Saviour of his nation or brutal opportunist?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (25th May, 2014)

The frenetic streets  of Cairo are once again plastered with posters for another presidential election. But this time there are only two candidates – a stoic-looking fellow in a field marshal’s full uniform whose image is everywhere, and his solitary rival.

Millions of Egyptians see former defence chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the saviour of their shattered nation. To them, he is the only man who can save them from anarchy that exploded after the Arab Spring revolution of 2011.

But millions more in this divided country see something more sinister: a brutal officer who led a military coup against a democratically elected government and is now crowning himself president in a stage-managed election he is certain to win this week.

To them, he is the repressive ex-spy chief who used the War on Terror to seize power ten months ago from a Muslim Brotherhood-backed government. They point to the subsequent slaughter of 1,400 people, the jailing of 16,000 more and silencing of the media. Sisi’s clampdown first focused on Islamists, then spread to liberal and Left-wing critics.

Even foreigners have been targeted: Peter Greste, a respected former BBC reporter, has spent weeks caged in a courtroom accused of defaming Egypt.

This is why Tony Blair’s vociferous support for the bloodstained coup leader is so controversial, as is the appearance of his old sidekick Alastair Campbell in Cairo.

The previous presidential election in 2012 was won by Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. He was backed by many moderates disturbed by the links of his main rival to the previous regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Morsi proved to be a useless and stubborn leader, forcing through a new constitution  that dismayed secularists  and doing almost nothing to solve the economic problems.

So last year millions of Egyptians took to the streets again – and then after a standoff with Morsi, the army stepped in on Sisi’s orders.

Diplomats now believe these events were far from spontaneous. One British official told me he thought this was a well-choreographed coup, backed by the media. ‘I would rather have seen the Muslim Brotherhood play out their four years in office and destroy themselves as a political force,’ he said. ‘But others say the fabric of the country could not withstand the tensions they were creating.’

There was little criticism from the West, which remains nervous of militancy in the region, while cash was pumped in from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, long-standing enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The only other candidate is a veteran activist who came third in the 2012 election who has made little headway against the cult around Sisi.

For many Egyptians, Sisi offers stability. This week will be the eighth time they have been asked to vote since 2011.

Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, nephew of the president murdered in 1981 for pursuing peace with Israel, told me the Arab Spring has been a mess. ‘Now we need someone the people will obey and follow – and Sisi is the only man for Egypt at this stage.’

Others take a different view of the strongman backed by Blair and Campbell. ‘If someone speaks against Sisi, they’re terrified,’ one taxi driver said. ‘I’m not voting. There’s no point. Egypt is finished.’

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