Poster of Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his King-Tut-headed bride, “Egypt.” The faces of previous presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser smile down from the pyramids.
Translation: A MANLY PRESIDENT, A BRIDE LIKE THE MOON — THIS IS EGYPT, AMERICANS!
CLEOPATRA: His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck
A sun and a moon which kept their course and lighted
The little O, th’ earth.
DOLABELLA: Most sovereign creature–
CLEOPATRA: His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm
Crested the world; his voice was propertied
As all the tuned sphered, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t: an Antony it was
That grew the more by reaping. His delights
Were dolphinlike, they showed his back above
The element they lived in. In his livery
Walked crowns and crowners; realms and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket.
Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2.80-93
Egypt has a long tradition of deifying its rulers, and the last few months have seen the preparation of a new space in the pantheon. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Minster of Defense, leader of the popular coup that toppled President Morsi in July, and de facto ruler of Egypt, has been lifted aloft by a great wave of popular admiration. Sisi-mania is abroad in the land, and in case you think the crudely photoshopped poster above is an outlier, check out what was published in September in the English edition of Al-Ahram, the state-owned daily newspaper:
He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.
Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendez-vous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant…
His physical appearance — and appearance counts — is flawless…His bronzed, gold skin, as gold as the sun’s rays, hides a keen, analytical fire within. He challenges the world not with bellows and bravura but with a soft, sombre reproach, with an audible timbre of compassion.
There’s even a lovely mangling of Shakespeare:
William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.
Author Lubna Absel Aziz’s prose is nausea-inducing, but Sisi-mania is real, and it’s often not much subtler than the hagiography above. There’s a whole Tumblr devoted to charting the appearance of the great man’s likeness on political cartoons, refrigerator magnets, and a surprising variety of baked goods.
On Friday, October 25, Bassem Youssef, the host of El Bernameg (The Program), Egypt’s version of The Daily Show, returned from a long hiatus. It was the first episode since the June 30 uprising and the July 3 coup, and the lobby TV in our building was surrounded by viewers. The doormen had strategically angled the chairs so they could watch the TV and the entrance at once. Sadly, my Arabic is still too limited to follow the jokes, but I could hear the laughter echoing off the walls as I headed out.
Youssef, who mercilessly mocked Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood during their year in power, recently used his newspaper column to criticize Egyptian liberals for their slide into authoritarianism. But on El Bernameg he tread lightly around the new regime, laughing at Sisi-mania rather than the man himself. In one sketch, a baker came out with a box of El-Sisi cupcakes.
“Very nice. I’ll take half a kilo.”
“Just half? Don’t you like El-Sisi?”
“OK, fine, the whole kilo.”
It wasn’t subtle enough. Criminal complaints were filed by military supporters and CBC, Youssef’s network, suspended the show. Youssef, who had thrived during a year of antagonizing Morsi, was done in one under El-Sisi.
“Thou, an Egyptian puppet”
Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown
In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall
Uplift us to the view…
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’th posture of a whore. (5.2.209-222)
So what does this have to do with Antony and Cleopatra? I think the key is a binary that I used to teach the play to my students over the last few weeks. Cleopatra is at once a goddess and a puppet, an immortal towering above ordinary people, and also their plaything. She never gets to be simply woman. Indeed, her indeterminacy is expressed in her play with Antony, during which gender roles become pleasurably fluid:
Ere the ninth hour I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan. (2.5.21-23)
This passage does come to mind when looking at El-Sisi’s hermaphrodite bride in the poster above.
Antony, wrapped up in Cleopatra’s cult, goes through a similar apotheosis. He is either a godlike hero or a trophy to be brought back to Rome in disgrace.
Antony and Cleopatra thus shows the result of “immortal longings” (5.2.281). To live forever is to become a “sovereign creature” (5.2.82) at the mercy of the adulation and the mockery of the people. In transforming herself into a monument by dying on her throne in her tomb, Cleopatra seeks to become a goddess, and succeeds in escaping Caesar’s grasp, but she fails to avoid becoming a puppet. Her immortality takes the form of being “boyed,” with all of that word’s connotations of juvenile irreverance and protean play, forever.
It’s fitting that it is “a poor Egyptian” (5.2.52), the only one seen in the play, who names Cleopatra’s endgame to Caesar:
The queen my mistress,
Confined in all that she has, her monument,
Of thy intents desires instruction,
That she preparedly may frame herself
To th’ way she’s forced to. (5.2.53-56)
The ordinary man know exactly what the queen is doing, and shows her no special loyalty.
While some Egyptians are content to make El-Sisi a god, many are willing to turn him into a plaything, especially the rude mechanicals of the internet:
— Jay Roddy (@pjroddyjr) November 4, 2013
His steely gaze does not falter. It cuts through his aviator shades puncturing the heart of The Enemy like a kebab skewer #CatchtheSisiMania
— Thoraya (@ThorayaER) October 24, 2013
In the full vigour of his prime he exudes a magic charm, although it’s a mystery why he needs so many boxes of wet wipes. #CatchTheSisiMania
— Karl Sharro (@KarlreMarks) October 24, 2013
Eternal leader Al-Sisi incorporates great human beings as Ghandi, Hitler, Merkel and Steve Jobs #CatchTheSisiMania
— George (@ArtWendeley) October 24, 2013
His deep brown eyes, the colour of healthy excrement, will fertilize the banks of the Nile. #CatchtheSisiMania
— Thoraya (@ThorayaER) October 24, 2013
These jokes give me hope, as does the cynical sense of humor of offline Egyptians, many of whom realize that the current orgy of nationalism is beating up on domestic enemies, but not doing a hell of a lot about the country’s myriad problems. The political horizon is dim, but I hold out hope that the folks with the “greasy aprons, rules, and hammers” will make the sovereign creatures into playthings yet.
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