Egypt: With mix of sympathy and military terseness, el-Sissi pushes Egyptians to line up behind him

CAIRO – In his campaign for president, Egypt’s former army chief is casting himself as a strong-handed disciplinarian able to solve the nation’s mounting problems and turmoil with good planning and efficiency, swinging between big-hearted shows of sympathy for Egyptians’ woes and a military man’s impatience with dissent and chaos.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s appearances so far have been tightly controlled, including meetings with selected groups and a prerecorded two-part interview with pro-military TV channels aired Monday and Tuesday. That is likely to be his method throughout his campaign for the May 26-27 vote, with few if any street appearances, a style that has raised criticism from supporters and opponents alike.

El-Sissi is seen as the certain winner of the upcoming vote, bolstered by a media-fed wave of nationalist fervour touting him as the country’s saviour after he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, last summer following massive protests against his rule.

Now the 59-year-old field marshal, who retired from the military in March, appears to be trying to use that fervour to push a message that the public must get in line behind him.

“We must move in leaps,” he said in the second half of his first campaign TV interview, aired Tuesday night. “Egypt must break the cycle of poverty.”

In the Tuesday broadcast, he spoke broadly of his plans for dealing with the mounting economic problems, from rising unemployment and massive government debt to an energy crisis that has led to daily blackouts. Throughout, he repeated, “I will do it, and I am able to do it,” and “I know what I am saying,” gesturing forcefully at his interviewers. “I come from an institution where success is always must,” he said, referring to the military.

He said the state would take a greater role in managing the economy by leading major projects, such as distributing land for farmers and building infrastructure — and he suggested that the state companies and the military, which has extensive economic interests, will play a role in development.

He gave few specifics but said his solutions would “not be traditional” and would have swift impact. For example, he talked of tackling energy shortages by having the state import high-efficiency light bulbs and ensuring that every house in the nation uses them to reduce consumption. Yet he avoided addressing how he would deal with reforming the energy and food subsidies on which much of the population relies but which are a massive drain on the state budget.

The private sector, he said, must work faster to complete projects and accept lower profits to lower prices for consumers.

“The market is open to you,” he said, addressing investors, but said they must help in “getting the needy through this period. Will you help me or not?”

The public, he underlined, should understand his intentions and co-operate. “We have a country that is being wrecked … How can you talk to me about protests?” he said. “I respect the will of the people. But be careful that when you express your will, you don’t wreck your nation.”

The flip side of el-Sissi’s image as a tough-minded problem-solver has been his emotional shows of sympathy with the public. He speaks often of his “trust in God” and a need to return to moral values — while emphasizing tolerance and moderation. He also often makes specific appeals to women, saying they must take part in developing society.

“All Egypt’s girls will be my daughters, God willing,” he said in the interview, with a bashful smile.

In an appearance with a group of women, segments of which were broadcast earlier Tuesday, el-Sissi wooed the crowd by conjuring images of a woman taking care of her family —”the Egyptian woman who fears for her home, who turns off the heater and cooker and electricity. She is protecting her home and children.”

“I am asking you to protect not just your small home, but also your big home, Egypt,” he told the women, speaking in soft tones and giving adoring looks.

“We are with you in good and in bad!” one woman in the audience chanted.

On foreign policy, el-Sissi underlined in the TV interview that Egypt will abide by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, saying “I respect all international accords, including the treaty with Israel.” He urged Israel to make progress in stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians, saying, “There is an opportunity to give the Palestinians hope, and that hope will open a lot of doors in the region.”

Asked if he would visit Israel or receive an Israeli prime minister, he said, “They have to help us with something of value for the Palestinians. Let us see a Palestinian nation with Jerusalem as the capital. That would make us all happy.”

Throughout his appearances, he has emphasized a need for stability. The turmoil on multiple fronts has worsened an economy already suffering from instability since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Since Morsi’s ouster, security forces have waged an unrelenting crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, killing hundreds and arresting thousands, as Morsi’s supporters struggle to continue protests against what they call a coup against democracy. At the same time, Islamic militants have waged a campaign of attacks on police and the military. Secular pro-democracy activists fear that increased prominence of the security agencies — and the rise of another military man to the presidency — will mean a return to Mubarak-style autocracy.

In the first part of the TV interview, aired Monday night on the private TV stations ONTV and CBC, he said unequivocally that the Muslim Brotherhood will never return as an organization, accusing it of using militant groups as cover to destabilize the country. The government has already declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, though the group denies any link to militant groups.

“The coup leader’s talk revealed a personality that is no less superficial than Mubarak … the weakness of their vision and their reliance on scaring the people not increasing their awareness,” Mohammed Mahsoub, a member of a Brotherhood-led coalition and a member of the Islamist al-Wasat Party, wrote on Facebook.

Dia Rashwan, head of the journalists union and a host of a program on CBC that analyzed his appearances at length after the interview, said el-Sissi was aiming to present a confident, calm demeanour in his campaign.

“If he was loud, aggressive, he would lose his charisma in these tense circumstances, people wouldn’t have loved him,” Rashwan said. “Egypt needs calm.”

But el-Sissi’s carefully managed appearances brought criticism even from supporters.

“What we have seen from his closed meetings doesn’t provide enough knowledge of the way the man who will (likely) rule Egypt,” wrote Hamdy Rizk, a columnist in the Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. He urged el-Sissi to hold a debate with the only other candidate in the race, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who has support among many of Egypt’s youth behind anti-Mubarak uprising.

For Gamal Eid, a rights activist who had planned to boycott the election because he thought they were already settled in favour of el-Sissi, said he changed his mind after watching the campaign appearances — and will vote for Sabahi. He said he was angered by el-Sissi’s comments in the interview denying that the powerful military ever had a political role and seeming to belittle the role of civil society, which was instrumental in the 2011 uprising.

“He sees it the same way as Mubarak,” Eid said.

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