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Army chief said to be focused on Egypt's problems

Friday - 1/17/2014, 8:30am  ET

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Having secured victory in a referendum on a relatively liberal constitution that he championed, Egypt's military chief is turning his attention to the country's overwhelming array of problems -- from health and education to government subsidies and investments, insiders said.

According to information offered by two insiders, senior army officers who work closely with Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military chief could be planning a run for president, capping a stunning transformation for the 59-year-old who started in the infantry.

A year and a half ago when then-President Mohammed Morsi promoted him to defense minister in what has emerged as a colossal political miscalculation, el-Sissi was widely seen as an obscure and acquiescent subordinate.

Then, in swift succession, el-Sissi threw Morsi in jail along with hundreds of his Islamist cohorts, his Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group with membership in it banned, and a carefully orchestrated personality cult appears to have been successfully engineered for the general.

El-Sissi remains an enigma. Little is known about his private life, other than that he is married with four children. His daily activities and whereabouts are generally hidden from the public view.

Although there are few credible public opinion polls in Egypt to know for sure, el-Sissi appears to have struck a chord through a combination of cunning moves and a personality that offers something for everyone in a country that is highly polarized along religious and socio-economic fault lines.

"It appears that el-Sissi's populist power is derived from his ability to instill optimism, joy and pride in the hearts of many Egyptians," Adel Iskandar, an expert on Arab affairs who lectures at Georgetown University, said in a post on social media this week "The Muslim Brotherhood, the January 25 (2011) revolutionaries, and anyone who opposes the country's current trajectory must contend with this new fact."

It was evident this week that many people voted for el-Sissi as much as for the new charter.

Many, particularly women, kissed posters of the general after casting their ballots or chanted: "El-Sissi is my president." He had asked women to take their spouses and children to the balloting, and the response was overwhelming, with women dominating lines outside polling stations in Cairo and other big cities.

A popular video on social networking sites hyped the sentiment.

"All of Egypt's women listened to el-Sissi when he asked us to come out and vote. ... If he needs anything else, he only has to tell us and, God willing, we will not disappoint him," a female voter said on the clip.

In el-Sissi's neighborhood of Gamaliya, as in much of the country, he is regarded as a savior and a hero.

In a small alley where he once lived, an office bore this sign: "Headquarters of the campaign asking el-Sissi to run for president."

A banner nearby declared: "The people of Gamaliya congratulate el-Sissi on his birthday."

"He is a man that we will all follow, and not just because he comes from Gamaliya," said driver Mahmoud Farouq, a father of four, who was sitting in a coffee shop.

Sohair Mohammed, a housemaid with two children, expressed her admiration by saying: "I adore him. I hope he becomes president. If he does not run for president, I may kill myself."

The Muslim Brotherhood won each of the five elections held since the revolution that deposed autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Consequently, there was an anti-democratic veneer to the July 3 coup and the government's subsequent actions, which included a severe crackdown on protests, arrests of journalists and the establishment of hotlines, where people could report suspected members of the Brotherhood.

At the same time, however, el-Sissi seems to have tapped into widespread, genuine outrage at how Morsi and the Brotherhood ran the country, making it more Islamist during their year in power and contradicting campaign promises of an inclusive society.

For liberals who might be expected to oppose a military coup, el-Sissi offers an alternative to the nightmare scenario of an Egypt headed for theocracy, due in part to the automatic support of illiterate and conservative rural voters. The more progressive voters seem to have accepted the trappings of democracy that have been erected around the coup, embracing el-Sissi.

For the conservative Egyptians who probably voted for Morsi in the past, the general's down-to-earth personality carries a lot of appeal. When Morsi picked el-Sissi to replace the previous military leadership, the army chief seemed to be that rare case of a devout senior officer who could be sympathetic -- if not outright supportive -- of the Brotherhood's cause.

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