Return of the Undead President

The first president in Egyptian history who didn’t come out of the presidential palace feet-first. But is that legacy enough for the country’s deposed strongman?

For generations, Egyptians longed to be able to pronounce the phrase “former president.” Then one day they woke up with not one, but three living ex-presidents: Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi, and Adli Mansour.

But now the first of these former presidents is jumping back into the spotlight, seizing the attention of the Egyptian media in a manner that raises questions about how the current president might react to so much media attention on one of his predecessors.

If it hadn’t been for the ‘January Revolution,’ Hosni Mubarak would still be president of Egypt now, enduring in office until he died, thereby becoming ‘the late president,’ in the sequence Egyptians were accustomed to.

Instead, the revolution bequeathed them a living “former president.” Mubarak’s era was followed by a period of rule by a military council. Then there was President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown to become “deposed president” Morsi, and Adli Mansour, who stepped in to become the “interim president” [before being replaced by current president Abdelfattah al-Sissi.]And so it was that Egypt ended up with three presidents who had all entered the Ittihadiya presidential palace, and eventually walked out of it while still among the living.

Abdel Fattah al-Sissi took over the palace when Morsi was hauled off to prison and Mansour confined himself to the mute seclusion of the presidency of the constitutional court.

Mubarak, however, is forcing himself back in to the limelight-much to the disgruntlement of the public, and particular to those who loathed his long reign and rose up to overthrow him [in 2011]. Also displeased: supporters of al-Sissi, who see in the Return of Mubarak unwelcomed competition for their man, who is still working to consolidate his own rule amidst increasing pressure both inside the country and internationally.

Mubarak launched his media offensive during the celebrations marking the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt [following the 1979 war with Israel], when the former president did a phone interview with Ahmed Moussa, host of a television show on the Sada al-Balad channel. Mubarak talked for 14 minutes, continuously, acting for all the world as if he were still in power, decreeing that listeners remember the positive aspects of his reign, referring in particular to the return of Sinai in 1982 to Egypt’s ‘total sovereignty.’

The talk-show host, who is a strong defender of Mubarak did not, this time, refer to him as “Mister President,” as he had when he talked to him after Mubarak was acquitted [in November]of murder charges. But neither did Moussa point out that the Sinai liberation was actually not so much Mubarak’s doing as it was the result of the peace agreements signed by his predecessor, the late president Anwar al-Sadat. Nor did he ask for Mubarak’s reaction to those who say that he left the Sinai peninsula empty and undeveloped until the day it filled up with the terrorism that is now striking against the Egyptian people.

All the anchor, Ahmed Moussa, did was turn over his airtime to Mubarak to boast for a quarter of an hour about his achievements, his patriotic sentiments, and his pride in having brought the Peninsula back to Egypt, liberated from the Israelis.

All this while the current president, Abdelfattah al-Sissi, spoke for only nine minutes-in an official speech which got much less coverage on television channels than Mubarak’s phone call did.

And this while more and more voices in the media are openly criticizing the general deterioration of things in the country under al-Sissi’s rule. What is striking is that the criticism is coming from those who were cheerleaders for the Field Marshal’s accession to the presidency-[publisher]Ibrahim Aissa, [television anchor]Yussef al-Husseini, [Talkshow host] Lamis al-Hadid, and [television anchor]Amr Adib.

With this context, it is interesting to note that when Al-Sissi traveled to Cyprus and Spain recently, there was no media team accompanying him, except for the Sada al-Balad TV channel which sent a lone anchor, the self-same Ahmed Moussa. The public explanation was that the presidency cannot cover the travel expenses of private-sector journalists, and with the financial crisis the country’s newsrooms are experiencing these days, nobody could afford to send a team to cover the current president’s trip.

Whatever the real reasons, the outcome was that for the Egyptian public, the only anchorman with a dependable media outlet backing him is the one who is the strongest supporter of former president Mubarak.

And meanwhile there are leaks suggesting that not one but two channels, one Egyptian and one Gulf, are in negotiations with the former president to make a movie about his life. They are clearly hoping to seize the moment, while anything Mubarak related makes big waves in the press, and while popular aversion to al-Sissi’s public pronouncements is clear.

A media siege around the current president then; probably not at all what the twenty million Egyptians who voted for al-Sissi were expecting last year. And a siege that al-Sissi himself seems able to do little to lift, for now at least.

Mohamed Abdarahman