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Middle East

Egypt in the throes of el-Sissi cult

The residents of Cairo's Gamaliya district are very proud of former Egyptian army chief and presidential candidate, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. He grew up there, but remains a stranger to many of his old companions.

Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is everywhere in the labyrinth of streets in Gamaliya, even though Egypt's former military chief and most likely-to-succeed presidential candidate moved out of the historical quarter in the heart of Cairo a long time ago.

Posters of him in a suit or in an army uniform hang on every second house front. They decorate centuries-old mosques as well as the windows of souvenir shops and tiny markets in the side streets. “I love el-Sissi because he's a son of my neighborhood,” says the owner of a small shop. The song “Teslam el Ayadi”, which praises the army and is el-Sissi's unofficial election campaign song, comes out of the speakers of his shop. “And he has also freed our country from terrorists and extremists. With God's help he will continue to protect us.”

Pious and diligent

A few streets away Atef El Zaabalawi sits in a café used as campaign office. He tells anecdotes about el-Sissi's childhood. El Zaabalawi was born in the same year as the popular presidential candidate. Now, he works as an organizer for “Kamel Gamilek” a group of volunteers who work at the grass roots level for el-Sissi.

A man stands in front of an al-Sisi election poster (Foto: Markus Symank/dDW)

Election campaigner El Zaabawali raves about el-Sissi's zeal

In the Gamaliya dcistrict, the el-Sissi family is known for its discipline, zeal and resulting wealth. “As kids when we were playing soccer in the streets, Sissi only watched us from his home, he never played with us,” said El Zaabalawi. “That was their style. They were totally focused on school and work.” The 60-year old is convinced that if el-Sissi wins the elections at the end of May he will solve the country's problem with the same diligence.

Zaabawali said that a second characteristic of the family was piety: “Every Friday, Sissi went to the mosque to listen to the sermons of the scholar Metwalli El Shaarawi.” In a recent TV interview, el-Sissi confirmed that the conservative preacher had significantly influenced his world view. Citations from the Koran and quick prayers are an inherent part of el-Sissi's speeches. With those he also persuades conservative voters.

What has Morsi achieved?

The inconspicuous apartment block in which el-Sissi spent a large part of his childhood is just a stone's throw away from the café where they now campaign for him. Despite one poster on a balcony nothing suggests that the presidential candidate once lived there.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Foto. Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper/REUTERS)

Egypt's El-Sissi is seen by many as the man who can save the country

A few cats rummage through the trash for food on the dusty path leading to the apartment block. An old man slowly rides by on his donkey. The el-Sissi family moved out years ago when their son began his career at the military academy. Only a few relatives still live here. They don't want to talk about the presidential candidate. They are tired of the media hype and fear for their safety.

This hasn't harmed el-Sissi's popularity in the area. A vendor, who works in the Khan El Khalili tourist bazaar close by, says that el-Sissi has given Egypt new pride by removing Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. He hasn't had any foreign customers in months, but he is convinced that with a military man as the new head of state the tourists will come back. “There is no alternative to military rule. They have the right perspective. What has Morsi, a civilian, achieved? Nothing.”

A conspiracy, not a revolution

The election campaigner Atef El Zaabawali also advertises el-Sissi as a bulwark against Islamists.

The only challenger of the former army chief, left-wing revolutionary Hamdin Sabbahi

, is seen as lacking the necessary toughness. El Zaabawali reduces the manifold problems of the country to a lack of security. And if security is restored all the other problems will vanish: the economic crisis, the absence of tourists and the high unemployment.

He does not think much of the revolutionaries' demands for reforms, more transparency and anti-corruption measures. He claims that the uprising against Hosni Mubarak was controlled from abroad in cooperation with the Islamists. “Why did we have a revolution? Because the Muslim Brotherhood wanted it. The events of January 25, 2011, were a conspiracy against Egypt. The overthrow of Morsi last year was the real revolution,” he said.

He is not bothered by the students who protest just a few hundred meters away in front of the Al-Azhar Mosque week after week. El-Sissi will end those protests soon, he said.

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