In 1967, after a devastating military defeat in the so-called Six-Day War, Egypt’s pride was broken. The “mother of the world,” as Egyptians like to say, had lost her balance, and overnight (actually in six days) Egyptians had lost faith in their military and their hero, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser.
People started looking for a narrative other than the secular one that Nasser championed under his pan-Arab project. Lots of Egyptians directed their faith to mosques and churches instead. Then, in 1968, the “Virgin apparition” was the story that consumed Egypt for weeks and months on end. It shook the Egyptians’ psychological foundation and belief system. Thousands of Christians, and Muslims, marched from all over Egypt to get a glimpse of the Virgin as her image appeared at a church in “Zeitoun” (“olive” in Arabic) located on the outskirts of Cairo.
A joke of the period went like this: A man told his friend: “Hey, the Virgin appeared in “Zeitoun!”
“Yeah … I wish next time she would appear in cheese.”
It’s more than 40 years later, and this man has almost gotten his wish. Following the military coup of 2013, the toppling of elected President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Egypt has the Sissi apparition.
The image of Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, who heads the Egyptian military, now appears not only on cheese packages, but on chocolate and just about everything else in Egypt. “Sissi-mania” is spreading like wildfire, with his visage on everything from buildings, cars, carts, shopping malls, wedding gowns, naked bodies, cafes, cups, burgers, sandwiches. Sissi souvenirs are now sold everywhere.
Egyptian women are falling in love with the new Prince Charming of Egypt. Sissi pictures, often featuring his ominous sunglasses, are showing up on billboards, streets, parks and government offices, replacing revolutionary wall graffiti. Songs are composed just for the general. “Bless your hands” has been popularized by famous artists and poets, and by a dancer using a poster of the general as an Eve’s leaf to cover her scantily clad body as she seductively dances onstage.
A woman columnist wrote in Al-Masry Al-Youm, a daily newspaper: “Just wink at Sissi and you will get anything you want.” Another reporter went so far as saying the name Sissi comes for the great Egyptian Pharaoh name Ramses — “RamSissi.”
“I wish Sissi would father all our children so we could have more heroes,” declared an enthused man. At weddings, women are replacing their wedding gowns with Sissi gowns. On the street you can see young and old women wearing Sissi T-shirts as a new fashion. Artists and talk show hosts are raving about the new Egyptian sweetheart.
Gen. Sissi himself is banking on all this. His PR machines are presenting his military as attractive, young and fertile. “Our military spokesperson should be handsome to appeal to women,” he was caught on video instructing his staff.
This Sissi-mania is not very well understood, coming the wake of the Arab Spring, in which people revolted and toppled a 30-year dictatorship. People around the world usually admire their generals for their military adventures and winning wars, but in Egypt — which has been out of history for 30 years under the ailing dictator Hosni Mubarak — people now are looking for vitality. They celebrate a general who oversaw forced virginity tests on young women protesters in Tahrir Square, according to the BBC and international human rights groups. This very same general now is loved by many Egyptian women for his sex appeal. These are the very same women who filled Tahrir Square with their thundering chanting that terrified Mubarak and his security apparatus.
“Bread, Freedom and Social Justice,” has given way to singing “Bless your hands, Sissi.”
Ahmed Tharwat is a public speaker and hosts the Arab-American show “Belahdan” at 10:30 p.m. Mondays on Twin Cities Public Television. He blogs at www.ahmediatv.com.