Egyptians are tentatively embracing their country’s renewed nationalistic spirit that’s wilted since the death of Jamal Abdul Nasser, a charismatic figure who inspired Arabs to hold their heads high. Many Egyptians now look to Defence Minister General Abdul Fatah Al Sissi as Nasser’s rightful political heir. A black-clad elderly woman is pictured in the Arabic daily Masry Al Youm holding a banner that reads “If [Al] Sissi isn’t our next president I will throw myself from the roof”, just as grieving Egyptians did during Nasser’s funeral that drew five million mourners.
Millions of Egyptians sharing her sentiments — if not her suicidal tendencies — are clamouring for the man who rid the nation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s inept stooge to run for the top job; for them he’s a saviour who pulled their country back from the brink of economic and social disaster.
Al Sissi’s rhetorical style outwardly has little in common with Nasser’s but like the leader dubbed “the last Arab” by the writer Saeed Aburish, the nation’s newest icon, Al Sissi has a soft hand encased in an iron glove and shares Nasser’s misty-eyed love of country and books.
And like Nasser, he is a simple, yet well-educated man from a lower middle class background, able to communicate with ordinary citizens in a language they understand.
Such public devotion for a man in uniform is incomprehensible to westerners with little insight into the special relationship Egyptians have enjoyed with their military since the 1952 coup. On Saturday, Al Sissi joined other dignitaries at Nasser’s tomb in Cairo to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of his death when he spent 20 minutes talking to members of the late president’s family who approve of the army chief adopting Nasser’s revered presidential mantel.
Huda Abdul Nasser wrote an open letter to Al Sissi urging him to “step forward and take responsibility for the destiny that is yours”.
Nasser’s daughter is just one influential voice in a growingly eclectic cacophony demanding Al Sissi’s presidential candidacy. Egypt’s former prime minister and Mohammad Mursi’s rival, Ahmad Shafiq says he would support Al Sissi’s bid for the presidency, a statement echoed by political heavyweights and former presidential hopefuls Amr Mousa and Hamdeen Sabahi.
Mahmoud Badr, co-founder of the Tamarod (Rebel) movement that garnered 22 million signatures on a petition calling for Mursi’s downfall, has announced that his movement would bless Al Sissi’s run for president.
Even the Salafist Al Nour Party whose leader Younus Makhyoun has announced the party will not field a presidential candidate, is not averse. “The party does not mind the candidacy of any previous military official,” he said, adding, with the exception of those who served under the former Mubarak regime who are “completely unacceptable”. That said there is a growing number of activists and academics holding fast to purist ideological democratic concepts that shun the idea of yet another army general at the helm.
And, certainly, the US and its European allies might be reluctant to normalise business with president Al Sissi, which in their eyes would be a rubber stamp on a reset they call ‘a coup’.
Indeed, one of the country’s most popular television talk show hosts, Amr Adeeb, recently visited Washington when he promised Senator John McCain that Egypt would never again ensconce a former military man in the palace but as soon as he returned home he struggled to defend himself against a backlash from Al Sissi’s legion of adoring fans.
Those who assert the imposition of emergency law marks a return to the Mubarak era are flat-out wrong. The country is in crisis. The army is rooting out terrorists in northern Sinai and clamping down on violent protests, which has to be done to bring about a secure environment for citizens, investors and tourists.
A new constitution is being drafted to be approved by a public referendum. Parliamentary elections will follow with presidential elections slated for early 2014.
Meanwhile, the interim government is strategising a future that will benefit all Egyptians. Students’ school fees have been waived with up to a thousand new schools scheduled to be built. A minimum wage affecting both the public and private sectors is being negotiated and the government has launched a price reduction plan to combat inflation permitting the poorest access to essential commodities, goods and services. There are plans in the pipeline to bring water and electricity to remote villages and to replace slums with paved roads and new homes.
If Al Sissi were to run for election tomorrow, I’d bet my house on his victory. He is, arguably, the only person of stature able to bring this divided nation together. Until now, he steadfastly denies harbouring presidential ambitions and says he has no intention of putting himself forward.
He can turn a deaf ear to appeals by his own cabinet colleagues and former presidential candidates. He can dismiss the mushrooming social media sites glorifying his name. But if tens of millions of his supporters take to the streets pleading with him to reconsider, will he turn them down?
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org