General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as you have never seen him before

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

The General is a man of destiny: Sisi (R, played by Romy Schneider) comforts the nation in its hour of distress

Moving to Hungary not long after the revolutions of 1989, I spent my first few days in Budapest (hampered by my total incomprehension of the language) looking for evidence of gay life. Late one night, on a scarred and ill-lit street near Oktogon Square, I saw a lavender sign over a doorway: Sissi Panzió. I was stunned: Sissies? Pansies? Surely a slur ironically recuperated, the way my compadres back in the States were busily reclaiming queer. The formidable door was bolted. I resolved to come back and investigate this outpost of gender dissidence at a more amicable hour. Only on checking a dictionary did I find, first, that Panzió meant pension, and, second, that Sissi, far from an insult to Magyar masculinity, was the nickname of Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Josef, the penultimate monarch of the House of Habsburg.

The General is remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

The General will be remembered: Statue of Sisi in Slovakia

Even under Communism, Hungarians revered the memory of Sissi — also spelt Sisi. Unlike the other resolutely German Habsburgs, she’d learned Hungarian during her reign, endearing herself to her subjects. She also had an appealingly awful life: horrible mother-in-law, indifferent husband, suicidal son, an eventual death at the hands of a murderous anarchist on the lakefront in Geneva. Estranged from ordinary affection, she adored public adulation as she adored her own beauty; she ordered her ambassadors to report on whether any women in other countries rivalled her own charms. Her posthumous cult took the tinge of narcissism in her personality, and ran with it. Sisi’s glamorous tale, frozen in statues and reproduced in film, is ubiquitous in Hungary. 

The General in uniform: "The Sisi Cult," an exhibit in Hungary

The General in uniform: “The Sisi Cult,” an exhibit in Hungary

But I never quite understood her. Not till I came to Egypt! Not, in fact, till I read this article in Al-Ahram, the flagship of the State press. It’s a fascinating description of the military ruler, General Sisi — also spelt Sissi.

It’s clear now that in his magnanimous modesty, his self-effacing love of being loved, his mysterious bond with the people, and his romantic rise, Sisi is no ordinary dictator. Surely his name (which in Modern Standard Arabic, I’m told, means “pony” or “young rat”) is not a coincidence. Great souls stretch across boundaries of time and culture. I’m convinced this Sisi is the other one reincarnated.

A hero, big and small: SIsi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

A hero, big and small: Sisi poster (L), Sisi sweets (R)

You run into Sisi (the male version) everywhere these days in Cairo — portraits of him are de rigeur in shopwindows, stare down on avenues from banners, and even deck little chocolates like Hershey’s Propaganda Kisses. This too resembles Hungary and Austria, where titles like “Sisi’s Dream of Love” or “The Tragedy of Sisi” jam the bookshelves; three films in which she’s played by the equally tragic Romy Schneider (dead of an overdose at 43) spool endlessly on late-night TV.

L: The General (on the right, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, evinces fear of freedom

Sisi on film: L: The General (with hair down, played by Romy Schneider) embraces the nation; R: Lubna Abdel Aziz, in I am Free, demonstrates fear of freedom

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed below. The alleged author, “Lubna Abdel Aziz,” bears the name of an actress in her 70s, who most recently appeared in the TV adaption of the Yacoubian Building (unlike the feature film, that version demurely dropped the gay sub-story). She’s also famous for starring in several Nasser-era films where women struggle against patriarchal values, one with the very un-Sisi-esque title Ana Horra: “I am free.” How uncool! Could it be she wants to make amends for that old deviation, by showing the General how very unfree she — like the rest of Egypt — can be? Or could she have a higher ambition? Maybe she dreams of imitating Romy Schneider, by playing General Sisi herself in the inevitable movie?

Here goes: from Al-Ahram, September 17. It’s hard to believe, but yes, it’s real.

Catch the Al-Sisi mania by Lubna Abdel Aziz

The General is a looker: "Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress"

The General is a looker: “Sisi, the Secret Beauty Formula of an Empress”

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendezvous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant.

Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led — Al-Sisi followed.

The General's moment of truth: "SIsi: Year of Destiny for an Empress"

The General’s moment of truth: “Sisi: Year of Destiny for an Empress”

What the West cannot comprehend is the warm affinity between people and army in Egypt, which has endured for centuries. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is a recent example, even when he ruled with the firm grip of a military dictator.

Whatever else is going on in the rest of this vast universe, this much is certain — Al-Sisi has captured the imagination of all Egyptians, if not all the world.

He popped out of nowhere — almost — and his secret ingredient was hope. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “a leader deals with hope”, and the brand of hope that Al-Sisi deals, breathed new life into our withering, perishing dreams.

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting murdered members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Sharing our dreams: The General (played by Romy Schneider) settles into sleep by counting dead members of the Muslim Brotherhood

Are heroes born, made or chosen? Perhaps, all of the above. William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

The General takes what's thrust upon him: Sisi (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

What was thrust upon him: The General (played by Romy Schneider) accepts power from a grateful people

In the full vigour of his prime, he exudes a magic charm, afforded to a select few.  His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless. He wears the emblems of his rank on his shoulders as he does the legends of his ancient land, with gushing pride. But it is the swelling reservoir of love for his Egypt and his God that sealed the deal. We responded to this love a million times over. Therefore, for those who raise an eyebrow at the portraits, flags, pins, pictures, chocolates, cups and other forms of Al-Sisi mania that fill the streets of Egypt, it is only a fraction of the love and appreciation we feel for this strong yet modest, soft-spoken, sincere and compassionate leader. It is Kismet.

The General's got charisma: L, German book cover ( "Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten"); R, Hungarian fashion show (with Princess Di)

The General’s got charisma: L, German book cover ( “Unique, Beloved, Unforgotten”); R, Hungarian fashion show ad (with Princess Di)

Shy and reserved, Al-Sisi is a man of few words and much action. We know little about the private life of Colonel General Abdel-Fattah Saad Hussein Al-Sisi, except that he is married with three sons and one daughter and he believes that is all we need to know.

The General is cultured: "Sisi, the Modern Woman"

The General is cultured: “Sisi, the Modern Woman”

He was born on 19 November 1954, to the right kind of father, in the right kind of district — Al-Gammaliya — right in the heart of the bustling city of middle-class Cairo. This is what gives him that sharp perspective into the hearts of his people, their pains, their aims, their wishes, their dreams. His father Hassan, an amiable accomplished artisan owns a shop in Cairo’s legendary Bazaar, Khan Al-Khalili, where he displays his craftsmanship of intricate inlay of mother-of-pearl and rosewood. Cultured and well-read, he owns a huge library filled with history books, and socialised with famous writers, poets, musicians, and theologians. Al-Sisi is one of seven children, four boys — a judge, a doctor, a businessman and an army general. All three daughters are married.

According to his brothers, Al-Sisi developed a love of books from their father. He was the one who saw the most and said the least. Even as a boy, they called him “the General”. There was little doubt he would join the army and make it his career, and what a distinguished career it has been. He studied in the UK in the General Command in 1977, and attended their Staff course in 1992. He spent a year in the US at the War College in Pennsylvania and became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi's life story

The General from girl to grownup: Volumes from Sisi’s life story, suitable for children

He took over as defence minister in 2012, but by 30 June 2013, there was no doubt in his mind that he would do what is right. He responded to the 33 million voices clamouring in the streets. Yes, the Eagle had landed.

His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.

The General's inner life: L, "Sisi's Dream of Love"; R, "Sisi's Secret Love"

The General’s inner life: L, “Sisi’s Dream of Love”; R, “Sisi’s Secret Love”

There is almost poetry in his leadership, but the ardour of the sun is in his veins. He will lead us to victory and never renounce the struggle, and we will be right there at his side.

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, with enigmatic expression, faces the future

The General is ready for his closeup: Sisi, an enigma as always, faces the future

(Thanks for Liam Stack of the New York Times for pointing out the article, and hunting down that young rat or pony.)

