Written by Ramy Srour
These are troubled times for Egyptians. Nearly three years after the people of Egypt, with the covert complacency of their military, overthrew long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are still struggling to understand whether they want their country to be free, or simply stable.
The recent events that have shaken the country over the past few weeks seem to suggest that Egyptians are slowly moving away from their democratic experiment, approaching instead a political solution that is not new to them: a country ruled by a military man. A country that, although not entirely free, is stable enough to make life bearable. And perhaps, this may not seem a bad solution, after all.
Since the July 3 coup, the Egyptian army under the command of General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has engaged in a heavy crackdown aimed at eliminating the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. Over 1,000 people have been killed in a struggle that for a while seemed to be the Egyptian civil war. Mosques were breached; Muslim Brotherhood strongholds were besieged, all with the intent of silencing pro-Morsi demonstrators. But despite all this, the popularity of Gen. al-Sissi has only gone up. Why?
The lives of average Egyptians
The bloody struggle that has plagued Egypt in the past months has primarily been a struggle between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood, or rather, those wings of the Brotherhood that were bold enough to take the streets and put their lives at risk.
Egyptian protestors demonstrate against the military’s ouster of elected President Mohammed Morsi. [Photo credit: livemint.com]
This combination has left a huge portion of the Egyptian population in the middle: average Egyptians simply tried running their everyday lives, hoping not to get entangled in the bloody conflict.
Through recent phone conversations I had with people in Cairo, it transpired that many Egyptians are simply waiting for chaos to end. At some point, people stop worrying over the political form of their government if they cannot even go about their normal business because of wartime-curfews, military checkpoints at every street corner, and the constant fear of being caught in the middle of an attack.
And it is perhaps this longing for stability that has led the majority of Egyptians, those stuck in the middle of all this, to look at Gen. al-Sissi as the only source of peace and security in a country where anarchy was all too ready to spread.
Indeed, for many Egyptians the rise of a military ruler is a welcome idea. Since Gamal Abdel Nasser, the national hero, ousted the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, Egypt has only seen presidents who came to power directly from the military. And although Egyptians were never under the illusion of living in a democracy, over the past sixty years these charismatic individuals have contributed to enhancing the country’s prestige.
The military’s prestige
It should not come as a surprise, then, that the most recent estimates speak of an almost universal support for al-Sissi as the next president. According to The Washington Post, more than 9 million people have already signed a petition to call for the General to run for president in next year’s elections. And if he really decides to run for the presidency, he is expected to gather as much as 90 percent of the popular vote.
Along Cairo’s streets, Egyptians hold banners with al-Sissi’s picture next to Nasser’s. They see him as the new hero who will restore the country’s dignity, and more importantly, will bring back stability.
Egyptians rally the streets with banners equating al-Sissi to national hero Nasser. [Photo credit: thehindu.com]
To outsiders, it may seem particularly odd that after having overthrown Mubarak, himself an air force officer, Egyptians will be ready to appoint an army general as their new leader.
The explanation lies in the high esteem Egyptians have of the military as an institution, an esteem that goes back a long time.
Nasser, the national hero, was the army officer who orchestrated the 1952 overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy, later becoming the country’s president. A committed nationalist, he later did not hesitate to extend his influence also outside Egypt’s borders. The pan-Arab experiment with Syria and the 1967 Six-Day War were events that, while they failed, still managed to rally the country’s entire support. When Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970, five million mourning Egyptians attended his funeral in Cairo.
Nasser’s funeral in October 1970 was attended by over 5 million mourners. [Photo credit: answers.com]
His successor Anwar Sadat, another army officer, was the hero who gained the Sinai back from the Israelis in the Yom Kippur War. And although his historic peace treaty with Israel eventually cost him his life, the majority of Egyptians still see him as the president who restored Egypt’s international dignity.
Finally, Mubarak. The ousted dictator’s military feats cannot match those of his predecessors. But he succeeded in bringing Egypt up to pace with international globalization. His overthrow was a result of the people’s frustration with his inability to share the country’s wealth with his population.
Throughout all this, Egyptians could not say they lived in a democracy. But they lived in a stable and secure Egypt, where they could go about their business without having to fear mass killings and demonstrations.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. [Copyright Reuters]
In a recent leaked interview between al-Sissi and a private Egyptian newspaper, later reported by the Financial Times, the interviewer is heard asking the general “how he would respond if the masses asked him to run for president.” Although he did not give a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ al-Sissi replied that he has not announced his intentions yet.
With the support he has managed to gather, it is hard to understand why he would refuse.