Could we ever have imagined, two and a half years ago, that we would witness the idolisation of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi?
Perhaps Egypt does something to generals. We were always reminded by former President Hosni Mubarak’s cronies that he was an air force hero in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war; you’d think that his bombing raid was the only one staged by the Egyptian air force. Sadat loved uniforms when he was president – blue, with far too many ribbons – and of course there was Colonel Nasser and his millions of admirers.
But the mass worship of Sisi has surely gone too far. Journalists adore him, people eat sweets made in his portrait. And now, Egyptians are passing around hundred dollar bills with his coloured portrait Photoshopped over the engraving of Benjamin Franklin. Sisi is in full colour and dress uniform, staring unsmiling at the holder of this weird currency. On the reverse side, over the White House, there he is again, this time seated on a kind of throne, in camouflage fatigues, baseball cap on his head, arm raised to his chin, thinking, no doubt, of Egypt’s glorious future.
Egyptians may be grateful to their army commander – and minister of defence, and deputy prime minister, for Sisi is all of these things – for deposing the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and putting him on trial this month for the deaths of anti-Brotherhood demonstrators last December. But there have to be limits. When an Egyptian journalist walked up to me in the court in which Morsi was being tried, I knew the question she would ask. “Was it a coup or a revolution?” It’s the only question a stranger gets asked in Cairo these days. Say it was a coup which overthrew Morsi in July, and you are a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. Say it was a revolution – in other words, a continuation of the 2011 revolution which overthrew Mubarak – and you are with Sisi.
The trial itself was political. Why wasn’t the current Egyptian minister of interior also in the dock – he held the same ministry in Morsi’s government – for the same crime of killing demonstrators outside the presidential palace. And, for that matter, why wasn’t he on trial for the deaths of more than 600 pro-Brotherhood protestors after the coup. For it was indeed a coup; Sisi wasn’t elected. Besides, does anyone believe that Morsi will be declared innocent? Yet strangely, the outside world is going along with this nonsense. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State who must be the only man alive to believe he can bring peace to ‘Palestine’, turned up in Cairo – on the day before Morsi’s trial, no less – with soft words for Sisi. Progress towards a civilian government – there are supposed to be parliamentary elections early next year – would “function according to the norms of a global democracy, irrespective of the fact that we may have some cultural variations here and there in terms of our traditions.”
What this gobbledegook meant was anyone’s guess. Did he mean that Egyptians like armies to overthrow elected presidents, whereas Americans generally don’t? But it’s true that the military coup is now scarcely criticized, even on foreign satellite TV channels. I noticed at the time that broadcasts abroad of Egyptian state television footage of the violence usually carried the original Egyptian logo, ‘War on Terror’ – in English – at the top of the screen, without explaining to international viewers that this was not exactly what the coup was about.
Yet millions of Egyptians have now also accepted this interpretation of events. True, there are the makings of a Salafist uprising in Sinai with some vicious mass murders of policemen – perhaps involving Palestinians from across the Gaza frontier – but this has now been conflated with the overthrow of Morsi’s legitimate if deeply flawed government. Much publicity has been given to the closing of the tunnels that run beneath the Egyptian border into Gaza and the destruction of eight underground tanks holding 334,000 litres of diesel that was to be smuggled by hose into the Hamas-controlled slums of that pitiful place. But there is also evidence that the Egyptian authorities are simply closing and then re-closing the same tunnels. Certainly, the Palestinian refugees of Gaza are now paying the price of Morsi’s alliance with Hamas.
Politically, it is as if many Egyptians have relapsed into the infantilism of the Mubarak era. He always called his people his “children” – he did so, twice, in his final broadcast – until the people grew up, only to discover that it was the government who were children, one of whom was 83 years-old. But do they want to be children all over again? Few are the voices of sanity to speak out against the new and fearful spirit infecting Egypt. Egyptian commentator Nervana Mahmoud is one of them, writing this month that Sisi had clearly managed to win the hearts and minds of Egyptians because of what the people see as good leadership, the very skill which Morsi lacked.
“Should this popularity shield Sisi from criticism?” she then asked. “The answer lies in what Egyptians really wanted when they poured into the streets on 30 June. If they truly wanted to overthrow Islamist fascism, then they should repudiate the equally oppressive national fascism and resist the temptation to elevate al-Sisi to a special, sacrosanct level.”
But the new regime’s powers creep on. When Brotherhood students began shouting “Al-Sisi is a traitor” at Cairo University, they found the army and police turning up at the gates. University staff claim there has been violence on campus, but would prefer private security guards. The authorities now want to check the identities of all students as they enter and leave universities.
There are reports that the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to participate in elections next year through its political party, and this may be true. The Brotherhood has always been prepared to slide behind the backs of their own supporters and parley with the bad guys. After all, they didn’t want to participate in the revolution against Mubarak. While young revolutionaries were being shot down in Tahrir Square in 2011, the Brotherhood’s men were negotiating with the late Omar Sulieman, Mubarak’s creepy intelligence boss. One of the Brotherhood negotiators was Morsi himself.
Sisi is an interesting man. His uncle was a member of the Brotherhood many years ago – is this why Morsi accepted him as his own defence minister? – but he has never seen combat, unless his forgotten defence of virginity tests on Tahrir demonstrators counts. He graduated from military academy only after the 1973 war and the army leadership today contains no great military heroes. True, the old boys of the ’73 war probably support Sisi. One retired general, Sayed Wagdy who is still being treated for his wounds at the Maadi military hospital, publicly declared that in July the army “did what had to be done at the right time to avoid a civil war.”
But this year’s 40th anniversary celebration of the crossing of the Suez Canal was curiously muted, as if the army did not want to draw attention to itself – or to Sisi’s lack of a combat record. One Egyptian government official – a senior man in a position of responsibility within his ministry – told me that Sisi must be careful. “At the moment, it’s going OK for him,” he said. “But wait until something goes wrong. The economy gets worse, say, or there is even less security – more car-bombings – and then he will get blamed. Sisi won’t have a good time forever.” And what if Israel decides to abandon any connection with Gaza and tells the Egyptians to take it over? Will the Egyptian army then have to take on Hamas?
And there is something deeply unhealthy about the Sisi worship. The army is always beyond reproach. But Sisi’s name is actually uttered in hushed and reverential terms, not so much a father-figure but a mother-protector to rival Egypt’s greatest mother, the Nile. Indeed, the voice you hear most was best summed up by a journalist two weeks ago. “Give me a strong army that will shoot down armed men crossing over my border,” she wrote. “Give me a national leader who will show no mercy in facing down car bombings, assassinations, sabotage. Give me a statesman who will respect your religion but blow you into your ‘janna’ (heaven) if you try to snuff out mine.”
The journalist was Sharmine Narwani and the headline of her article read: “Forget Democracy, Give Me Safe Borders.” But she was writing in support of the Syrian regime. No wonder Bashar al-Assad congratulated the Egyptian military on their overthrow of Morsi.