This article was originally published in POLITICO Magazine on February 18, 2014.
Cairo — A confident-looking Abdel Fattah el-Sisi strides across the tarmac at Almaza Air Base, dressed in a blue blazer and his trademark sunglasses. He is not yet Egypt’s head of state, but certainly looks like one: Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister, trails a few steps behind, half-obscured by the phalanx of military officers around Sisi. The delegation is en route to Russia to discuss a multi-billion dollar arms deal.
The next day in Moscow, a smiling Sisi shakes hands with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president wishes him well. “I know you have decided to run for president. This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people,” he says.
It is Sisi’s first foreign trip since he overthrew President Mohamed Morsi last summer, and it ticks all the boxes: The army chief doffing his uniform, acting like a statesman, shoring up relations with a popular ally.
Except, despite Putin’s good wishes, Sisi hasn’t actually announced a presidential bid yet. For the second time this month, a foreign dignitary got ahead of the army chief. Last week it was Ahmed El-Garallah, the editor of Al-Seyassah, a Kuwaiti newspaper of dubious reliability, who interviewed Sisi at the Defense Ministry and reported that he would run for president, only to have the army deny the story hours later.
In public, Sisi is the subject of a massive cult of personality. Posters of him are everywhere; a particularly large one, in a gilded frame, stands outside the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s top appeals court, in downtown Cairo. Vendors sell Sisi jewelry, Sisi chocolates, even Sisi pajamas. Chefs discuss his merits with callers while chopping vegetables on cooking shows.
But for all the adulation, Sisi is something of an enigma. Nobody knows how he would govern as president, or even if he really wants the job. His best-known statements are platitudes, one-liners about Egypt as the “mother of the universe,” its people “the light of our eyes.”
Even those who know him personally say he didn’t make a deep impression. “Warm eyes,” is how one former army colleague remembers him. “A quiet guy, very thoughtful,” according to his former academic adviser. So it’s a bit of a mystery how he ended up in a position to replace Hosni Mubarak, the longtime dictator who was deposed in February 2011 amid huge protests centered around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“I think he got caught up in the fever of the country,” says Sameh Saif el-Yazal, a retired general from the same military intelligence division Sisi once commanded. “After a really bad year with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the president, the people believe that without [Sisi] the country is going to collapse.”
Sisi’s public persona suggests a larger-than-life figure, a modern-day Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Nasser had Nasserism: None of Sisi’s actions over the past few years even suggest much of a governing philosophy. One observer likened him to a “consumer product,” a popular and trustworthy symbol of the army reasserting itself as the dominant force in Egypt’s political life.
“There’s really nothing supporting all of this. It’s totally hollow, aside from jingoistic nationalism about the role of Egypt,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation. “It’s a fairly conservative society … that has a pretty deep-seated impulse toward stability and normalcy. They’ve projected all that hope onto this individual.”
Sisi was born in 1954 in Gamaleya, one of the oldest districts in Cairo, home to the ancient Khan al-Khalili bazaar. He was one of eight children; his father, a religious man, was a craftsman who owned a shop in the souq.
He received his officer’s commission after graduating from the military academy in 1977. It was the same year Anwar Sadat opened peace negotiations with Menachem Begin, putting an end to three decades of wars with Israel. Sisi has never seen combat; he made rank in a peacetime military, amassing a chest full of ceremonial medals: He wears a “silver jubilee” decoration for the anniversary of the October War, another for the 50th anniversary of the 1952 revolution that overthrew King Farouk.
Sisi rose through an army that was rapidly reorienting itself away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States. Today more than half of Egypt’s combat aircraft, and nearly two-thirds of its tanks, are American-made; it relies heavily on the United States for maintenance and spare parts—to the tune of $1.3 billion in annual military aid from Washington, which covers some 80 percent of Cairo’s arms purchases. Big-ticket items are bought on credit: Egypt can make large orders now, and pay for them over a period of several years, an arrangement known as “cash-flow financing.” Israel is the only other country that enjoys this privilege.
Beyond that, the two militaries conduct numerous joint training programs, including the biannual Bright Star exercise, and dozens of Egyptian officers train at American institutions.
