CAIRO (AP) — In his campaign for president, Egypt's former army chief is casting himself as a strong-handed disciplinarian able to solve the nation's mounting problems and turmoil with good planning and efficiency, swinging between big-hearted shows of sympathy for Egyptians' woes and a military man's impatience with dissent.
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's appearances so far have been tightly controlled, including meetings with selected groups and a pre-recorded interview with pro-military TV channels aired Monday and Tuesday. That is likely to be his method throughout his campaign to the May 26-27 vote, with few if any street appearances, a style that has raised criticism from supporters and opponents alike.
The message he has pushed is that the public must get in line behind him, while aiming to show he is in touch with a population weary of instability and deteriorating economic conditions.
In an appearance with a group of women, segments of which were broadcast Tuesday, the 59-year-old el-Sissi wooed the crowd by conjuring images of a woman taking care of her family.
"I will talk about the difficult circumstances facing our country, to the Egyptian woman who fears for her home and turns off the heater and cooker and electricity. She is protecting her home and children," el-Sissi said, speaking in soft tones and giving adoring looks. "I am asking you to protect not your small home, your big home, Egypt."
"I don't have time ... to argue. I have a big problem and we want to break it down and get rid of it," he said, striking a tone he has frequently shown as a firm problem-solver.
"We are with you in good and in bad!" one woman in the audience chanted. El-Sissi flashed a smile, replying, "God bless you."
Moments later, el-Sissi goes: "Love is not just talk," an expression he has used repeatedly to show he is not only an emotional man.
El-Sissi is seen as the certain winner of the upcoming vote, bolstered by a wave of nationalist fervor touting him as the country's savior after he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, last summer. El-Sissi retired from the military in March with the rank of field marshal to launch his candidacy.
During Morsi's year in office, opposition against him swelled, culminating in protests by millions demands him removal, , accusing his Brotherhood of monopolizing power and seeking to change the country's identity along the lines of Brotherhood ideology. El-Sissi overthrew Morsi on the fourth day of those protests. Since then, security forces have waged an unrelenting crackdown on the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, killing hundreds and arresting thousands, as Morsi's supporters struggle to continue protests against what they call a coup against democracy.
The turmoil on multiple fronts has worsened an economy already suffering from instability since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Islamic militants have waged a campaign of attacks on police and the military since Morsi's fall. Secular pro-democracy activists fear that increased prominence of the security agencies — and the rise of another military man to the presidency — will mean a return to Mubarak-style autocracy.
In his appearances, el-Sissi has repeatedly said that Egypt has changed since 2011 and that no president can defy public opinion any more. But at times, he has switched from his charm offensive to sharp warnings that Egypt can no longer tolerate chaos.
In the first part of the two-part TV interview, aired Monday night on the private TV stations ONTV and CBC, he said unequivocally that the Muslim Brotherhood will never return as an organization, accusing it of using militant groups as cover to destabilize the country. The government has already declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, though the group denies any link to militant groups.
But el-Sissi also had strong words when asked about a draconian protest law passed late last year that bans any demonstrations without police permit. In one of his few shows of temper in the interview, he said protesters are "wrecking the country."
He had another flare of anger when one of the interviewers — an el-Sissi supporter — used a word for military used by critics of the army's role in Egypt. "I will not allow you to use this term," el-Sissi snapped.
But throughout the mix of emotional charm and military terseness, el-Sissi has sought to present himself as straight-forward and calm, said Dia Rashwan, head of the journalists union and a host of a program on CBC that analyzed his first appearance at length after the interview.
"If he was loud, aggressive, he would lose his charisma in these tense circumstances, people wouldn't have loved him," Rashwan said. "Egypt needs calm ... But he becomes excited when he's talking about security. These are the moments he changes from the soft-spoken person."
Rashwan, who has met el-Sissi a number of times before, said however that the ex-military chief appeared to be himself— a person who maintained calm and listened well to his audience as he addressed general questions about his background, and his dealing with the Brotherhood as a defense minister.
Not surprisingly, Morsi supporters were vehemently critical of el-Sissi's first campaign interview.
"The talk of the leader of the coup revealed a personality that is no less superficial than Mubarak, the opportunism of his state, the triviality of their thinking, the weakness of their vision and their reliance on scaring the people not increasing their awareness," Mohammed Mahsoub, a member of a Brotherhood-led coalition and a member of the Islamist al-Wasat Party, wrote on Facebook:
El-Sissi's carefully managed appearances brought criticism even from supporters.
"The campaign has so far found it enough to broadcast news and pictures of the field marshal's tears," wrote Hamdy Rizk, a columnist in the Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. He urged el-Sissi to hold a debate with the only other candidate in the race, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who has support among many of Egypt's youth behind anti-Mubarak uprising.
"What we have seen from his closed meetings doesn't provide enough knowledge of the way the man who will (likely) rule Egypt," he wrote.
For Gamal Eid, a right activist who had planned to boycott the election because he thought they were already settled in favor of el-Sissi, said he changed his mind after watching the campaign appearances — and will vote for Sabbahi. He said he was angered by el-Sissi's comments in the interview denying that the powerful military ever had a political role and seeming to belittle the role of civil society, which was instrumental in the 2011 uprising.
"He sees it the same way as Mubarak," Eid said.