mohammed, a housemaid with two children, expressed her admiration by saying: “I adore him. I hope he becomes president. If he does not run for president, I may kill myself.”
The Muslim Brotherhood won each of the five elections held since the revolution that deposed autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Consequently, there was an anti-democratic veneer to the July 3 coup and the government’s subsequent actions, which included a severe crackdown on protests, arrests of journalists and the establishment of hotlines where people could report suspected members of the Brotherhood.
At the same time, however, el-Sissi seems to have tapped into widespread, genuine outrage at how Morsi and the Brotherhood ran the country, making it more Islamist during their year in power and contradicting campaign promises of an inclusive society.
For liberals who might be expected to oppose a military coup, el-Sissi offers an alternative to the nightmare scenario of an Egypt headed for theocracy, due in part to the automatic support of illiterate and conservative rural voters. The more progressive voters seem to have accepted the trappings of democracy that have been erected around the coup, embracing el-Sissi.
For the conservative Egyptians who probably voted for Morsi in the past, the general’s down-to-earth personality carries a lot of appeal. When Morsi picked el-Sissi to replace the previous military leadership, the army chief seemed to be that rare case of a devout senior officer who could be sympathetic — if not outright supportive — of the Brotherhood’s cause.
El-Sissi peppers his speeches with quotations from the Quran and has let it be known that he is a pious, though moderate, Muslim. On Monday, he shed a tear while listening to interim President Adly Mansour cite a moving Quranic verse.
“He’s going to give them ‘Islamism light,'” said Robert Springborg, a Middle East expert from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “That’s what they want, and that’s what they are going to get.”
The combination of charm, personality and religious piety is somewhat unique in modern Egyptian political history — even if it appears to be part of an orchestrated campaign.
His sense of justice was on display when a leaked video showed him sternly warning army officers against mistreating troops. His support for a free-market economy was made evident when he said in another clip that he wanted cellphone users to be charged for calls they receive as well as those they make.
El-Sissi even benefited from another leak by a pro-Morsi activist group that was meant to hurt his image.
Showing that he shares a spirituality associated with dreams that is common among Egyptians, he told a newspaper interviewer in comments apparently not intended for publication about two visions he had: In one, he brandished a sword inscribed with an Islamic declaration of faith; in another, he saw himself telling the late Anwar Sadat that he himself would be president one day.
In the long run, however, el-Sissi is not likely to lose his reputation as a military leader with little or no tolerance for criticism.
“The military is known for its incredible hierarchy and giving orders, while politics is supposed to be about give and take,” said Samer Shehata, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma. “Can you imagine someone legitimately criticizing the president in this context?”
Government officials and pro-military commentators have suggested that el-Sissi would view the referendum’s passage by a comfortable margin with a decent voter turnout as legitimizing what he has done since July, as well as a signal that the people want him to run for president.
On Thursday, officials said nine out of 10 voters supported the charter. Reports suggested that participation was higher than the one-third that cast ballots in December 2012, when Morsi rammed through a more Islamic constitution and liberals boycotted the referendum.
Despite the fairly liberal nature of the constitution — it was drafted by a 50-member panel dominated by secular figures — el-Sissi’s commitment to freedoms is unclear. Liberal activists say there have been increasingly discouraging signs, from placing stringent conditions on protest and shutting down Islamic TV channels to jailing prominent pro-democracy activists. In this week’s referendum, campaigns for a “no” vote resulted in arrests.
If el-Sissi runs, most observers expect him to win by a landslide, becoming the latest in a line of military men who became president since the monarchy was toppled in the early 1950s. He would be the first from the armed forces to be freely elected.
As president, el-Sissi would face daunting problems: a terrorist campaign by Islamic militants and a veritable insurgency in the Sinai desert; high unemployment; soaring food prices; low worker productivity; rising crime; and a feared reduction in Egypt’s water supply by a dam still under construction on the Nile in Ethiopia.
Behind closed doors in his Defense Ministry office, el-Sissi has been poring over thick files on domestic issues such as education, social services, subsidies and investment, said the insiders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the topics. They said a broad plan of action to pull Egypt out of its crisis has been drafted.
A national project was needed to rally the people behind its leadership, just like the construction of the Aswan Dam did in Egypt’s socialist days in the 1960s. Such a project, the insiders said, would most likely be building at least one nuclear reactor to generate electricity. Another project could be the overhaul of overcrowded shantytowns around Cairo, or a free, universal health care system.