Political posters are a common sight in the Middle East, but for Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha, there is something particularly intriguing about the way former defence minister and current presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi manifests in two-dimensional form throughout Cairo. He tells us why he’s taken to photographing these many Sisis, and what the figure’s omnipresence implies about Egypt’s current socio-political climate.
Who is Sisi to the majority of Egyptians?
I am no longer sure there is any such thing as a majority, or even a significant group with consistent views. There is no shared value system, and even political-economic interests are too complex and emotionally addled to yield a straightforward position in any given case. The majority removed Mubarak, but the majority felt sorry for him. The majority revolted against the army in order to elect the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, the same majority called on the army to remove them, right? There are too many contradictions, too much randomness and cognitive abuse to talk cogently about any kind of majority in Egypt. And that is why democratic procedure will not result in anything like democracy. That much I know by now.
But ‘objectively’, I would say that Sisi is different things to different political groups. To the Nasserists he is an avatar of the Leader; to the Islamists, of the Enemy. To Mubarak’s old guard Sisi is simply a figure of reassurance, someone with the will and the power to avert catastrophe, and in this sense he is the embodiment of an army that remains, like it or not, the hardy core of the state as Egyptians know it. To many others beyond Mubarak’s old guard, of course, he is the enforcer, the patriarch, the savior who will make everything all right in the blink of an eye, even though he himself has warned of disillusion.
When did these images of Sisi first start popping up around Cairo?
Last July, directly after Morsi was ousted. More appeared in the months that followed. Their numbers peaked some time around December, and then started to drop. That was when I took an interest in them, when they were no longer so obviously pervasive.
How did this photographic project come about?
Through photographing the streets of Cairo, which I’ve been doing for a long time in a documentary-photography sort of way, but I seldom have a specific idea in mind until a bunch of pictures can be edited into a story. I had a few pictures of Sisi that I thought could be expanded on. There was something about these images that seemed to say so much about being here now, after all that has happened. It’s not so much the statement they make as the feeling they inspire, and the way they bring together so many aspects of the mentality and the politics and the culture that surrounds them without intending to.
How and where does Sisi appear within the city?
Everywhere and in every way. That is my point. There have been far more remarkable displays of Sisi love in Cairo – he was featured on gourmet chocolates and gold engagement rings, for example – but in this story, I sought out a subtler, more stylised and homogeneous sense of omnipresence. I wanted to communicate the sense that he is everywhere, on every scale from macro to fisheye, but at the same time nowhere in particular and sometimes even hard to find. Because I think his visual presence is infinitely more powerful now that it is not as in-your-face as it was when he first emerged on the scene.
What kinds of Sisi images are most prominent?
While the large-scale portraits are disturbingly reminiscent of Mubarak’s, the most prominent Sisi images are regular-size posters of him in profile, wearing his army uniform. Always the same image, sometimes accompanied by a lion or Nasser (and sometimes Sadat), or by statements like ‘The fourth pyramid’ or ‘His majesty the citizen’.
Who produces this Sisi paraphernalia? Who plasters the city with his face and distributes it to eager chests and keys? And where can these many iterations of Sisi be purchased?
There are commercial presses in Cairo where advertising and promotion material for all kinds of purposes can be printed, and they must’ve had very good business in the last three years, what with the stickers and the flags and everything else. The paraphernalia focused on different subjects at different points: the martyrs, electoral candidates, patriotic statements, and so on. But in the wake of 30 June, Sisi was the number one subject of choice. You could buy these items from peddlers, hustlers, small shops or kiosks, perhaps also from newspaper vendors.
Whether the motives are political or commercial, I can’t imagine it being difficult for private businesses or well-to-do people to obtain these images and then plaster them onto walls and signboards (which can be rented from the authorities), or insert them into cheap Chinese-made trinkets for sale. While the state must’ve condoned or even encouraged the practice, I’m pretty sure it did not actually produce the imagery.
Yet, whether or not this reflects a drop in his popularity, Sisi paraphernalia has not been as widespread as it was last summer. Some say that Sisi himself is actually against being present in public space. For example, very recently, some of the lamp post posters lining the October Bridge were torn down. That could’ve been Islamist protestors, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually done on orders by the army or police.
Are there any other figures who feature as prominently in imagery throughout the city?
Apart from talk show hosts – who have replaced pop stars and actors on most billboards – not really. There are some completely unknown faces who will apparently run in the presidential elections, but no one recognisable, like Hamdeen Sabahi, for example.
Has iconography traditionally played a prominent role in Egyptian culture?
Several books could be written on this. The short answer is yes, despite opposition from certain religious quarters that object to figurative art. Even in Saudi Arabia, the photographic image of the head of state seems to have bypassed that prohibition, but I would say that there’s much more emotional weight to political iconography in Egypt, where it sometimes performs a quasi-spiritual role.
Have you noticed any other visual developments in Cairo lately?
Graffiti, but that has been going on since 2011. Most graffiti these days is imageless, and it says things like: ‘CC is a murderer,’ (yes, that’s the way they actually write it: ‘CC’, not السيسي).
Mad traffic. Again, that’s not a recent development, though every time it seems to have reached an all-time low, it still manages to get worse. Another relatively recent development is the sight of extremely rough-looking young men peddling roses in traffic. They hail from the shantytowns, are otherwise unemployed and sometimes also homeless, and they look like thugs – people who should be wielding knives. Yet, they are holding these pretty bunches of roses.