Top Egyptian General Reaches Rock Star Status

The head of Egypt's armed forces who orchestrated the military coup that ousted President Morsi is revered by most Egyptians as a national hero. But many analysts there say it's doubtful Gen. Abdel Fattah el Sissi's popularity will translate into votes at the ballot box should he run for president next year.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. We begin this hour with neighboring countries struggling with the confounding realities of the Arab Spring.

GREENE: In Libya, an elected government remains in place, but it may be too weak to bring in the militia leader accused of killing a U.S. ambassador. In Egypt, the general who led a coup against the country's first democratically elected president is now celebrated like a movie star.

WERTHEIMER: And that's where we'll begin this morning. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has achieved a kind of cult status that no Egyptian leader has enjoyed in decades. But, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, the hero worship could backfire.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: There's not much action in Tahrir Square these days, save for a handful of street vendors who do a brisk trade in posters of 58-year-old Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Vendor Amr Behkit says he sells hundreds a day despite the blazing summer heat that tends to keep people indoors.

AMR BEKHIT: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says customers clamor for the 40-cent posters and masks featuring the general because they believe he saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood. Many tell the vendor they would like to see Sissi run for president. Bekhit adds, that goods depicting the general's image sell better than any of his other wares, except for the Egyptian flag.

BEKHIT: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: A female customer asks him how much the poster of Egypt's new hero - in trademark black sunglasses - costs. He suggests she buy another one in which Sissi isn't wearing them, but the woman refuses.

BEKHIT: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She says: The general is beautiful in those dark glasses; it's the best thing about this poster. Many Egyptians share her groupie-like enthusiasm for Sissi. They compare him to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the populist leader who spearheaded Egypt's first military coup in 1952.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GEN. ABDEL-FATTAH EL-SISSI: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Sissi's speeches electrify many Egyptian revolutionaries, including some who protested against the military's strong-arm tactics when it ran the country following Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Rasha Abdalla is an associate professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo

RASHA ABDALLA: He's quite charismatic, he's relatively handsome, he comes out with his black sunglasses. He's a cool general - you have to admit that; you have to give that to him.

NELSON: She adds that Sissi's pledge to help achieve a stable and prosperous Egypt appeals to the public.

ABDALLA: The Egyptians are looking for a leader because we've been through all kinds of things through the past two and a half years and we are not used to that. So most Egyptians, you know, want this stability thing that they keep looking for.

NELSON: She and others interviewed add that Sissi's repeated criticism of the Obama administration resonates with Egyptians, many of whom accuse the United States of trying to control their country to benefit Israeli interests. But some analysts warn that unbridled enthusiasm for Sissi, and by extension, the military, could end up costing Egyptians the democratic gains they've made since 2011. Joshua Stacher is an Egypt expert at Kent State University in Ohio.

JOSHUA STACHER: There is no rival force, either inside the state or outside the state, that can really challenge its hegemony or seek to kind of moderate its positions. It's really the military that can set the agenda and can guide Egypt in a direction that suits its economic and political interests.

NELSON: But retired Maj. Gen. Mohamed Kadry Said, of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says Sissi faces obstacles that previous generals here did not. He says Egyptians are quick to take to the streets these days if they don't like what their leaders are doing. The retired general adds that as a result, there is no guarantee that Sissi's popularity will last until elections are held next year.

MOHAMED KADRY SAID: For Mubarak it was easy, but for a man like Sissi, he's coming in an atmosphere which is unstable. I think the price will be high, especially now with democracy and so on, it is real now.

NELSON: So far, Sissi has not said whether he'll run for president. He says his current involvement in politics is aimed only at preserving democracy in Egypt. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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