A black and white photograph is making the rounds on social media networks. It shows Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser saluted by a six-year-old boy in 1960. The photo was taken during the short-lived Syrian-Egyptian Union. The boy is Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, engineer of the recent coup that toppled President Mohammad Morsi. Nasser never imagined that fifty-three years later, this jubilant child would walk in his footsteps; joining the Egyptian Army, launching a coup, combating the Brotherhood, and perhaps one day, becoming president of Egypt. Clearly, Sisi has got the ambition. He also has the talent and character. He is backed by the armed forces and a significant majority of the Egyptian people, who answered his calls last Friday, descending to the streets -- in millions -- to say no to the Muslim Brotherhood. For all practical purposes, Sisi is the de facto ruler of Egypt; a potential president-in-the-making, or a president-maker.
Military rule is not new to Egypt. The Pharaohs were military dictators. So were the Umayyads the Abbasids, the Fatimads, the Ottomans, the Mohammad Ali Pasha dynasty, and the Free Officers who came to power in 1952. The only single exception to military rule was Mohammad Morsi's one year tenure, and by all accounts, it was catastrophic. Until early 2011, we all thought that the era of coups was a relic of the past. We have since had two in Egypt. The handwriting is already on the wall for a U-turn on political Islam in Tunis and Libya. A coup might be in the works for both countries. A coup has been on the mind of the Syrian opposition since outbreak of the revolt back in March 2011. If there is a guidebook for coups -- and an appendix for dictators -- then Arab generals ought to pick one up from General Sisi.
So far he has gone down the guidebook's checklist one item at-a-time, with remarkable precision. Husni al-Za'im of Syria launched the first Arab coup in 1949. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi launched the most recent coup in 2013. Very little has changed when it comes to running a junta, toppling and arresting a civilian president, and seizing power. It usually goes hand-in-hand with suspending the constitution, shutting down parliament, and appointing an interim and often colorless civilian head of state. In a mock online interview, Sisi was asked whether he aspired to become another Nasser. He replied, "You reminded me of when they asked the singer Warda if she's the second Um Kalthoum. She said I prefer to be the first Warda. I feel the same about Abdul Nasser!"
Gaddafi of the Nile
Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is starting to look like Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, Uganda's Idi Amin, and Italy's Benito Mussolini. The neatly pressed military uniform, the colorful assortment of ribbons and medals, along with the dark sunglasses, all make him look distant, mystical, and ruthless. Eyes reveal too much about a person, after all. The blow his cover when he is afraid, worried, or angry. These are humanistic traits that ordinary citizens ought never to see in omnipotent cult leaders. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has a bulldog face that is always tough, constantly ready for battle. We don't know for sure if General Sisi looked at himself in the mirror before marching off, upright and proud, to make his last speech. Did his wife point out that he was showing remarkable resemblance to Colonel Gaddafi? Did she tell him that the "Gaddafi brand" does not sell well in the Arab world? With no surprise, his opponents have already started calling him, "Gaddafi of the Nile." All he needs to finalize his costume are white gloves, a marshal's cane, and a monocle, perhaps. If his propaganda team administers his campaign properly, he will soon be creating vibrations of power, without being seen.
When he announced Morsi's removal on 3 July, Sisi said what every ambitious officer has said on Coup Day. They always come up with creative explanations and sexy slogans as to why they seized power: "preserving republicanism, upholding constitutionalism, and doing away with authoritarianism." Ambitious officers dabbling in politics, no matter how sugar-coated they try to seem, ought never to be trusted. Every single coup leader describes himself, just like Sisi, as "transitional." Slowly, they start throwing their opponents into jail, applying strict press censorship, and packing the government with partisans owing them direct allegiance. When asked if he wants to become president, the coup leader almost always denies presidential ambitions, saying that his sole purpose was to "serve the nation" and "protect the people." When Syria's Husni al-Za'im was asked what made him launch his coup in 1949, he famously pointed a pistol to his head and chest saying: "This heart and this mind!" Coup leaders then do what Za'im started almost seventy years ago; running unopposed in a comical plebiscite. When he does submit his candidacy, the coup leader usually explains saying that this was done under popular pressure. He did not want it. He nevertheless ends up winning 99% of the votes.
There are three traits in the Arab Dictator's Guidebook, however, that Sisi does not fulfill. One is age. Arab dictators are usually young, while Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is 60. Nasser was 34. Syria's Adib al-Shishakli was 39 while Gaddafi was only 27. A second difference is background. Arab dictators often hail from humble peasant origins, and are usually raised with a class complex. Sisi comes from the Gamaliya neighborhood of Cairo and was raised in an urban surrounding. His family is a middle class commercial one. A third setback is his problematic family name. It certainly sounds musical, but it certainly is not presidential. "Sisi" is typically nickname of a teenage girl with pigtails and braces, called Sawsan, Samah, or Samar.
Gaddafi, however, also did not have a presidential name in 1969. His surname was "Abu Minyar," which is as pathetic as "Sisi."
Brother Muammar did it, why can't Abdul Fattah al-Sisi?