CAIRO - Nearly three years ago, in the heyday of the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square was adorned with banners of youths killed by security forces. Hawkers sold T-shirts imprinted with their faces.
Those banners are long gone, and this year vendors are selling T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army leader who oversaw the July ouster of Egypt's first elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. Sisi's mien is on posters and fancy chocolates, and - in a Photoshopped pic on the Internet - has even been strategically imprinted on a pair of men's briefs.
Strangest of all is seeing the Sisi T's hanging alongside a few leftovers bearing the faces of Tahrir Square martyrs. Those youths died in an effort to oust the previous military-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak, and to bring in democratic elections. Now many of their revolutionary colleagues have become Sisi fans and call for him to run for president.
The reasons many liberals - and a huge number of ordinary Egyptians - came to love a general reflect the huge obstacles to building a democracy in Egypt. But the Sisi story isn't over yet.
Sitting in the historic Café Riche, a longtime downtown haunt of writers and journalists, 25-year-old Mohebi Doss told me why he and his friends founded the group known as Tamarod (rebellion), which helped topple Morsi. Tamarod's multimillion-signature campaign (with help from the military and state security agencies) led to massive public marches calling for Morsi's downfall.
The military then used the marches, and counterprotests, as justification to dump Morsi, claiming that the turmoil could lead to civil war.
Since Morsi was so unpopular, why didn't liberals try to unseat him at the next elections? Doss was blunt: "We had to do it this way because of the weakness of liberal parties. They couldn't defeat the Muslim Brotherhood at elections."
He's correct. Egyptians are new to party politics, and with a couple of exceptions, small liberal parties have no organization outside of cities.Unlike the mosque-based Muslim Brotherhood, they had minimal capacity to get out votes.
So the liberals learned to love the general because it was the only route to removing Morsi, whom they feared would Islamicize their government.
But the anti-Morsi marchers also included rural and working-class Egyptians - even though many of them had voted for Morsi. In the Ramy café in the working-class district of Imbaba, sheesha smokers said they were sick of three years of gas and electricity shortages and instability. Had the Morsi government been competent and created jobs, it would probably still be in power.
Others told me the Tahrir Square revolt had given Egyptians hope for a better life, and Morsi's hunger for power, and loyalty to the secretive Brotherhood, made them feel cheated. "After it took power, the Muslim Brotherhood gave people the feeling that someone was stealing their revolution," says Nasser Abd'el Hameed, a software engineer and one of the youth leaders of the 2011 uprising. "People were sure the Brotherhood would do the same corruption as Mubarak, but for their own tribe. Because of that, the reaction was extreme."
Thus popular anger and liberal fears (plus a massive state media campaign demonizing the Brotherhood as terrorists) have fed Sisi's heroic image. They also seem to have anesthetized most Egyptians to the killing by security forces of hundreds of Brotherhood protesters, and the arrest of thousands of its members - as well as the recent arrest of liberal protesters and bloggers who were key figures in the Tahrir revolt.
Sisi currently holds Egypt's most powerful post, minister of defense, and the country's newly drafted constitution exempts that job from political control for the next eight years. But the country is waiting to see if the general will run for president in elections next spring. No one doubts that he would win.
Sisi-mania makes one ask whether the Tahrir Square revolution has come full circle, with liberals and the masses electing a general after deposing a military-led regime in 2011. But the answer is far from clear.
Sisi is said to prefer wielding power from the background, since any president will be blamed for the country's continuing economic troubles. He knows that public opinion is volatile. Yet analysts here say the lack of other strong candidates may convince the general to run.
Even if he does, Egypt won't become a conventional dictatorship; there will be some space for political parties and movements to grow. Despite the current crackdown, Sisi is not cut in the mold of a Putin or Pinochet. And after Tahrir Square and Tamarod, even a general cannot ignore public opinion.
If Sisi becomes president, says Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, "Our only hope is for people to grow out of the myth that the military is the only institution able to work miracles in Egypt." A President Sisi would expedite this process, he adds, because the problems of political leadership would bring the general's star image back to Earth.