One of those students was Sisi himself, who in 2006 was sent to the U.S. Army War College for a yearlong master’s-degree program that has become a way station for up-and-coming Egyptian officers. Other graduates include Gen. Sedki Sobhi, the current chief of staff and a likely successor to Sisi should he resign to pursue the presidency.
Sisi’s year in Pennsylvania coincided with the worst points of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, when sectarian attacks were killing thousands of civilians each month. The Bush administration, meanwhile, was continuing a rhetorical push for democracy around the region: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a speech in Cairo in mid-2005 calling on the Egyptian government to “fulfill the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose.”
Sisi and other Arab officers in the program were skeptical. “He was telling me stuff that I didn’t know, walking me through why America was pretty naive,” says Stephen Gerras, a professor and retired army colonel who was Sisi’s faculty adviser. “We think that the focus is democracy, but what they really want is to feed their families. I’m not sure Americans understand that… he never said that democracy is not the way to go, but that it’s more difficult than you think it will be.”
Sisi elaborated on those views in an 11-page thesis entitled “Democracy in the Middle East,” which was leaked publicly last year. The paper is not particularly enlightening, full of boilerplate rhetoric (politics in the region “is not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template,” he notes). But the paper shows his belief that there are structural obstacles to democracy, from poverty to personalities. He would return to some of that thinking, conveniently enough, after overthrowing Morsi in July 2013.
“[He] was very cynical about the whole push for democracy, and did not like a lot of the oversimplified comments of classmates,” says Sherifa Zuhur, a former professor at the college who taught Sisi. “He thought that poverty and poor education are impediments to democracy, and so was the long-standing winner-take-all mentality in regional politics.”
After returning to Egypt, Sisi headed the northern command based in Alexandria, followed by the military intelligence directorate. Little is known about that latter stint, and officers who served with him would not comment on their old commander. But the job made him a powerful insider in the waning days of the Mubarak regime. The directorate is responsible for providing intelligence on foreign armies; perhaps more importantly, though, it vets the Egyptian military, monitoring soldiers and officers for loyalty.
Sisi briefly made headlines in April 2012 when he issued a statement defending “virginity tests” carried out on female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, saying they were done “to protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape.” But he was still a relatively unknown public figure when Morsi appointed him defense minister in August 2012.
The move was seen at the time as a strategic coup by Egypt’s first-ever civilian president. Morsi sacked Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the longtime defense minister under Hosni Mubarak, replacing him with a general seen as his hand-picked choice. There was a great deal of media speculation about Sisi’s religious beliefs—was he a closet supporter of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood?—and about his wife’s choice of clothing, whether she wore a headscarf or a full-face niqab. (The army definitively answered that question on Monday when it released the first official images of Intisar el-Sisi: She is seated next to her husband at an army ceremony, wearing a hijab in the style favored by many upper-middle-class Egyptian women.)
But the idea that a Muslim Brotherhood-backed president would put the all-powerful military back in its box was a fantasy.
“It was a myth. This was presented to Morsi as, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do.’ It was internally managed within SCAF,” says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and Egypt expert at Kent State University, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military’s top decision-making body. “Morsi couldn’t even get an Internet connection in Cairo. The idea that this guy took control of the military, that he followed in the footsteps of Sadat, was just laughable.”
Over the next few months Sisi kept a relatively low public profile, delivering a series of speeches to military audiences. His remarks were aimed at rebuilding the morale of an army shaken by criticism during the 16 months it assumed formal power after Mubarak’s ouster. In October 2012, for example, he addressed the Third Army, praising its efforts “under the most difficult circumstances” to “safeguard the people’s revolution.”
A leaked video from around this time shows Sisi addressing a crowd of senior military men, many of them worried about the erosion of “red lines” which, for decades, shielded the army from public debate. The video is undated, but their references to a December 2012 constitutional referendum suggest it was filmed during that winter.
In the video, an officer named Omar suggests approaching the handful of businessmen who control Egypt’s media, to “cajole or intimidate them” into self-censorship. Sisi interrupts him, saying “I know how to win them over, but tell me, how do you suggest I intimidate them?”
