CAIRO — Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s unofficial presidential campaign is hitting the streets with growing momentum.
The organizers are taking names. They are taking numbers. They claim that more than 9 million people — over 10 percent of the population — have 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.
A Sissi victory in the presidential vote expected by next spring would mean that Egypt will have come full circle from the ouster of one military leader to the official embrace of a new one.
Beginning with Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 and continuing through Mubarak, Egypt was ruled by men who came to power through the armed forces. Sissi’s critics say his presidency would end this nation’s brief experiment in civilian rule — and the democracy that brought Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist, to power last year.
Already, Sissi mania has swept the nation in a pattern reminiscent of the frenzy over the past strongmen. The general’s face has become ubiquitous on shop windows and even on cupcakes. He’s celebrated in songs, poems and chants.
Sissi, who diplomats say appears to relish the attention, hasn’t declared his candidacy. The campaigners say they are acting on their own accord. And in speeches and rare interviews, Sissi has coyly dodged the subject of whether he’ll run.
“I think that it’s not the right time to ask this question under the circumstances that the country is going through,” Sissi told the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm in an interview published last week.
But in a nation that has tired of politicians deemed too eager to hold on to power, Sissi’s reluctance — genuine or not — is part of his appeal. His backers say he would be unlikely to face any real competition if he decides to run.
Forget marginal majorities — such as the 51 percent that Morsi won — said Refai Nasrallah, who founded the leading Sissi petition campaign several days before Morsi’s overthrow. “We expect 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 General Sissi runs for president, it will make everyone else who’s not qualified think twice about running against him.”
Of course, the lack of competition also stems from the fact that 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 the lack of evident movement toward democracy led the United States this month to withhold part of the $1.3 billion in military aid that it annually provides to Egypt.
The campaign to draft Sissi has provided no evidence of the millions of signatures it says it has collected, and analysts say the claims are almost certainly exaggerated.
But Sissi undoubtedly commands immense popularity in a country that increasingly yearns for stability and strength rather than democratic values. His supporters view him as the nation’s savior, a man who rescued Egypt from its failed experiment in democracy and put it back on the right course.
“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 Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood followers were “backward.”
“When he [Sissi] puts them back in jail, security will be back in this great nation,” he said.
A good president has to be tough, Egyptians say. He has to be beholden to the people, yet simultaneously beholden to no one. And most of all, they say, he has to be humble — and wait to be drafted into power.
Sissi’s supporters compare him to Nasser, the Egyptian leader who once resigned but was 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, nationalized the Suez Canal and implemented far-reaching socialist reforms. He remains a national hero.
“Nasser brought dignity back to Egypt. He stood up to the colonial powers, he stood up to the Israelis. And it was a strong Egypt,” said Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert and political scientist at the University of Oklahoma.
Egyptians say that like Nasser, Sissi has defied the West — in this case, the United States — by overthrowing Morsi. (Egyptians widely believe that Washington covertly backed the Muslim Brotherhood.)
And in Sissi, Egyptians say they see hope for new Egyptian greatness.
“He returned the dignity to the Egyptian people just like Abdel Nasser did,” said Reda Gaballa, a journalist for the al-Aruba newspaper and an activist in the draft-Sissi campaign. “The Egyptian people lost their identity a while ago, and he brought it back. In Egyptian history, there always has to be a hero.”
It is unclear how the draft-
Sissi campaigns — there are at least five — get their money or how outsize posters bearing Sissi’s likeness have proliferated so quickly across the country.
Nasrallah, the founder of the leading campaign, said funds come from his own pockets and from those of his colleague, Bashir Hamed, who owns a paper factory and has long backed military candidates.
Nasrallah and Hamed say they hatched their idea for a Sissi presidency on June 22 — about two weeks before Sissi, who serves as both defense minister and commander of the armed forces, engineered Morsi’s ouster.
“We were sure that Morsi was not going to continue. So you needed to be ready for the next phase,” Nasrallah said. Sissi was “the strongest and most charismatic character, the most loved by the people,” he said.
Egypt’s military has long been the country’s most powerful institution. It is also notoriously opaque; experts estimate that it controls about a third of the nation’s economy, but it has never made public its budget, holdings or profits.
Some Egyptians say they are wary of a revival of military government in Egypt but feel they have little choice.
As Nasrallah’s Sissi campaign gathered signatures recently in eastern Cairo, men and women in alleys and doorways occasionally caught a reporter’s attention and silently flashed the four-fingered sign of the pro-Morsi protest camp that security forces brutally dispersed in August.
Others whispered the ousted Islamist’s name in passing. A shopkeeper quietly played an anti-coup song on a radio at the entrance of his shop. But few dared to challenge the new order.
“This was a coup,” whispered Ahmed Mahmoud, a lamp seller. “Even if people run against him, it won’t be a transparent election.”
Sharaf al-Hourani and Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.