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Back To The Future: Calls Grow For A Military Ruler In Egypt

For nearly three years Egyptians have battled for a different, and better, future. But the transition has been tumultuous, filled with pitfalls, death and disappointment.

Today, many are ready to settle for a return to the pre-revolution status quo: a strong, military man who can guide Egypt back to stability.

At the Kakao lounge in central Cairo, teenage girls sample chocolates that bear the face of Egyptian military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The chocolates depict Sissi in sunglasses, Sissi saluting and Sissi's face in ornate chocolate frames.

A supporter of Sissi holds a poster with a photo of Bassem Youssef, the man known as "Egypt's Jon Stewart," during a protest in Cairo. The sign reads, "not Egypt, you are degrading to the media, fifth column."
Amr Nabil / AP
A supporter of Sissi holds a poster with a photo of Bassem Youssef, the man known as "Egypt's Jon Stewart," during a protest in Cairo. The sign reads, "not Egypt, you are degrading to the media, fifth column."

Sissi became a hero in the eyes of many Egyptians on July 3, the day he answered a call from millions of people protesting Mohammed Morsi's rule. On that day, Sissi led the military coup that ousted Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who'd become Egypt's first freely elected president just a year earlier.

"If you cannot find a way as a ruler to counteract your opposition then leave the throne," Sissi said in a speech later that month.

Until then, the general was a largely unknown figure who had been promoted to military chief by Morsi himself. Since the coup, Morsi's followers have been hounded; more than 1,000 have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more detained. But much of the country seems willing to gloss over the bloodshed and move on to what they hope will be stability.

The reason, many Egyptians say, is Sissi.

Bahira Galal, the owner of the chocolate shop, says if Sissi runs for president, she'll vote for him. And she's not alone. Analysts say the biggest question going forward for most Egyptians isn't what will be in the constitution. The question is whether Sissi will be on the presidential ballot.

The Campaign For Sissi

So far the general has been coy, but his supporters haven't. A number of groups are popping up, calling for Sissi to run when the election is held sometime next year.

One of those groups is Om El Donia — or Mother of the World — a phrase Egyptians and Sissi famously use to describe their country.

At the offices of a liberal political party, Mamdouh Nahhas, the coordinator of the group, explains why Sissi must be president.

"He is the man of the moment," Nahhas says. "He hears the people's pleas."

In this crowd Sissi can do no wrong. He understands how everything works, they say. It is the army that paves the roads, pumps the water, the army that will save Egypt.

Maha Sherif, another Sissi supporter, says laws and the constitution can be changed later, but the most important thing is the president. The president, she says, will give us sovereignty and stability.

That sentiment is widespread here, and criticizing the military has once again become a red line. Bassem Youssef, a popular TV satirist, made fun of hysterical Sissi supporters. He was lambasted for it and taken off the air by his channel the next week.

Military Opposition

Some Egyptians, however, are trying to remind the public of the abuses under military rule — some of which continue.

A small group of protesters rallied recently outside the building where the drafters of the constitution were meeting. They want the new constitution to include a ban on military trials for civilians.

Revolutionary singer Ramy Essam says he came to the protest to remind people that if the military leadership returns to power, so will its dirty policies.

"I can't act like I'm not happy that the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi are gone," Essam says, "but at the same time I want people to understand that the army is just as bad."

But Essam in in the minority with his thirst for reform.

"It seems to me that the fundamental structures of Egyptian political life in the Egyptian state, the ones Egyptians thought so much needed reform back in 2011, seem to be reasserting themselves, reasserting control," says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Brown says that the debate around the constitution has been secretive and rushed. People don't really know what's in the document, and they're scheduled to vote on it in December.

"Sissi represents order and competence and not much else because he has very little political record," he says.

If Sissi does decide to run, Egyptians who overwhelmingly support the army will likely say yes. And Brown says that means the new Egypt will look a lot like the old Egypt.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.