Critics have described the video as evidence of the army plotting to muzzle the press. But it also shows Sisi explaining to his fellow officers that they might face increased oversight from the public, and from a civilian government. “We have to be prepared to face these changes without being too negatively affected by them, but they will affect us,” he says.
At this point, the army was still trying to stay on the sidelines, part of an unwritten agreement in which it ceded political space to the Brotherhood. The deal was beginning to fray, though. In November 2012, Morsi sparked mass protests by issuing a decree granting him near-absolute powers. Sisi began to act independently from the president, trying to organize talks with opposition leaders.
In January 2013, several Suez Canal-zone cities were gripped by riots, a sign of the mounting opposition to Morsi’s rule. He was forced to call in the army to restore order, and the generals used the deployment to undermine his credibility. Sisi warned of the looming “collapse of the state,” but promised that the army would remain a “solid and cohesive block” on which the nation could rely.
“[The bargain] didn’t deliver the kind of stability they had hoped for, so they reversed it and started again at square one,” says Hesham Sallam, an Egyptian academic and writer. “There is a strong realization that protecting their interests while staying completely out of the business of governing Egypt may not be feasible.”
If the United States is alarmed by the rise of a new military ruler in Egypt, it has said and done little of consequence to prevent it. Since the coup, Sisi has become Washington’s main interlocutor in Cairo. He met Chuck Hagel in April, when the U.S. defense secretary made a visit to Egypt; the two men have spoken on the phone dozens of times since then. Sisi usually uses an interpreter, but his English is good enough to speak to Hagel without one.
They spoke twice in the week leading up to July 3, when Morsi was removed from power. Hagel warned against the looming coup, as did Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But their message was not backed up by any concrete threats, beyond vague warnings that overthrowing Morsi could affect the long-standing military relationship.
Those warnings were largely unfounded. The Obama administration suspended a fraction of U.S. aid to Egypt and cancelled the Bright Star exercise, symbolic steps with no real political ramifications in Egypt.
But it has tied itself in knots to avoid calling what happened a coup, which by law would trigger a complete cutoff in aid. The administration eventually decided not to decide: “There was a determination made that we [do] not need to make a designation” on whether it was a coup, a State Department spokesperson said in August.
The White House is also loath to anger key allies in the Gulf, which enthusiastically backed Morsi’s ouster, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is already furious about Obama’s reluctance to back rebel fighters in Syria. So it has refrained from commenting on Sisi’s potential candidacy, simply urging Egypt to pursue a “democratic civilian-led government.”
Instead, Hagel’s regular calls with Sisi have focused on reassuring the Egyptians that any reassessment of the relationship will not mean a rupture.
Sisi’s concerns have sometimes been more personal, however. The Egyptian press has a habit of mistranslating and misrepresenting articles from Western papers, and the general was sometimes alarmed by what he read. “For Sisi, what mattered most was his honor. He didn’t want Hagel to think he had lied to him, which the media sometimes suggested,” says Andrew Exum, a former Pentagon official who worked on Egypt policy after the coup.
In an August interview with the Washington Post, Sisi even accused the United States of siding with the Muslim Brotherhood. “You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that,” he said. It was a message he also delivered directly to Hagel. “It was a very Manichean choice they gave us: We were either with the terrorists, the Brotherhood, or against them. It reminded me of President Bush’s post-9/11 rhetoric,” Exum says.
Sisi is usually less strident in public: Since the coup he has given only occasional speeches, almost all to military audiences. He speaks softly in colloquial Arabic, peppering his remarks with praise for the Egyptian people and for the army, which remains the most-respected national institution. Many Egyptians find him a refreshing change from Morsi, who could drone on for hours, often shouting and wagging his finger at the audience.
“We would die before you would feel pain,” Sisi said at an Oct. 6 ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1973 war. “We are committed, in front of God … that we will protect Egypt, the Egyptians and their free will.”
But Sisi’s critical and defensive tone emerged again in a set of potentially more embarrassing leaks this winter. They stem from an October interview with Yasser Rizk, the editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, a once-bold independent newspaper that over the past year has become almost indistinguishable from the state-run press. During the interview, Sisi describes the Brotherhood as a narrow ideological group unable to govern inclusively, a view shared by many of his countrymen.
