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Sisi clears key hurdle in Egypt power bid

Egypt's military leader has been approved to stand in the presidential election, and instantly becomes front runner.

Last updated: 28 Jan 2014 00:29
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Cairo has seen huge rallies supporting Egypt's army chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in recent days [Reuters]

Cairo, Egypt - Most Egyptians perhaps never dreamed of becoming president of their country. But Abdel Fattah el-Sisi did - quite literally.

Last month a series of mysterious recordings emerged, in which the 59-year-old former infantry commander could be heard telling the editor of a local newspaper that his leadership ambitions had appeared to him in a vision.

"I saw President Sadat [the former Egyptian leader], and he told me that he knew he would be president of Egypt," said Sisi in the recording. "So I responded that I know I will be president, too."

I saw President Sadat [the former Egyptian leader], and he told me that he knew he would be president of Egypt... So I responded that I know I will be president, too.

- General Fattah el-Sisi, according to recently published recordings

On Monday night it appeared even more certain that Egypt's top soldier would fulfill his dream. The nation's top generals have reportedly endorsed his bid for the presidency, meaning a Sisi ticket is now almost guaranteed.

According to the military's spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Mohamed Ali, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - Egypt's body of leading commanders - rubber-stamped the plan after a meeting on Monday.

In a SCAF statement, the generals said a Sisi presidency was what the people wanted: "The council cannot but look with respect and homage to the desire of the wide masses of the great Egyptian people to nominate General el-Sisi for the presidency, and considers it an assignment and commitment."

Few observers seriously doubted that this would happen. In recent months Egyptians have become ever more bewitched by the cult of personality which now clings inescapably to the army chief.

When a deadly car bomb exploded outside Cairo's security directorate headquarters on Friday, hundreds of people soon arrived outside the shattered building - many of them waving pictures of Sisi in a variety of different guises.

"El-Sisi is our Gamal Abdel Nasser," said one man, referring to the 1960s Egyptian demagogue still adored by many Egyptians. "The people love him. They respect him. And we all want el-Sisi to become the next president."

The process reached its giddy apogee in Tahrir Square on Saturday during the third anniversary of the January 2011 revolt. Men and women weaved through the crowds wearing Sisi face-masks while young children pranced around shouting their love for him at the top of their voices.

Vendors sold Sisi key-rings, fathers wore Sisi T-shirts and revellers signed a Sisi petition demanding he run for the top job.

Rising to the top

For a man who was virtually unknown 18 months ago, it has been a bewildering rise to national prominence.

Appointed in the summer of 2012 by Mohamed Morsi - then the newly elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood - Sisi had previously earned himself the opprobrium of activists when he defended the "virginity tests" carried out by soldiers on arrested female protesters in Tahrir Square.

There was speculation that he was selected by the Brothers due to his piety and supposed sympathies towards Islamism.

And yet any suspicions that Sisi harboured split loyalties were soon obliterated when he led military officials in ousting Morsi, following a wave of public demonstrations last July.

Since then, his popularity on the street has soared, backed by a polarised political discourse which has been poisoned by fear and loathing.

"It is the terrorist attacks which have increased his popularity," said a pro-government politician from the Free Egyptians Party, whose members have sometimes expressed strident support for Egyptian militarism. 

Like others interviewed for this article, he declined to give his name. Al Jazeera has become unpopular in Egypt and many interviewees fear repercussions.

Egypt faces a genuinely worrying threat from armed groups - Friday's wave of bombings and a series of other deadly attacks against police and security targets testify to that.

An al-Qaeda-linked group in north Sinai has claimed responsibility for the worst incidents. And yet it is the Muslim Brotherhood - against whom no serious evidence of complicity has emerged - which has faced the deadliest police raids and most sweeping mass arrests.

Moreover, in recent weeks, numerous secular activists and revolutionaries have also faced intimidation, detention and jail.

Yet Sisi will still appeal to millions of voters, said one Cairo-based Western diplomat, because they see him as their "saviour" from civil strife. "People will vote with their hearts, and less with their minds," he said. "And if el-Sisi is seen as their saviour, of course he will win and nobody will stand in his way."

There are certainly no serious contenders standing in his way right now. "It will more or less be a one man show," said Ahmed Fawzi, the secretary general of the Social Democratic Party, speaking to the Associated Press news agency.

But the decision has angered many - particularly those who took to Tahrir Square three years ago in a bid to dismantle the very regime which Sisi represents.

One secular revolutionary who was supportive of the military-backed government which followed Morsi's ousting said he was "disappointed" with Sisi's move.

What happened made many people feel that the army was a political party.

- Free Egyptians Party politician

"It doesn't mean I don't like or admire him," said the activist, who asked not to be named. "But we see him as a hero and popular figure and we want him to remain this way. But if he becomes president he will become above criticism."

He added: "But of course we should stand with him in the battle against terrorism."

Another politician, also from the Free Egyptians Party, said that while he would support Sisi's decision to become president, he was unhappy with the announcement being made by his leading generals.

"What happened made many people feel that the army was a political party," he said. "At the end of the day, I have no problem with anybody in Egypt becoming president. But it is the way they do it which is important."

Following Saturday's rallies to mark the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolt, the country's interim president announced that the transitional "roadmap" was being upended. Presidential elections are now due before the parliamentary poll, meaning if Sisi's candidacy is confirmed, he could be in office before the end of April.

But given Egypt's current economic and political woes, the question is how far the cult of Sisi will go.

"One wonders how long the honeymoon will last," said the Western diplomat. "One year. Maybe two.

"Nobody would want to inherit what he is going to inherit."

Due to security concerns amid the arrest of Al Jazeera journalists working in Egypt, we are not naming our correspondents in Cairo.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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