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Egyptian Field Marshal Abd El-Fattah El-Sisi: A profile
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
When the last war between Egypt and Israel was fought in 1973, Abd El-Fattah El-Sisi was almost 19 years old. Four years later, he graduated from the Military Academy and began an astounding career that brought him in 2012, after 35 years of service, to the top position as Commander in Chief of the Egyptian army and Egypt's Minister of Defense and Military Production.
Sisi was born on November 19, 1954, and grew up in Gamaliya, Cairo's old Islamic district. Sisi has been very secretive about his childhood and his origins. His official history begins with his graduation from Egypt's Military Academy on April 1, 1977. His military career is a reflection of the strategic decision made by the late Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat to change Egypt's course from a Soviet-oriented country and become an ally of the United States and the West.
Sisi underwent key training in the U.S. and the UK. He attended a basic infantry course in the U.S. and later attended the Joint Command and Staff College at Kimberly in the UK in 1992. He was sent to the U.S. Army War College in 2006. In Egypt, Sisi completed a Bachelor of Military Sciences and then a Master's degree from the Egyptian Staff and Command College in 1987. He later went to the Nasser Higher Military Academy in 2003.
Sisi's career began in the mechanized infantry, where he was, successively, commander of the 509th mechanized infantry battalion, chief-of-staff of the 134th mechanized infantry brigade, commander of the 16th mechanized infantry brigade, and finally chief-of-staff of the 2nd mechanized infantry division, before being nominated to the prestigious positions of chief-of-staff of the northern military zone in 2008 and afterwards as deputy director of the military intelligence and reconnaissance department (2011).
As such, Sisi was part of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, who ruled Egypt after President Mubarak's resignation in January 2011 until the elections which were won by the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized but least qualified party. This led to the election of Muslim Brother Mohammad Morsi as president. Morsi took advantage of a surprise terrorist attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula, and replaced the aging Tantawi with Sisi on August 12, 2012, in an unprecedented reshuffle of the military that was meant to signal the takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a whole. Sisi was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General (Fariq Awwal) and also took the post of Minister of Defense and Military Production.
Eleven months later, in response to mass demonstrations calling for Morsi's overthrow that took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo, as well as in other big Egyptian cities such as Alexandria, Suez, and Port-Said, Sisi presented an ultimatum that the demands of the anti-Morsi demonstrators be met by July 3, 2013. Morsi's refusal to deal with the issue led to his replacement by a transitional government headed by Hazem el-Beblawi and an interim president, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mansour el-Adly. Sisi became the strong man, keeping his previous positions as head of the armed forces and Minister of Defense and Military Production. On January 27, 2014, Sisi was promoted to the highest rank in the Egyptian army – Field Marshal (Mushir in Arabic) – on the same day in which the Arab press leaked that Sisi had finally decided to run for the office of President of Egypt in the elections to be held in 2014.
Sisi enjoys unprecedented popularity in Egypt. He is viewed as a superhero who saved Egypt from anarchy, civil war, and the despotism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Between TV commercials used to advertise food products, groups on social networking sites, and posters in the street, Egypt has been witnessing "Sisi fever." Talk shows and newspaper columns have been advocating the idea of the general running for president in order to fight the terrorist threat that they say the country is facing. Local media are also buzzing about the widespread support for a Sisi presidency.
In fact, Sisi has no real competitor. Most of the other potential candidates – Amr Moussa, Ahmad Shafik, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abd el Muneim Aboul Foutouh – have declared that if Sisi would run for president, they would retract their candidacies. Recently, a number of campaigns have been launched calling on the general to run for president. The campaigns are called "Complete Your Favor," "A Nation's Demand," and "Al-Sisi for President." Their aim is to circulate petitions with the hope that 30 million signatures will convince Sisi to run, just as millions of signatures convinced him to act against Morsi.
However, now that he will probably be Egypt's next president, the question remains: Who in fact is Sisi?
A Carefully Crafted Image
Very few details are known about his character, let alone about his personal life. Sisi has been very careful not to open a dialogue with the media about himself, his family, or his personal thoughts. Most of the details about him are scarce and difficult to verify. He generally communicates through speeches and has conducted interviews on very few occasions. Far from being a stern military figure, he has a charismatic presence, often smiling.
He is known for his emotional speeches, but is neither a populist nor a demagogue. He does not use pompous language or inflammatory vocabulary. He uses simple words and sentences spoken in a soft tone, never showing exasperation, anger, or ardor. He prefers to speak in colloquial Egyptian Arabic rather than official literary Arabic, and he is known for his poignant addresses that make his audience weep in sympathy. At a concert in 2012, his words had artists on the stage with him in tears. Some of his statements have become part of the Egyptian cultural heritage, such as, "We would prefer to die before you [the Egyptian people] would feel the pain," "The hand that harms any Egyptian must be cut," and "When you [the Egyptian people] wanted the change, you changed things; you are the light of our eyes."
Sisi has always stressed that "the Egyptian army will implement the orders of the people." Since his nomination by Morsi, Sisi has been very careful to "ask the people to move" before he carries out any task.