“When the Brotherhood reached power, the question was not whether Morsi was going to be a president for all Egyptians, but rather if he wanted to be a president for all Egyptians,” Sisi tells Rizk. “Islam for an individual is different from Islam for a group or for a state.”
Transcripts of the interview released by Al-Masry Al-Youm cover only a fraction of the four-hour conversation. But leaked excerpts continue to surface every few weeks, and while neither the military nor the paper have confirmed their authenticity, several journalists were suspended for leaking the clips, and analysts say they are likely genuine.
In one recording, Sisi asks Rizk to start a campaign with prominent intellectuals. “There should be an article in the constitution that protects General Sisi and protects my position as minister of defense and allows him to return to the position if he doesn’t get the presidency,” he says, adding that the military should be given immunity for its actions “during the current period.”
His comments suggest a personal fear that he could find himself out of a job if his campaign fails. They also underscore the military’s institutional concerns: By toppling Morsi, and throwing its support behind Sisi, the army has made itself responsible for the deadly crackdown on the Brotherhood. It will also take ownership of Egypt’s mounting problems, which include not just an insurgency but also a stagnant economy and looming energy crisis.
Expectations are almost impossibly high. Earlier this month, more than 100 workers were laid off from the Cairo Tower, a tourist attraction in the upscale Zamalek neighborhood. “They called on Sisi to solve their problem, and hung his pictures on the walls of the tower,” Al-Masry Al-Youm reported.
Yet it remains unclear whether Sisi, a career military man, has any ideas for tackling these myriad financial and social woes.
“It is a very dangerous and destabilizing game, and it could backfire if the military as an institution will have to pay the bill politically for Sisi’s shortcomings as a leader,” Sallam says.
Another leaked recording focuses on Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood official who broke away and formed the moderately Islamist “Strong Egypt” party. Rizk worries that Aboul Fotouh “will hang us like carcasses” if he wins the presidency. “He is extremist Brotherhood,” Sisi concurs, adding that Egypt will have problems “when people who do not understand Egypt’s role and weight rule [the country].” (The concern seems misplaced: Aboul Fotouh placed fourth in the 2012 presidential election, winning about 17 percent of the popular vote in the first round. Since then, he has staked out a position as one of the few principled critics of both Morsi and the army-backed government that replaced him. But he said last week that he will not run for president, calling the political process a “mockery” of elections.)
The exchange seems to highlight not only Sisi’s antipathy toward the Brotherhood, but the army’s general distrust of Egypt’s political class. “They do not think kindly of civilian politicians,” Hanna says. “There’s a broader fear of how such a figure could run the country as political, economic and security crises deepen, a lack of confidence that alternate figures could be trusted.”
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made that clear last month when it issued a statement calling Sisi’s run for the presidency “a mandate and an obligation.” He thanked the council, the statement said, for allowing him “the right to respond to the call of duty.”
So far, though, the newly minted field marshal has not officially responded. Politicians and diplomats say he’s trying to line up a governing team before announcing his candidacy. He reportedly offered the prime minister’s job to Amr Moussa, the longtime Arab League chief, who declined it.
There was one more leaked recording, released in December, which drew a great deal of mockery and concern. In the clip, Sisi tells Rizk that he has “a long history” of prophetic dreams. One of them featured Sadat, Nasser’s mercurial and insecure successor. “I always knew I would be president of the republic,” Sadat told him, to which Sisi replied, “I also know that I will be president.” Another dream somewhat inexplicably involved an Omega watch with “a bright green star on it.”
Critics wondered if Sisi’s comments reflected a messianic streak. But perhaps a man who seeks solace in dreams is also a bit worried about his place in Egypt’s chaotic political life.
“He’s insecure, paranoid … his governing coalition is incredibly narrow and weak,” Stacher says. “Everyone remembers Nasser now as all-powerful, but he was hyper-insecure for the first 10 years of his reign … Sisi is weak like Nasser was, but unlike Nasser, he can’t offer much to the people. If I were him, I would be pretty nervous.”