The killing days

August 16: Old woman wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

August 16: Old woman, wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya, collapsed on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

We took a walk after the first massacre. This was August 14, Wednesday, and they had clamped a curfew down on the stunned city. It was midnight, when the streets are usually still teeming, but they were deserted in Agouza, where I live; we were the only people walking along the Nile corniche, and only two or three cars rushed past us, speeding off on urgent and incomprehensible errands. We plodded up vacant Shari’a Wezarat el Zeraa, trying to get to the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque, where Twitter said that clashes were still going on. The shops were all shuttered, but there was smashed glass everywhere. By the dark entrance of every building a couple of men sat dourly, delegated by the residents to protect the place. They had no resources but their unprepossessing presence. At almost every block an impromptu barricade, half-hearted as a semicolon, interrupted the empty street: cinderblocks scattered to stop cars, steel bars from a construction site. Suddenly there came a rush of thirty or more men running toward us. Five or six were brandishing revolvers, and one had a Kalashnikov. They passed and ignored us as if they or we were ghosts. A small crowd was pillaging an On the Run (an upscale food shop attached to a gas station), and they wanted to join in. It was impossible to say which side they were on; politics was suspended; one of them shouted “Morsi is President!” but that might have been a feint to blame the looting on the Brotherhood. A kid went by clutching a computer monitor with both arms. We picked up a copy of a glossy business magazine (for investors in Egypt: Dear Guest) in the dust. The men in front of the buildings didn’t move.

Further up the street, young men drifted along in cloudlike bands, bantering stridently but nervously. They wielded boards, sticks, broomhandles. The air almost smelled of testosterone, and you felt a lit match could start an explosion. At Arab League Boulevard, the great wide slash cut through the city, there were more barricades; somebody’d ripped up the steel benches that tried to make the desiccated median strip a park, and strewn them across the asphalt. The tattoo of gunshots recurred not far off to the left, where the mosque was, like somebody drumming his fingers on a sheet of steel. We didn’t go there. Two armored personnel carriers stood at the eastern end of the avenue, ceremonial like the lions on the Qasr el-Nil bridge, guarding nothing. When we got home I bolted the door and only then I heard my heart pounding, louder than the gunfire. The city felt dead, deader than I’d ever seen it, but not dead enough to satisfy itself. It seemed to me its own inhabitants had decided to murder it, and would beat it to death if it moved.

For six weeks I couldn’t write about Egypt, and now I still can’t. I felt that, being here, I ought to express something. More and more happens and there is less and less to say. The latest round of “revolution” started, on June 30, with a great explosion of undifferentiated joy. I filmed Midan Tahrir, filled by ecstatic millions, as if it were a carnival.


There was a people’s party but none of what revolutions are supposed to bring, people’s power. The middle-class revolutionaries of Tamarod who’d started the uprising were happy to hand power to the killers. They gave it to the army like waiters passing a dish: they couldn’t have been more pliant servants. What do you expect the men with guns to do, but kill?

August 14: Protesters Rabaa El-Adawiya after the first army assault. From Mosa'ab Elshamy  at http://www.acus.org/egyptsource/photo-essay-eyewitness-account-rabaa-al-adaweya

August 14: Protesters at Rabaa El-Adawiya after the first army assault. From Mosa’ab Elshamy at http://www.acus.org/egyptsource/photo-essay-eyewitness-account-rabaa-al-adaweya

They started promptly, and it’s still going on. Wednesday, more than 600 died. On Friday the toll was more than 170. The numbers finally became an embarrassment; yesterday the Health Ministry, which had been adding up the totals, announced the figures will now be vetted by the Cabinet itself, to ensure conformity with the prevailing lies. But if the government doesn’t like the tabulations, it wants the murders themselves seen widely, pour encourager les autres. 

