"We love him for so many reasons, because we are coming out of a year with these horrible creatures," say Egyptian women of presidential frontrunner Abdel Fattah El Sisi who is seen by many as the country's saviour from the Muslim Brotherhood.
‘I love him like my own dad’: El Sisi wins the hearts of Egyptian women
CAIRO // At election rallies across Egypt, female supporters of Abdel Fattah El Sisi are seen weeping as they profess their undying love for the former army chief.
The image is repeated on state and private media with swooning women flooding the pages of newspapers and television screens.
As Egyptians prepare to vote on Monday in their second presidential election since 2011, Mr El Sisi’s fervent support from women, many of whom see him as the country’s saviour from the Muslim Brotherhood, has played a significant role in making him the clear front-runner.
“Sisi is sensitive, he understands how to respect his mother, who is his nurturer. He respects his wife, he respects elderly women,” said Nermin Nazim, 50, a Cairo jewellery designer whose pieces include the former general holding a key to Egypt. “I love him like my own dad, we love him for so many reasons, because we are coming out of a year with these horrible creatures.”
His popularity also seems to resonate with Egypt’s celebrity set.
Lubna Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian actress and supporter of Mr El Sisi, wrote in the English-language publication Al-Ahram Weekly last September: “His physical appearance – and appearance counts – is flawless. He wears the emblems of his rank on his shoulders as he does the legends of his ancient land, with gushing pride.”
The feeling, the 59-year-old assures, is quite mutual.
“I personally love the Egyptian women,” Mr El Sisi said this month. “All the women in Egypt would be my daughters.”
In a country that has witnessed a staggering increase in sexual harassment rates since its 2011 revolution – 99.3 per cent of women have been sexually harassed, according to the UN, and activists say years of military rule have been marred by sexual violence and rights abuses – others remain wary of what will follow Mr El Sisi’s election.
“The military as an institution is very male-dominated and will not respect women; our police force is often perpetrators of sexual violence against women,” said Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian activist and commentator. “We are going to just get more of the same patriarchy we live in but even more authoritarian.”
While the focus on Mr El Sisi’s physical appearance by women such as Abdel Aziz has been mocked by Mr El Sisi’s opponents, it highlights a glorification of the country’s army and a desire for a strong and powerful leader among the former general’s supporters.
Dalia Ziada, the executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, says Mr El Sisi has reached out to women, seeing them as leaders in the movement for social change.
“This has appeared very clearly in his speeches and interviews. Even today he addressed women directly and encouraged them to vote,” said Ms Ziada. “That is because he knows women are a key factor.”
Supporters like Ms Ziada, fierce opponents of Islamist rule who see Mr El Sisi as the only viable alternative, point to the gains women have made under the new government.
The drafting of the 2014 constitution marks the first time provisions for combating violence against women have been included.
“There is the sense that, yes, things are bad, but there is still hope,” said Emily Dyer, a researcher at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank which works to improve women’s rights in Egypt. “Every time there is a regime change, women get together and attempt to take advantage of the political changes, and they have managed to gain some ground.”
However, critics say the problems of sexual harassment and assault have worsened since the 2011 revolution. A Thomson Reuters Foundation poll last November supports this view. It found that sexual harassment, mob sexual assaults, discriminatory laws and high rates of (now illegal) female genital mutilation ollowing the 2011 revolution made Egypt the worst country in the Arab world for women to live in.
“We’ve seen that many of these problems that have been around for decades are still going on under Sisi and in some cases, they are actually getting worse,” said Ms Dyer.
Mr Sisi for his part has suggested in campaign speeches that he would attempt to tackle some of these issues. He said he would work to fight sexual harassment, adding that it was a societal problem, not merely a law enforcement matter.
But Mohamed El Khateeb, an Egyptian student and activist who has worked extensively with groups that document sexual harassment, said the Egyptian government had a history of passing laws that look good on paper but do nothing in actual practice.
“I don’t think it will be any better since his history as the head of the military intelligence is tainted,” said Mr El Khateeb.
Mr El Sisi served as head of military intelligence under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces following the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, when the military forced female protesters to undergo so-called virginity tests in March 2011, a practice widely condemned as a form of rape.
In June 2011, Mr El Sisi was widely criticised when he defended the practice, saying they were used to “protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape”, even though he vowed to end the practice.
His attempt to justify the tests undermined his credibility in the eyes of some activists and in February allegations resurfaced from four women that the military was once again conducting virginity tests on female detainees.
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian secular activist and commentator, said: “It becomes convenient for a lot of secular Egyptians to avoid the fact that Egyptian society as a whole is terrible when it comes to women’s rights by blaming it all on the Islamists,” said Ms Elthawy. “Islamists are more honest about their violations, but all of Egyptian society does this, so why would Mr El Sisi be any different?”
Menna El Shishini, a 20 year old activist who was sexually assaulted in front of Cairo’s Tora Prison while protesting military rule in 2012, said Mr El Sisi’s supporters are deeply misguided: “When I think of Sisi, I think of virginity tests, of women protesters being arrested, assaulted and dumped in the desert. These women are naive. He doesn’t even respect human rights, he won’t respect women’s rights.”