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Friday, October 25, 2013

It’s ‘Sisi-Mania,’ as Nationalist Fervor Sweeps Through Egypt

In the months since Egypt’s armed forces removed former President Mohamed Morsi and installed an interim government of their choosing, a nationalist fervor has swept the country, spurred on in part by a robust media campaign that has hailed the army as heroes and promoted an image of its commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as a benevolent leader who stands beyond reproach.

A recent essay in Al-Ahram Weekly, an English-language magazine published by the flagship state-run newspaper, provides a glimpse of the high praise that many in the Egyptian media are singing for the general, who is described in its pages as a man whose “freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a herculean strength and nerves of steel” and who “wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk.”

The writer, an actress named Lubna Abdel Aziz, recalled in glowing terms General Sisi’s role in Mr. Morsi’s ouster, which came after millions of Egyptians called for him to resign in a series of demonstrations held across the country last June. Before that point, General Sisi had served in Mr. Morsi’s Cabinet.

He took over as defense minister in 2012, but by 30 June 2013, there was no doubt in his mind that he would do what is right. He responded to the 33 million voices clamoring in the streets. Yes, the Eagle had landed.

His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, somber reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardor of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.

Ms. Abdel Aziz, whose praise of General Sisi drew on quotes from William Shakespeare, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, also ridiculed Western government for a failure to comprehend Egyptians’ innate love for the military, even when it behaved dictatorially.

Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led â€" Al-Sisi followed.

What the West cannot comprehend is the warm affinity between people and army in Egypt, which has endured for centuries. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is a recent example, even when he ruled with the firm grip of a military dictator.

The essay was not Ms. Abdel Aziz’s first public commentary on the West. In a March 2013 interview with Tahrir TV, an independent Egyptian channel, she described the surprise she felt on a trip to the United States as an adult, years after first visiting as a student, to find that Jews “just about own” the country.

According to a recording of that program posted online with English subtitles by the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri â€" an Arabic media watchdog founded by a former Israeli intelligence officer â€" Ms. Abdel Aziz explained told the interviewer that Jews “have got the country in their grip.”

It added, “It is said that every three or four Americans works for a Jew.”

Lubna Abdel Aziz, an actress who wrote an essay praising Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, expressed anti-Semitic beliefs during an Egyptian television interview in March 2013.

“Congress and the Senate, and every administration, whether Republican and Democrat, must stand at attention for them. If they are not happy with someone, that’s it, he’s gone,” said Ms. Abdel Aziz, adding that she believed Jews controlled “both the media and the economy.” Her interviewer readily agreed, firmly nodding that, “The entire economy is Jewish.”

Despite the pro-military drumbeat from much of the country’s state and private media, some Egyptians remain unconvinced, particularly Islamist supporters of the ousted president, who continue to hold demonstrations against his removal and to engage in periodic clashes with the security forces in towns across the country. Since the military removed Mr. Morsi from power, the police and armed forces have killed hundreds of protesters, including at least 377 on August 14 when it dispersed a large pro-Morsi tent city in eastern Cairo in what Human Rights Watch has called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”

Nevertheless, expressions of what Ms. Abdel Aziz called “Sisi-mania” can be found all over Cairo, according to a piece written by Ursula Lindsey, a writer based in the Egyptian capital, for an opinion blog published in The Times.

Ms. Lindsey described a candy store near her home that sold chocolates decorated with tiny portraits of the general, as well as a Tumblr entitled “Where else have you seen Sisi today?” that shows pictures of the General’s name or likeness used to imbue everything from wedding parties to fast food with a dose of nationalist energy.

Ms. Lindsey, who wrote The Times’s opinion blog post, said that some examples of “Sisi-mania” were no doubt examples of “sycophancy” on the part of people who wanted to curry favor with a new regime, but she cautioned that viewing the enthusiasm for the military solely through that lens missed what may be a deeper dynamic at work.

People don’t love their army because of how powerful it is, but because of how much they want to overcome their own feelings of powerlessness. To the great majority of Egyptians, the army is synonymous with the country, and supporting it is a way of wishing that Egypt will become all the things it currently isn’t: strong, independent and prosperous.

Amro Ali, an Egyptian scholar living in Australia, drew attention to a picture posted to Twitter that showed a collage of jumbled nationalist images with General Sisi at their center. In the picture, the general had his arm around a bride in a pharaonic mask as he rode a white horse across a battlefield while the Pyramids looked on. Each Pyramid was emblazoned with the face of an Egyptian leader: two showed the faces of the former presidents Anwar el-Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the third showed General Sisi’s face. At the bottom of the image it says, in Arabic, “This is Egypt, O Americans, you Gypsies!”

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, an Egyptian journalist, posted a picture to Twitter that showed a tray filled with “General Sisi chocolate.”

Nervana Mahmoud, an Egyptian blogger based in Britain, drew attention to a picture posted to Twitter of Bahria Galal, a Cairo chocolatier whose Sisi chocolates were featured in a series of photos published by Reuters.

An Egyptian activist who posts to Twitter under the name the Big Pharoah drew attention to other expressions of love for the military: a line of jewelry using the general’s name as a style motif that is sold by a store called “Nina’s Bling Bling Gallery,” and a sandwich named after him served by a fast-food chain, Amo Hosny. In its advertisement, the sandwich appeared to be stuffed with almost a dozen little General Sisis.

The nationalist fervor and enthusiasm for General Sisi may have even clipped the comedic wings of Bassem Youssef, a well-known political satirist and nightly talk show host who has been lauded as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart.” Mr. Youssef’s show returned from a four-month hiatus on Friday to broadcast its first episode since the military ouster of Mr. Morsi, a politician who was his most frequent satirical target.

Writing about the season’s first episode, David Kenner, an editor of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote that at those moments when Mr. Youssef did turn his satirical attention to the country’s military rulers, it was “the fervent masses of Sisi supporters who come in for grief â€" not the general himself.”

In one segment, he took aim at the new fad of plastering Sisi’s face on sweets. A baker comes out bearing a Sisi cake and Sisi cupcakes â€" he also sells a plain loaf of “Rabaa” bread, named after the pro-Morsi sit-in outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque.

“I’ll take a half kilo,” Youssef says, suitable impressed with the cupcakes. The baker’s eyes narrow in suspicion at the small size of the order. Do you really like Sisi, he asks?

Youssef, suitably chastened, gives in. “O.K., O.K., I’ll take all of it.”