CAIRO — Three years after the revolution that toppled a dictator, Egypt looks to be back where it started. A strongman fell; a strongman rises.
On Monday, the country’s top generals gave their blessing to a presidential run by army chief Abdel Fattah Sisi, hours after he was promoted from general to field marshal. Both were viewed as indicators of a near-certain candidacy by Egypt’s most powerful figure.
For nearly seven months, the 59-year-old Sisi has presided over a power structure whose authoritarian ways have rivaled or exceeded those of Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat who ruled for three decades until a 2011 uprising, fueled by long-stifled democratic aspirations, forced him to step down.
The military-backed interim government has killed or jailed opponents on a scale unprecedented in modern Egypt, put the country’s first democratically elected president on trial for his life and sharply curtailed basic liberties even as it pushed through a new constitution purportedly enshrining them. Secular activists, many of them key players three years ago, have been alarmed by measures such as a law that in effect criminalizes street protests. Others have been caught up in a wave of arrests and prosecutions.
Winning the votes of many Egyptians seeking an end to nonstop turmoil might be the easy part for Sisi. Formally taking the helm as head of state would force the enormously popular military man to tackle mundane problems such as the country’s faltering economy, failing infrastructure and unsustainable subsidy system, as well as confronting a fast-growing Islamic insurgency centered in the Sinai Peninsula.
Even before Monday’s green light from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, there were growing signs Sisi would declare his candidacy. After the military meeting, he headed to the presidential palace for talks with interim President Adly Mansour. Speculation was high that Sisi sought pro forma permission to tender his resignation as defense minister.
Over the last few days, other groundwork has been laid. Mansour had announced Sunday that the country would hold a presidential election before parliamentary balloting. That was significant because it would allow the president-elect to build alliances and wield influence in the selection of lawmakers, thus cementing his authority.
Sisi would have to quit the army in order to run. The rank of field marshal is usually reserved for combat commanders, which Sisi was not. But the promotion was in keeping with an Egyptian tradition of high-profile retirements from the military being preceded by an elevation of rank. It also dovetailed neatly with the Sisi hagiography that has become a prominent feature of Egyptian political life.
Among large swaths of society, a cult of personality has taken hold. Sisi’s image is emblazoned on everything from cupcakes to lingerie; songs and poems celebrate him. Near-hysterical displays of devotion are commonplace; state media routinely run adoring columns praising his wisdom, his benign and selfless devotion to Egyptians’ welfare, even the “caressing” sound of his voice.
The Sisi-engineered ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July, which was preceded by huge demonstrations demanding his removal, was greeted with nearly universal rejoicing. Morsi’s year in office was widely viewed as an epic fail. His tenure produced an economic nose dive, saw greater inroads into daily life by the harsh brand of Islam promulgated by his Muslim Brotherhood. It was characterized by large-scale human rights violations and an utter rejection of political compromise.
As defense minister, Sisi has said he repeatedly warned Morsi that he was on the wrong path. Morsi was said to have trusted the general and admired his piety. But he did not heed Sisi’s advice.
At the outset, the interim government that supplanted Morsi declared its intention to set the country on a democratic course. It promulgated a “road map” calling for a transition period, during which a constitutional referendum would be held, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.
In those early months, Sisi publicly professed no ambition to move to the political arena. But hints of his intentions began to emerge. Late last year, there was a flurry of excitement at news of a leaked audio recording in which Sisi describes a dream in which he saw that he was destined to lead his people.
Although Egypt has a civilian interim president, Sisi is already understood to make virtually all the important decisions. If he became head of state, the role of president would probably undergo a dramatic change, with the center of political gravity shifting to accommodate him.
In recent days, it has sometimes seemed that the campaign has already begun. Official commemorations Saturday of the third anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak were transformed into what amounted to rallies lionizing Sisi, with light shows, military flyovers and song-and-dance spectacles performed before huge, adoring crowds.
But nearly 50 people also died that day when rallies of Islamist and secular opponents of the government were broken up by police, proof that those who feel disenfranchised under the current leadership — Islamists and secularists alike — are refusing to fade away.
Sisi’s popularity would be tested if he were forced as president to implement unwelcome but necessary economic reforms. And even an overwhelming electoral mandate would not be enough to paper over gaping social and political divisions. He had indicated this month that he would see the constitutional referendum as a popular mandate on his candidacy. The new charter won overwhelming approval, but turnout was less than 40%, suggesting deep polarization among the electorate.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized what they have termed abuse of judicial and law enforcement powers.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its backers insist Morsi is still the country’s rightful leader. Sisi has benefited from a public perception that the country is under deadly threat from Islamic militants, and those fears have in a sense become self-fulfilling. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has left hundreds of Morsi supporters dead and thousands more in jail, shows some signs of radicalizing remaining followers.
Moreover, a simmering insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula appears to be spreading to mainland Egypt. Four bomb blasts rocked Cairo on Friday, killing six people, and the Sinai-based group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, claimed responsibility. The group also made a seemingly credible claim to have shot down a military helicopter in Sinai on Saturday. Possession of surface-to-air missiles would mark an ominous escalation of the conflict.
For now, trading on Egyptians’ widespread sense of insecurity seems a winning campaign gambit. At Saturday’s celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolution, a careworn woman in a tightly fitted black head scarf dabbed at her eyes as she brandished a poster depicting the general, inscrutable in his trademark sunglasses.
Asked why she was weeping, she said: “For joy. Because Sisi is here to save us.”
Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.