 August 16: The army fires on protesters in Ismailia

It kills in broad daylight, in public squares. It lets the Brotherhood practice violence in public too, burning churches with no interference. Killing is a spectacle. It educates as well as entertains. You can barely move around the city now — Friday, fighting closed most of the Nile crossings – but it doesn’t matter, you can get your fill of death, there’s home delivery. Yesterday I stood on the Nile corniche in the midday heat, and watched people being shot on the May 15 bridge, 500 meters from my house. They looked small and jerky, like puppets. Bridges used to connect; now they lead nowhere, you can corner people there, there’s no way out. Downtown, on the October 6 overpass, they jumped 10 meters to the concrete below, to escape the bullets. No exit.

August 16: Victims jumping from downtown bridge to escape gunfire. From @Spikecullen

August 16: Victims leaping from downtown bridge to escape gunfire. From @Spikecullen

Someone said on Twitter — I can’t find the exact words – that the army’s learning that when you shoot on a crowd it doesn’t go away. It breaks into smaller crowds. It flees into side streets and alleys, it keeps resisting. That’s what happened Wednesday and has been happening since. The Brotherhood has not gone, will not go away; its support only disperses like mercury as the survivors do, to reform in smaller fascicles. It’s also what’s happening to Egypt, though fewer notice. The country is fragmenting, segmented by barricades, each neighborhood shrivelling into itself, patrolled by feral kids with cudgels. Cairo is breaking up. You can’t look at a street now without calculating how it would do as a defensive perimeter.

The humour, the cuisine, the rites, the taste,
The pattern of the City, are erased.

Reports come in from Upper Egypt; tale-bearers carry stories from villages like fruits to market: stories of violence spread.

August 16: Woman trapped by gunfire on a bridge tries to hide. From @amragamawi.

August 16: Woman trapped by gunfire on a bridge tries to hide. From @amragamawi.

There aren’t any innocents. The Muslim Brotherhood dispatched gangs of strongmen to beat and abuse peaceful anti-Morsi demonstrators outside the Presidential Palace last November. At the protest camp at Rabaa, there was evidence that some Brotherhood opponents who strayed in were tortured brutally — Amnesty reported that “eight bodies have arrived at the morgue in Cairo bearing signs of torture. At least five of these were found near areas where pro-Morsi sit-ins were being held.”

August 16: Church burned  in Mallawy, Minya governorate. From @CoptyAfandy

August 16: Church burning, in Mallawy, Minya governorate. From @CoptyAfandy

And yesterday, Morsi supporters burned at least a dozen churches across Egypt. At least as many more have been set to the torch since June 30.  But these represent neither entirely spontaneous retaliation against Christians, nor a sinister Muslim Brotherhood master plan. For the most part, they reflect sectarian tensions festering for a long time, worsened by the alternating neglect and provocations of successive governments: Mubarak, the previous military junta, Morsi. In the climate of the army’s assaults, these were almost destined to be unleashed. They were entirely predictable, in other words. If the military (whose hands still drip blood from the 2011 Maspero massacre of Copts) had wanted to protect Christians, they could have deployed to defend churches in advance of their own onslaught on the Brotherhood in Cairo. Sisi’s regime relaxed in indifferent inaction, and now mourns in hypocrisy; they did nothing to protect places of worship. They wanted the violence to swell.

August 14: Protester shot at Rabaa El-Adawiya. From Mosa'ab Elshamy at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/

August 14: Protester shot at Rabaa El-Adawiya. From Mosa’ab Elshamy at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/

The army has unbolted the cage and violence is loose. To the extent they plan, that’s their plan. The excess of force in the incursion on the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo was neither error nor overreaction; it was deliberate. (One sickly amusing thing has been to watch US neoconservatives and Likudnik flacks applaud the Egyptian indifference to “proportionality,” which they rightly see as modeled on Israel’s policy of murderously massive retaliation. Egypt’s nationalists have won the ally they least like.) It’s not so much that Sisi hopes to send a message that resistance is futile. He wants the Brotherhood to resist. The military knows that each murder makes a martyr; each burned Church gouges a new rift in communal relations; a descent into the mindless war of all against all is just their desire. The more the country divides, the more he destabilizes it, the more Sisi will be enthroned as an icon of fraudulent unity. He’s no narcissist; he doesn’t need to delude himself he’s loved. He wants citizens turning to him not in adulation but in desperation. Fear is the best propaganda.

