CAIRO — Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s unofficial presidential campaign is hitting the streets with growing momentum.
The organizers are taking names. They’re taking numbers. They claim that more than 9 million people — over 10 percent of Egypt’s population — have already signed the petition calling for the man who orchestrated the July coup that overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected leader to become this nation’s next elected president.
For many Egyptians, the rise of a new military man is a comforting idea after nearly three years of political turmoil since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
An el-Sissi victory in the presidential vote expected by next spring would mean that Egypt will have come full circle from the overthrow of one military leader to the official embrace of a new one.
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Beginning with Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 and continuing through Mubarak, Egypt was ruled by men who came to power through the armed forces. El-Sissi’s critics say his presidency would end this nation’s brief experiment in civilian rule — and the democracy that brought Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, to power in 2012.
Already, el-Sissi mania has swept the nation in a pattern reminiscent of past strongmen. The general’s face has become ubiquitous in shop windows and even on cupcakes. He’s celebrated in songs, poems and chants.
El-Sissi, who diplomats say appears to relish the attention, hasn’t actually declared his candidacy.
But in a nation that has tired of politicians deemed too eager to hold onto power, the reluctance — genuine or not — is part of el-Sissi’s appeal. His backers say he would be unlikely to face any real competition at the polls if he does decide to run.
Forget marginal majorities — like Morsi’s 51 percent — said Refai Nasrallah, who founded the leading el-Sissi petition campaign weeks before Morsi’s overthrow. “We expect el-Sissi to get over 90 percent” he said.
“That is, of course, if anyone runs against him,” said Abdel Nabi Adel Sattar, the effort’s spokesman. “When somebody with the status of Gen. el-Sissi runs for president, it will make everyone else who’s not qualified to think twice about running against him.”
Of course, the lack of competition also stems from the fact that el-Sissi’s sharpest critics have been forcibly silenced. In the months since Morsi’s ouster, security forces have killed more than 1,000 Morsi supporters and put thousands more behind bars.
The heavy-handed tactics and lack of evident movement toward democracy led the United States this month to withhold part of the $1.3 billion in military aid it annually provides Egypt.
The draft-el-Sissi campaign has provided no evidence of the millions of signatures it says it has collected, and analysts say the claims are almost certainly exaggerated.
But el-Sissi undoubtedly commands immense popularity in a country that increasingly yearns for stability and strength over democratic values.
“He’s a military leader, and he came at the right time and saved Egypt,” said Abu Nasser Abul Hassan, a nut- and honey-seller who signed the petition in Cairo and said that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood followers were “backward.”
“When he puts them back in jail, security will be back in this great nation.”
El-Sissi’s supporters compare him to Nasser, the Egyptian leader who once resigned, only to be called back to office by his followers. Nasser, who led a revolt against Egypt’s last monarch in 1952, waged war against Western powers and Israel and nationalized the Suez Canal. He remains a national hero.
And in el-Sissi, Egyptians say they see hope for new Egyptian greatness.
Reda Gaballa, a journalist for the al-Aruba newspaper and an activist in the draft-el-Sissi campaign, said, “The Egyptian people lost their identity a while ago, and he brought it back. In Egyptian history, there always has to be a hero.”