CAIRO — He might as well already be president. His photo is on every wall in Cairo. His constant television appearances, broadcasts of his speeches and video clips glorifying the army eclipse the presence of interim leader Adly Mansour.
Even Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s mention of his night visions from 35 years ago, in which he dreamed of being head of state, are being scrutinized down to the finest detail. A few months away from an Egyptian presidential election that appears to have already been won, the army chief has already put on his Pharaoh outfit, metaphorically speaking.
“The best term to describe al-Sisi would be dictator despite himself,” the Lebanese-Iraqi blogger Karl reMarks (whose real name is Karl Sharro) says sarcastically. “Time will determine to what extent he will be reluctant to fill this position. What is certain is the fact that he is showing several symptoms usually associated with Arab dictators.”
But al-Sisi’s vast numbers of supporters within the interim government — which he created as soon as the army ousted President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 — eagerly cast him in a different light. “He’s a man who listens, actually quite discreet, who only answered to the call of the people,” says presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi.
During the Economic Forum in Davos, then-Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi — who has since resigned, although al-Sisi remains defense minister — even compared him to France's General Charles de Gaulle. “Al-Sisi is pressured by the people to be candidate,” he said. “It was like this for de Gaulle and Eisenhower before him. Those campaigning for al-Sisi to be in power are not in the army. It comes from the street, and most of all women. Don’t forget he’s a handsome man.”
A rock star in Cairo
It’s true that since last summer a real “Sisimania” has seized the Egyptian capital. Whether on fantasy chocolates, coffee mugs or large T-shirts worn as pajamas, images of the nation’s “savior” are everywhere. In them he wears a kepi, his face masked by thick sunglasses — sometimes with pyramids in the background, other times next to a lion, or even under a flying eagle. The man nicknamed “the new Nasser” — a reference to Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser — even managed to excite the nationalist streak of Egyptians. Thanks to a presumed photomontage, al-Sisi poses next to the man who overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and sounded the death knell of the Egyptian monarchy.
“Egypt chooses you,” says a message on one of the new al-Sisi portraits around the 6th October Bridge, which overlooks the feluccas that are lacking tourists on the banks of the Nile. This vast marketing operation is one of the many campaigns orchestrated by powerful businessmen who are betting on this new hero to revive the economy. Even if that means forgetting about the democratic aspirations of the January 2011 revolution.
“The time for mourning is over,” says Engi, the head of a startup who prefers to turn a blind eye to the new wave of repression striking dissident voices. “The former revolutionaries know only how to say "no," without offering any appropriate solution. It is time to get to work, to rebuild the country. And for this, we need a strong man like al-Sisi.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and al-Sisi in Cairo on April 24, 2013 — Photo: Secretary of Defense
Tarek, an English professor who voted for Morsi in June 2012, says he wanted to give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance, hoping they would put an end to the corruption and absence of justice of the Mubarak years. “The problem is that they wanted to handle the country like their brotherhood, in an authoritarian and religious way, by excluding liberals. And this is the result.”
Apart from the only other presidential candidate to date, socialist Hamdin Sabahi, Tarek says there is no one besides al-Sisi. “So I support him by default. ... Maybe, deep down, our people aren’t ready for democracy yet.”
Who is al-Sisi?
So is al-Sisi a power-mad, kepi-wearing autocrat, as his detractors keep describe him? Or is he the faithful product of a military institution? Someone who, after the Brotherhood meltdown, was chosen to restore a system that, from Nasser to Mubarak, has always played a key role in the country?
“He’s a humble and pious man,” says a high-ranking army official who prefers to remain anonymous. “He’s a good leader, very intelligent. He loves his people. He deserves to be president.”
In fact, al-Sisi — who hasn’t expressed himself in international media save for a rare interview with The Washington Post last August — has a past and a personality that are as impenetrable as his sunglasses.
— Operation Egypt (@OperationEgypt) August 29, 2013
Little is known about this 59-year-old military man with a working-class background, except that he studied at the military academy before completing his training in the United States. Appointed as chief of military intelligence a few months before the revolution, he immediately joined the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a very closed circle of generals that took charge of the transition after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The first time the general public heard of al-Sisi, the context was rather unflattering. It was because of his unwavering support of the notorious “virginity tests” inflicted on several women protesting on Tahrir Square. The army defended it by saying it was intended to “prevent soldiers from any rape allegations.”
But in August 2012, when Morsi designated him to replace the aging Marshall Tantawi as head of the SCAF, he was lauded. A religious man — his wife even wore the niqab when they were in the U.S., an American diplomat confirms — al-Sisi evidently earned the trust of the Brotherhood president, who naïvely thought he could co-opt him. But as Morsi learned the hard way, al-Sisi is a true military man whose blind loyalty is to the army.
“The army is not trying to take over power,” al-Sisi insisted a few days after Morsi’s June 2013 ouster. But each new decision looked like another step towards his political ascent. There was the constitutional referendum in mid-January, during which it received 98% approval. And there was the anniversary of the revolution, the day after which al-Sisi was promoted from general to marshall.
Even his recent visit to Moscow, originally intended to discuss buying Russian weapons, turned into a campaign appearance after Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his public blessing in the Egyptian presidential election.
But the political breakthrough of the army does annoy some Egyptian military men. “The army should defend the country, not run it,” says retired General Adel Soliman, who is proud to say that, unlike al-Sisi, who was too young at the time, he took part in the war against Israel (1967-1973). Now head of a think tank specializing in defense, he lashes out at the “new ‘showbiz’ politics of the young generals, who are running the risk of forever tarnishing our image if al-Sisi fails to run the country correctly.”
The challenges awaiting the next president are huge. The Muslim Brotherhood, now considered a “terrorist organization,” is keeping the pressure on by protesting every week. Their mobilization is not as dead as the pro-army media claim it to be. The man who is now Marshall al-Sisi is also on the blacklist of the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis Jihadists, who recently threatened to target him personally.
As for the economic challenges, they are colossal. For the time being, the country is surviving only because of generous support from its allies in the Gulf. But a third of Egyptians currently live beneath the poverty line. It’s a social time bomb that the future head of state will have the delicate task of defusing.
'Xi Jinping Thought' ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.
BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.
Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."
Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!
Communist curriculum replaces global subjects
This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.
Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.
But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?
The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.
Targeting pop culture
The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.
What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.
A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.
Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.
Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.
"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."
Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.
Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.
From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."
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