There are no innocents, but there are the guilty. It’s not just those who planned the assault, but those who excused repression, encouraged it, exalted it, continue to applaud it. For weeks after June 30, my Facebook and Twitter feed were full of “liberals” mouthing the government line that the Brotherhood were “terrorists” and deserved what they got. If demonstrators died, the blame lay with them or the Ikhwan leaders who “sacrificed” them — because after all they should have expected the army to massacre them.  It ran from the famous (whose names are worth preserving) —

bassemy copy

–to the obscure  (I conceal them; they may already be ashamed):

From the Facebook feed of Mr. Kurtz

From the Facebook feed of Mr. Kurtz

Yesterday, when over a hundred Brotherhood supporters died, an Ikhwan announcement of a “Week of Departure” to demand Sisi’s resignation led to secular stand-up comedy:

Muslim brotherhood departure copy

Rhetoric of eradication has permeated “liberal” discussions of the Brotherhood for weeks now. Liberals suggest, in one version or another: Exterminate all the brutes. The State feeds this with the overblown language of “terrorism,” stolen from the worst excesses of the Bush administration. Not just official media but the progressive channel ONTV demonize Islamists and repeat that “terrorists” are amok, offering open-ended excuses for government terror.

Mohamed El Baradei, the “liberal” hero, finally resigned from the puppet government to protest the Wednesday killings. But he’d called for a coup for months before the generals took over, and after it happened, he justified it to the West with his peculiar brand of counter-prescience: “The military intervention was necessary, precisely so as to avoid a bloody confrontation.”  On Wednesday, the National Salvation Front he helped found — supposedly the coalition of “liberal” forces in the country — issued a repellent statement while men and women were dying in Rabaa.

Today, Egypt lifted her head high, announcing to the world her victory  … [T]he firm leadership of the armed forces and the collective will of the people demanded the dispersal of the sit-in at the hands of the security forces. The leaders of this group that exploits the innocent – women and children! – for their own protection are now fleeing from the fortifications that they built over the past six weeks and trying to conceal their escape from what they call “sit-ins” at the squares. The Egyptian people will disperse these gatherings themselves before the security forces. … The NSF salutes the police and military forces, and bows its head in tribute and respect for the great people.

Those liberals’ spittle shines the junta’s boots.

August 14: Corpses of Morsi supporters in a field hospital at Rabaa El-Adawiya. © Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters.

August 14: Corpses of Morsi supporters in a field hospital at Rabaa El-Adawiya. © Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters.

I love Egypt, in my outsider’s way; I love Cairo, its sarcasm, its busyness, its laziness, the crowds hurrying past ahawi where people smoke and sip coffee for hours undisturbed. Even these days, traces of that survive. In Agouza, if you weave at 2 AM through neighborhoods where all the lights are down, past barricades of fallen branches, you’ll stumble on a street of cafes resolutely open despite the curfew, shisha-smokers playing backgammon, watching the shootings on TV. But these are phantasmagoric, fragments of a broken city. They’re little shards, glinting after you shatter a globe of glass. The iridescence has nothing to do with what used to be. 

What do I do these days? I sit at home. My house is a refuge of sorts for six or seven Egyptian friends. We shop before the curfew, we cook elaborate meals. Yesterday I watched a butcher cut a chicken’s neck for our dinner; “A clean death,” I thought. Yeats runs idly through my head.

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

And in the last few days I tried to write on Russia. There were crimes there, but they were far away, unlike the gunfire you could occasionally hear. The subject seemed so almost-calm that I felt like the narrator at the end of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: sitting in a quiet hotel as his world dissolved, revising for his own imperfect pleasure a translation of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, in the style of Quevedo. 

August 14: In the morgue at Rabaa El-Adawiya: from Mosa'ab Elshamy, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/page2/

August 14: In the morgue at Rabaa El-Adawiya: from Mosa’ab Elshamy, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosaaberising/sets/72157635071774090/page2/