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Egypt's Army Chief Poised to Announce Presidency Bid

  • Reuters

Egypt's Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013.

Egypt's Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013.

Three years after the “Arab Spring” toppled Hosni Mubarak, a secretive field marshal with a cult-like following is expected to announce his candidacy for the presidency of Egypt ahead of elections which he is expected to win easily.

Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has come under pressure to run from members of the public who reject the Islamist government he toppled last year, and from the armed forces who want a president who can face down growing political violence.

He has calculated that he can win the votes of those who backed Mohamed Morsi for president in 2012 simply because he represented change from the era of former air force commander Mubarak, ousted in the revolutions that swept the Arab world.

But despite his present popularity, el-Sissi has no record as a democrat and has shown himself willing to use deadly force against those who disagree with him.

El-Sissi has trodden a careful path to power since overthrowing Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, last July.

It's the kind of measured advance he has made all his life, from his childhood in the dirt lanes of Cairo's Gamaliya district, to the highest rank in one of the largest armies in the Middle East. On Monday, the presidency announced he was promoted to field marshal from general.

Friends and family speak of him of as a man of few words and decisive action.

“He loved to listen and carefully study what was said. After he heard many opinions then he would suddenly strike,” said his cousin Fathi el-Sissi, who runs a shop selling handicrafts.

“Abdel Fattah had one thing in mind: work, the military, rising to the top.”

The world knew little of el-Sissi before he appeared on television on July 3 and announced the removal of Morsi after mass protests against the Islamist leader.

It was Morsi who appointed el-Sissi army chief of staff and defense minister in August 2012, perhaps his gravest mistake.

Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, wanted a young general to reduce the influence of the military old guard who had served under the autocratic Mubarak before the 2011 revolution.

His reputation for being a pious Muslim may have also appealed to Morsi.

But while Morsi appeared deaf to criticism, el-Sissi was tuned in to the rising discontent on the streets over the Brotherhood's mismanagement. Eventually he issued an ultimatum to the man who appointed him: Bow to the demands of protesters within 48 hours or the military will act.

Intelligence background

El-Sissi, born on Nov. 19, 1954, honed his strategic skills in the shadowy world of military intelligence, which he headed under Mubarak. He was the youngest member of the military council which ruled Egypt for 18 months after Mubarak's fall.

Western diplomats say el-Sissi has been weighing whether to stand for president with his usual caution, and only decided to run recently.

“I suppose in the back of his mind is the fact that once he takes off his military uniform he suddenly becomes more vulnerable. There is always the chance of another takeover,” said a Western diplomat.

A senior European diplomat says it's mission impossible.

“There is a belief among diplomats that he is making a big mistake by going for this job. He will expose himself and the army. The army may act if things go wrong and its image is tarnished. His fall could be sudden and sharp,” said the diplomat.

Others also seem to have had their doubts. The prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, a major financial backer of Egypt after the downfall of Morsi, said it would be better if el-Sissi stayed in the military, before rapidly issuing a clarification saying that was not what he had meant.

El-Sissi's comments in the spring of 2013, when frustrations with Morsi were growing, suggested he would never stage a military takeover, let alone run for president even though he was deeply suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“With all respect for those who say to the army: 'go into the street', if this happened, we won't be able to speak of Egypt moving forward for 30 or 40 years,” el-Sissi said then.

His own writings from his time at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2006 reflected an awareness that ensuring democracy in the Middle East may be fraught with difficulties.

Despite the risks, el-Sissi decided to run because pressure from the street had grown immensely and junior officers in the army urged him to contest elections because they did not feel politicians could handle Egypt's security challenges.

Islamist militants in the Sinai have stepped up attacks since el-Sissi ousted Morsi, killing hundreds of security forces. And the Islamist insurgency is also gathering pace in other parts of Egypt, including Cairo.

El-Sissi enjoys the backing of the army, Egypt's most powerful institution, the Interior Ministry, many liberal politicians and Mubarak era officials and businessmen who have made a comeback since Morsi's demise.

Judging by his popularity, those forces are likely to give him plenty of time to prove himself as president, and there are no other politicians who could challenge el-Sissi anytime soon.

It remains to be seen whether el-Sissi's caution which worked for him as a military strongman can be translated into the skills needed as a president.

But his maneuvering before Morsi's fall suggests el-Sissi could grow into the role of politician. He gained consensus among key players, from political leaders to clerics, before making his move.

El-Sissi has not said how he intends to tackle Egypt's many problems, from a stuttering economy to street chaos and escalating violence by militants. But those who have met him recently say he understands the need to fight poverty.

To many Egyptians, he seems invincible for now, a strong figure many are craving after years of turbulence.

At a coffee shop near his old neighborhood, an el-Sissi poster is displayed alongside black and white photographs of previous soldiers turned rulers: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

Can he save Egypt?

Admirers of el-Sissi, who knew him as a young man, believe his single-mindedness will be enough to rescue Egypt.

A resident who knew him said that while other local boys played football or smoked, el-Sissi and friends lifted barbells made of metal pipes and rocks -- an early sign of the discipline that would take him far.

“Abdel Fattah always seemed to have a goal. He had willpower,” said Atif al-Zaabalawi, a dye factory worker who used to see el-Sissi in the area.

Neighbors say he came from a tightly knit religious family. His cousin said el-Sissi had memorized the Koran and his favorite dish was one often eaten on religious occasions.

The father encouraged him to work in his shop every day after school. He lived in a small apartment on the rooftop of a run-down building owned by his extended family.

“When an apartment was sold it was only sold within the family. Between brothers for instance,” said his cousin, adding that el-Sissi had married within the extended family.

These days it's hard to escape el-Sissi. His image is on everything from mugs and t-shirts to pajamas and even chocolates.

But critics, both Islamists and liberals, are alarmed by what appears to be a systematic stifling of dissent. Since el-Sissi removed Morsi, hundreds of Islamist protesters have been killed and thousands jailed.

In a few days in August, security forces smashed up Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo, killing hundreds in the bloodiest civil unrest in Egypt's modern history.

In recent months, the ruthless crackdown has extended to prominent liberals, including some who supported the army's removal of Morsi. Under el-Sissi, protesting without permission has become a crime which can be punished by a life sentence.

El-Sissi's election would signal a return to the oppression of the past, opponents say.

“It will be the final confirmation that Egypt is going backwards and that a corrupt, brutal, anti-democratic illegitimate leadership has aborted Egyptians' dreams of a democratic civil state,” said Salma Ali, a spokeswoman for an Islamist alliance that opposes Morsi's removal.

Yet even visiting American politicians seem to have been swept up in el-Sissi mania. After meeting with el-Sissi, Representative Cynthia Loomis sounded deeply impressed.

“He spoke both aspirationally and as an implementer. It seemed like he was multi-dimensional.”

Retired general Sameh Seif Elyazal says el-Sissi will likely ask Egyptians, who have driven out two presidents in the past three years, to be patient.

“He hasn't got an immediate solution for everything. I think he will tell the people we have issues and these issues will take some time. You have to bear with me. We will suffer a little bit,” said Elyazal, who meets el-Sissi on a monthly basis.

But some wonder if the people will be more patient with el-Sissi than they were with Morsi, who lasted only a year in office.

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