Personality cult built around Egypt's top general

Tuesday - 7/30/2013, 4:32am EDT

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- In dark sunglasses and a uniform studded with medals, Egypt's top general is everywhere, looking down from posters and banners proclaiming him "lion of the nation." Adoring songs vow "We are behind you."

Barely a month after he removed the elected president, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is riding a wave of adulation, drawing comparisons between him and modern Egypt's first charismatic strongman, former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. State media and pro-military TV channels and newspapers have done everything they can to fuel the fervor.

But some warn that the personality cult could pave the way to new authoritarianism after a coup that the army and its supporters insist was aimed at promoting democracy.

"I worry about el-Sissi and the possible arrogance of the victor. And I fear him if he decides that the army is stronger than any future president that he will control like a puppet," wrote Mohammed Fathy, a columnist in the newspaper Al-Watan. "The admiration for him has gone beyond normal levels and is now more like deifying him."

The hype has swelled to the point that some are convinced el-Sissi will take off his uniform and run for president in elections due to take place early next year. A military spokesman denied el-Sissi has any intention to do so. That has done nothing to end the speculation by those for and against the idea.

"Bottom line, el-Sissi will be president because he has no choice but to be. People have already started treating him as such and because he is de facto ruler," Fathy wrote in a column on Monday, adding that media are depicting the general as "Nasser 2013."

The raving over el-Sissi is rooted in the satisfaction many Egyptians took from his July 3 coup removing President Mohammed Morsi. It came after four days of massive protests by millions nationwide demanding the president step down, accusing him of failing to manage the country and handing power over to his Islamist allies.

The nationalist fervor and resentment of the Islamists has so far all but drowned out arguments by Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi's other supporters that the coup against Egypt's first freely elected president has wrecked democracy. Two large-scale killings of dozens of pro-Morsi protesters in clashes the past three weeks have won them little sympathy amid a public attitude -- again fueled by the military, officials and many media outlets -- that the protesters are violent extremists.

But the lavish celebration of el-Sissi also speaks of a nation looking for a leader it can rally behind. It underscores a close bond between the Egyptian public and the armed forces. As a mostly conscript army, there is hardly an Egyptian family that hasn't sent a son to the military, which fought four wars with Israel -- the most recent in 1973.

That translates into a trust of the army's intentions among many.

"The army will not stay forever, just long enough to restore order and security in the country," said Ezzat Fahim, a 38-year-old father of two. He carried an el-Sissi poster in Cairo's Tahrir Square during massive nationwide rallies on Friday that the general himself called for as a show of support for the military to act against "terrorism."

The degree of trust has survived among much of the public despite the fact that the generals were the power behind the scenes during six decades of authoritarian rule. Hosni Mubarak, ousted in the 2011 uprising after 29 years in power, was a career air force officer.

The military ruled directly for nearly 17 months after Mubarak's fall until Morsi was inaugurated -- a period that bruised the generals' image, with anti-military protests in the streets and accusations of abuses by troops. Some believe that after that experience, el-Sissi will be wary of seeming to hold too much power.

"So far, I am not worried of him seizing power," said Mohammed Hashem, a leftist book publisher and veteran pro-democracy campaigner. "I see no signs that he is tempted to do so. If he does, I will be out on the streets again shouting 'down, down with military rule'."

But the el-Sissi-fest is powerful, seemingly rooted in part in a desire for a charismatic nationalist figure.

Morsi, the country's first president not to come from the military, was unable to create that image, with his Islamist agenda appealing only few outside his base. Mubarak sorely lacked charisma and a human touch and was seen as building up a regime based on cronyism and corruption and the power of oppressive police agencies.