General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took all Egyptians by surprise when he said it was not yet the right time to answer questions about whether he would run for president. His supporters have launched several campaigns to talk him into doing so, with organizers claiming that more than 9 million people have signed petitions.
“For many Egyptians, the rise of a new military man is a comforting idea after nearly three years of political turmoil since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak,” wrote Abigail Hauslohner, Cairo bureau chief for the Washington Post.
She also attributes Sisi’s appeal to two other factors: the comparison between him and late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the way “he’s celebrated in songs, poems and chants;” and his seeming reluctance to becomes president, in contrast to “politicians deemed too eager to hold on to power.”
Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi is among the most prominent political figures who announced their support for Sisi if he decides to run. “The revolution has to be represented by one single candidate,” Sabahi said, meaning that he would not run if Sisi does.
As well as wishing to avoid the mistakes of previous elections, when revolutionary and liberal votes were scattered among several candidates, Sabahi’s decision is clearly motivated by Sisi’s rising popularity, which is expected to overshadow other candidates, including himself.
“By virtue of being the commander of the Armed Forces, which sided with the revolution, all Egyptians see him as a hero,” said Sabahi. “If he runs for president, he’ll stand the biggest chance, and people will choose him. There’s no doubt about that.”
Tamarod – the movement that initiated the signature-collection campaign, which triggered the June 30 protests and eventually led to the ouster of Mohamed Mursi – also said it would support Sisi if he decides to run.
Movement co-founder Mahmoud Badr said Sisi’s military background is irrelevant, as he would be elected based on his political platform. “Sisi is like Charles de Gaulle, who was from the military, yet is considered the founder of the French republic,” said Badr, adding that electing Sisi would not signal the initiation of military rule in Egypt.
However, there are Egyptians who do not have anything against Sisi, but who nonetheless oppose the idea of a military ruler, and insist that a civilian president is a crucial step on the road to democracy.
There is, however, another group that sees in Sisi a return of the Mubarak regime, only with the approval of the people, who were unable to see the trap they were falling into amid the euphoria of overthrowing Islamist rule.
What makes Sisi’s case peculiar is that most of those divided over his candidacy initially belonged to the same camp, loosely labeled “revolutionary,” and whose members are currently at odds over how post-revolution Egypt is to be run.
George Ishak, a political activist and member of the National Salvation Front, to which Sabahi also belongs, admires Sisi and acknowledges his popularity, but still believes that he should not run.
“The coming president will be faced with huge challenges, and if it’s Sisi, he’ll be expected to perform miracles, so when he doesn’t, people will be disappointed and his popularity will be affected,” Ishak said. “We need to build a state of institutions, not people,” Ishak added, referring to the danger of building a cult of personality around Sisi.
The third camp, mainly comprised of revolutionary activists, takes a more unyielding stance against him. Some, such as Ahmed Maher – founder of the April 6 Youth Movement – absolutely reject a president from the military, and explicitly state that the movement will not support Sisi if he runs.
Others, such as activist Alaa Abdel Fattah – detained during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces following Mubarak’s downfall – see Sisi as embodying the same repressive regime against which the revolution fought. Abdel Fattah condemned Sisi for the clampdown on the sit-ins by Mursi supporters, which he called a “declaration of war.”
Abdel Fattah sarcastically expressed his wish that Sisi becomes president, so he can be quickly removed. “Something seems to be magical about that president’s chair,” he said, referring to the way Mubarak and Mursi were forced to leave. “Everybody who sits on it gets what he deserves.”
Activist Nawara Negm mocked Sisi for not giving a definitive reply to the question about his candidacy. “Why doesn’t he want to reply to the question now? Did we catch him at a bad time?
Was he having lunch or something?” she wrote. This, more or less, is the stance of several activists who believe that Sisi’s coming to power would constitute a return of the Mubarak regime, and thus the abortion of the revolution.
It remains to be seen whether Sisi will run, but the debate highlights Egyptian political divisions, particularly over the characteristics of the post-revolution, post-Islamist state. It also remains to be seen whether, if he becomes president, Sisi will be up to the expectations of his supporters, or whether he will prove his detractors right. Basically, would he be a military ruler, or a civilian ruler from a military background?