It seems that Sisi has learned the lessons of a mistake he made in April 2012. At that time, he made headlines with a statement that appeared to defend "virginity tests" carried out on 17 women who were detained and beaten by soldiers at an anti-Mubarak protest in Tahrir Square in March 2011. Sisi said that the tests had been conducted "to protect the girls from rape and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape." SCAF quickly distanced itself from the comments and Sisi quickly promised to abolish such tests, but the incident was a blow to the military's image.
Accordingly, it seems that Sisi has perfected his approach to the media by choosing a very able PR team that handles all his public appearances, functions, and events. No doubt the "Sisi fever" is being fueled partly by Sisi himself or by people around him who support him. These supporters stress his charisma, his popularity, and his authoritative demeanor. They also emphasize that Sisi is someone who makes tough, harsh, and unpopular decisions, and yet at the same time presents himself as the "guardian of the people's will" and delivers colloquial and sentimental speeches to the nation.
More interesting is the concentrated effort to picture Sisi as the political heir of the iconic President Gamal Abd el Nasser. Sisi himself has revived the Nasserist cult and participated in the 43rd memorial ceremony commemorating Nasser's death. Sisi has also allowed posters to spread with his picture adjacent to the venerated president, invited Nasser's son and daughter to official ceremonies (such as the one held to commemorate the "October War"), and used Nasser's "magic words" in his speeches. When these phrases are pronounced by Sisi, Egyptians are able to envision him as the successor to Nasser, the Egyptian leader who fought the Muslim Brotherhood domestically and led Egypt to the leadership of the Arab World and the non-aligned community.
In a way, Sisi's revival of Nasser's memory was a way for him to satisfy deeply buried longings for an era of Egyptian prominence in Arab and world politics. Nasser's family has mobilized in order to give Sisi the legitimacy to present himself as Nasser's political successor. Nasser's daughter Huda wrote an open letter to Sisi urging him to "step forward and take responsibility for the destiny that is yours." However, military sources close to Sisi stress that by portraying Sisi as the political continuation of Nasser, this does not mean in any way a recapitulation of the Nasserist policies; rather, it symbolizes Sisi's will to fulfill Nasser's aspiration for "social justice" in Egyptian society.
Known as a devout Muslim, Sisi generally begins his days with the morning prayer (Salat el-fajr), but his faith has not invaded his political rhetoric. Sisi's wife, like most Egyptian women, wears the hijab (veil) in public. Perhaps because of these facts, and certainly after having been chosen by President Morsi as the replacement for Field Marshal Tantawi, analysts mistakenly thought that Sisi's nomination reflected a personal affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, it seems that Sisi's reflections on Islam and the role of religion in state affairs are quite different. In a recent speech at the Department of Moral Affairs of the armed forces, Sisi declared that "religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people," and pointed to the need for a new vision and a modern comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam, rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years.
Sisi is the father of four children: three sons and a daughter. His three sons graduated from the Military Academy and have joined different units in the Egyptian Armed Forces. The eldest of the brothers is married to the daughter of the Director of Military Intelligence, General Mahmoud Hijazi. Sisi's daughter got married, far from the limelight, at the end of January 2014.
A Veteran of Politics
Sisi is not a newcomer in Egyptian politics. In his capacity as a member of SCAF, for two years he was the liaison officer between SCAF and the different political parties on the Egyptian scene. This helped him learn the intricacies of politics in Egypt and become personally acquainted with every political faction.
Sisi has won the admiration of Egyptians mainly because of his character. The infantry officer has proven his tenacity, his stubbornness, and his courage when he decided to confront the Muslim Brotherhood, the arch-enemies of the military for almost eight decades. He is known to be a good analyst, a tactician, and a long-term strategist. In a rare interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri el-Yawm, Sisi revealed that in his capacity as Head of Intelligence, he presented Field Marshal Tantawi, then Minister of Defense and Military Production, with a paper forecasting the upheaval in Egypt one year later. Asked about this analysis and the ways he reached his conclusion, Sisi was only willing to say that the armed forces had the means to monitor the domestic scene.
Since July 3, 2013, Sisi has been regarded as a man of deep thinking, an excellent strategist, and a workaholic who gets things done on schedule. People who know him say that he is used to handling crises, a person who thinks out of the box and is flexible enough to use unconventional methods. He is known to plan ahead several moves in advance and seems able to carry out his plans. A military man to the core, he is not the type of person who would tolerate inefficiency. In response to a question of how he would handle things if ever he became president, he replied with humor – "nobody would sleep" – meaning that everybody would be working day and night and there would be no slacking off or any excuses accepted.
Since summer 2013, in less than eight months, Sisi made several radical decisions that changed the course of events in Egypt:
1. Ousting Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood was planning a wave of arrests, which Sisi knew about ahead of time. As a result, he ordered the deployment of the Egyptian army at all strategic points in Cairo and Egypt's other main cities, which took Morsi and his followers by surprise. On July 3, Sisi had his last meeting with Morsi, at the end of which he told Morsi: "You should see yourself as being confined to your quarters!"
2. Cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood. In August 2013, contrary to "advice" given by the American administration, Sisi unleashed the armed forces against Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators who were paralyzing Cairo and Egypt's other main cities. Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members as well as hundreds of police officers were killed in the ensuing clashes. At the end of the day, Sisi was ruthless and unwilling to compromise. The price was high, but Egypt had returned to being governable, and he had put a stop to political Islam. The U.S. administration chose to punish the new governing team, claiming that Morsi was a legitimate ruler because he was elected in free elections. The U.S. "delayed" part of its military aid to Egypt and halted arms deliveries that were already on their way. In a candid interview with the Washington Post on August 3, 2013, Sisi accused the Obama administration of betraying Egypt: "You left the Egyptians," he said. "You turned your back on the Egyptians and they won't forget that."
3. Fighting jihadists in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza. Sisi had inherited a very dire situation where the Sinai Peninsula was being invaded by waves of jihadists who challenged Egypt's authority and sovereignty in the peninsula. President Morsi had made a mockery of the Egyptian army's efforts to eradicate the phenomenon in Sinai. Morsi had ordered the release of terrorists from prison and allowed hundreds of them to find a safe haven in Sinai. Since July 2013, the Egyptian army has declared war against the jihadists in Sinai. The Egyptian army also turned against Hamas in Gaza, accusing the terrorist group of cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood against the regime. Hundreds of tunnels were destroyed, and a de-facto siege has been put in place in order to put a halt to arms trafficking between Gaza and Sinai. The Egyptian press even hinted that Hamas would be the next target to be subdued by the Egyptian regime. Sisi's working relations with his Israeli counterparts have allowed greater freedom of maneuverability for the Egyptian armed forces in Sinai, easing the task of combating jihadists there.
4. Saving the Egyptian economy from collapse. In his long military career, Sisi served as military attaché in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He kept good relations with the Saudis, who were the first to come to Egypt's rescue after the ousting of Morsi. Sisi secured $14-16 billion in loans from the Gulf states, which were essential to keep the Egyptian economy afloat. Sisi even succeeded to get a Saudi loan of $2 billion for the purchase of military equipment from Russia.
5. Warming relations with Russia and the continuing chill with the United States. Except for contacts between U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Sisi, little has happened to restore relations between the two countries. On the contrary, the Egyptian authorities recently arrested an Egyptian employee at the American Embassy and accused him of being the liaison between the Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. Embassy. Moreover, the Obama administration is being accused of lobbying the former chief of staff, Sami Anan, to become a candidate for the presidency against Sisi. Needless to say, Anan is now being accused in the Egyptian media of being an agent of the United States.
The Egyptian answer to the Obama administration's "punishment" was expected: a turn toward Moscow. Sisi understood the rising power of Russia in the Middle East and the declining influence of the United States, the superpower that reigned unchallenged in the region since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The "Arab Spring" has taken a heavy toll on American influence in the area and a series of ill-fated decisions (mainly in the Libyan and Syrian crises as well as a bad choice made by the U.S. administration relating to Egypt) were instrumental in the emergence of Russia as an alternative power in the region.
First came the visit of the Russian minister of defense accompanied by the minister of foreign affairs in mid-November 2013. This was followed by Sisi's first-ever visit to Russia, probably to conclude the arms deal negotiated during an earlier visit to Cairo by a Russian team, and to discuss other issues, including the possibility of granting Russia a naval base in Alexandria and cooperation in the nuclear energy field. In addition, Sisi even received a "green light" and a blessing from Putin to run for President of Egypt.
6. Setting the domestic agenda. The overwhelming vote of support for the new Egyptian constitution on January 15, 2014, is definitely the highlight of Sisi's victory over the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi looked at the issue as a vote of confidence, which he received. However, instead of moving forward with legislative elections, Sisi has chosen to first hold presidential elections. This decision will make it easier for the president to influence the composition of the next parliament. The new Egyptian constitution gives a paramount role to the armed forces, cementing their grip as the Praetorian guard of Egypt and creating a situation in which the armed forces are the de-facto custodians of Egypt's political future.
At the same time, however, since the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood and in wake of the mounting terrorist campaign inside Egypt, individual liberties have been eroded, criticism against the military and the regime is being stifled, journalists have been arrested, and the freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution has been restricted.
The course of events is shaping Sisi into the next leader of Egypt. According to Robert Spring writing in Foreign Affairs, "although Sisi has vowed to lead Egypt through a democratic transition, there are plenty of indications that he is less than enthusiastic about democracy and that he intends to hold on to political power himself. But that's not to say that he envisions a return to the secular authoritarianism of Egypt's recent past. Given the details of Sisi's biography and the content of his only published work, a thesis he wrote in 2006 while studying at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, it seems possible that he might have something altogether different in mind: a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism." Only time will tell if this is indeed what Sisi has in mind, or whether we are about to witness once more the return of the old "militocracies" that ruled the Arab world for decades.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.