Sisi the Invincible

Why Egypt's Next President Won't Fear a Revolution

A supporter of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds a military boot on her head as a sign of support for military rule, January 28, 2014. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters

Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s quick rise from obscure military bureaucrat to national idol reflects Egypt’s popular mood, which, after three-plus years of constant political tumult, desires stability in the form of a strongman. But his sudden emergence also reflects Egyptians’ moodiness: Sisi represents 180 degrees of ideological difference from Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader whom Egyptians elected less than two years ago and then toppled 12 months later. So it should come as no surprise if Sisi's support quickly dwindles after winning the presidency and Egypt again sees mass protests. (It doesn't help matters that, like virtually every other Egyptian political figure, Sisi has no apparent answers for the country’s significant economic woes, high youth unemployment, and exclusivist politics.)

Yet that doesn't mean that Sisi will face the same fate as Morsi. Even if Sisi faces an uprising, there are good reasons to think he will be more durable than his ousted predecessors, as well as more durable than the other prospective candidates for Egypt's presidency.

Although Sisi’s cult of personality derives from his public role in ousting Morsi on July 3, it is his status as a ragul dawla (literally, “man of the state”) -- that makes him presidential material in the eyes of many Egyptians. With the exception of Morsi, every head of state since the Free Officers revolution in 1952 has emerged from either the military or the judiciary, and those who backed last summer’s uprising-cum-coup often attribute Morsi’s failures as president to the fact that he is a ragul al-gamaa (“a man of the society,” meaning the Brotherhood). With violence now on the rise, including increasing terrorist attacks by Sinai-based jihadis and a Brotherhood-backed campaign to assassinate police officials, the public is calling for a ragul dawla to restore order.

Yet even if many Egyptians prefer leaders who are rigal dawla, their support for military leaders is not constant. Last March, even as Morsi’s popular support declined sharply, only three percent of Egyptians wanted “the defense minister or another

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