Just three years after wave of democracy, Egyptians appear ready to trade in freedom in order to have more stability. Is Cairo set to usher in a new era of pure military rule?
CAIRO — The statue of the founder of the Bank of Egypt, Talaat Harb, stands in one of the busiest traffic junctions in the center of Cairo. This week, it was surrounded by four posters advocating a “Yes” vote in the referendum for the new Constitution.
The overwhelming victory for the referendum, according to early results, marks a crossroads in the turbulent post-Mubarak era of Egypt. There are many here hoping that this, along with the ban late last year on the Muslim Brotherhood, will restore a sense of stability after three years of tumult following the Arab Spring democracy movement.
But beyond the cafes and metros full of diligent citizens intent on reading the 247 articles in the proposed new Constitution, the rest of the country is already thinking towards the next election. If popular demand is anything to go by, the successor to the dethroned President Mohammed Morsi should be the military strongman and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The use of conditional tense here is essential as the architect of last summer’s coup has not yet put forward his candidacy, leaving the field open to the left-wing Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, General Sami Hanan, and icon of the old Shafik regime and moderate Islamist Aboul Foutauh.
Mubarak once deemed Sisi, who'd served as his chief of military intelligence, “as cunning as a snake.” Morsi, whom he'd eventually oust last summer, had appointed him to the top military post based in part on his religious credentials (demonstrated by his always-veiled daughter). A Gallup survery found that 90% of Egyptians see Sisi as essentially much longed-for shelter from the storm.
“There’s nobody else,” explains Samer Askander, at his stand in the Khan al-Khalili market, a destination for the increasingly rare tourists.
Samer is waiting for the announcement: “Next week we’ll put out pendants with the face of the new president on them.” With a mixture of pride, superstition, and despair, another stall owner Nermin Nazim has already launched his successful line of bracelet with the name of the saviour of his country from what he calls “Islamic fascism.”
“He’s the man who suggested after the parliamentary elections in 2010 that the army prepare itself for an impending revolt and to stay out of it,” remembers octogenarian journalist Mohammad Hassanin Heikal, who'd served former presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.
He tells those he knows that the Minister for Defence is “atypical” of the military: “He doesn’t shout, he doesn’t give in to anger, he’s never where you think he might be — even when he’s looking right at you.”
At the iconic Tahrir Square, the presence of the 59-year-old Sisi is both invisible and ubiquitous. A sober, sand-colored monument has taken the place of the tents, and the noisy cars are back. This message exudes order, discipline, normality. But to really sniff out the mood of the city, just take a trip to the shops, and not just ones like Kakao Lounge, a pastry shop that sells kilos of chocolate with the enigmatic smile of the general on them for less than a euro. This same smile, which is really reminiscent of the Sphinx, has a place in almost every window, an affirmation of identity even before conscious political choice.
“The economy won’t restart without security and we only have Sisi,” says Khaled el Hindi, a founder of the Tamarod movement which collected millions of signatures to oust Morsi. Their office is closed and Mohammed Khamis, one of the founders, speaks to me via telephone from his hometown, Hurghada, where he has gone back to be a tour operator: “I don’t like the idea that the army is our destiny, but what other option is there?”
From Luxor, another tour guide, Francis Amin Mohareb confirms the fear that the Valley of the Kings felt when Morsi nominated a member of Gamaa Islamiya, the terrorists responsible for the 1997 attacks that killed 62 people, as governor in June 2013: “The tourists are finally starting to come back, Sisi is our solution.”
Is it real? “It’s Islamophobia pushing Sisi forward, but there aren’t any alternatives. Revolutions happen in waves; even the French resorted to Napoleon after ten years of instability,” notes political analyst Said Sadek in a cafe in Cairo’s American University, where students, like his daughter, dream of Western democracy. “This isn’t Stockholm, idealism must give way to realism even at a cost of a temporary return to military authority.”
In reality there are some dissenters. There’s the supporters of the Brotherhood stationed in front of the Al-Azhar University. Political analyst Ahmed Neguib warns: “If Sisi wins, there will be chaos, because the army will become the target of terrorism.”
Feminists such as Dalia Ahmed still haven’t forgiven Sisi for the mandatory virginity tests imposed by the army at the Tahrir protests. On March 9, 2011, 17 of the women protesting were detained, beaten, prodded with electric shock batons, subjected to strip searches, forced to submit to "virginity tests" and threatened with prostitution charges.
Then, there’s the revolutionaries waiting for the release of the anti-coup leaders captained by Ahmed Maher. But even among the military, says a source, despair reigns: “If Sisi is elected, we will all be dragged into the management of public order in exchange for having only criticized the difficulties of a country that hasn’t gotten back on its feet quickly.”
“But who else is there if not Sisi?” asks activist Daoud Bakker in a restaurant in Zamalek. “He stands back and lets his legend grow.”
Khaled Hafez, a star of the Biennale art exhibition, is preparing Andy Warhol style portraits of the Generalissimo, multiplying his face by four, Egypt's redemptive, post-modern Big Brother.