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El-Sisi: The General at the Heart of Events - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Egypt's Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seen during a news conference in Cairo on the release of seven members of the Egyptian security forces kidnapped by Islamist militants in Sinai, in this May 22, 2013 file picture. (Reuters)

Egypt’s Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seen during a news conference in Cairo on the release of seven members of the Egyptian security forces kidnapped by Islamist militants in Sinai, in this May 22, 2013 file picture. (Reuters)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Colonel General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is, now more than ever, a divisive figure in Egyptian society. There are many who laud his patriotism and the central role played by Egypt’s military institution as a stabilizing force in the country, while there are others who believe that this military figure has his own designs on power.

A broad section of Egyptian society had already dubbed Sisi “the voice of the nation” even before the army announced its support for the millions that took to the streets with one demand: the ouster of the president. General Al-Sisi took over as Defense Minister and commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces under dramatic circumstances following the killing of 16 border guards in the Sinai Peninsula.

When Sisi took up his post as Egypt’s senior-most military figure last August, the generally-held belief among Egyptians was that he was sympathetic to the president and the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite launching Operation Eagle in the Sinai to confront Islamist insurgency, few believed that Egypt’s new military commander would truly seek to clamp down on the Islamist jihadists who had infested the strategic peninsula. However, General Al-Sisi slowly showed himself to be a tough and methodical military commander. At the time, the army emphasized that they would uncover the truth behind this controversial incident which resulted in the deaths of 16 Egyptian soldiers, even after the presidency responded that this was not necessarily in the country’s interests. It was clear to observers at this time that the relationship between Egypt’s highest civilian authority and highest military authority was not entirely sound.

Sisi is the 44th Minister of Defense in the history of Egypt since the famous Ahmed Orabi, the scourge of jihadism, at the time of Khedive Tawfiq Pasha at the end of the 19th century. Asharq Al-Awsat has learnt that Sisi is a devout Muslim, praying regularly, while he is also known to enjoy reading about religious matters, particularly books written by Al-Azhar clerics.

It seems that the Islamists failed to recognize Sisi’s independence and strong patriotic convictions until it was too late. There were reports, just weeks before Mursi’s ouster, of senior Brotherhood figures attempting to convince Egypt’s first Islamist president to neutralize Sisi by appoint him as prime minister, replacing unpopular Hisham Qandil. However sources indicated that Sisi refused to consider this, when it was put to him.

Although the presidency denied offering Sisi any deal, rumors about this circulated during a very sensitive time when the army took to the streets in response to threats from Islamists against Egypt’s anti-Mursi opposition. Prior to his ouster, the Muslim Brotherhood had threatened to flood Cairo’s streets with protesters from Upper Egypt to confront anybody who rejects the president’s rule.

There were no visible reactions from Sisi as the president gave a speech on the anniversary of his inauguration in which he threatened the opposition. Sisi was shown to applaud the president several times throughout the speech but without much excitement. There can be no doubt that Sisi would have already had responses in place to deal with the expected nationwide June 30 protests as he sat through then president Mursi’s more than two hour speech.

Egypt’s military initially granted the country’s political forces a week-long deadline to find a solution to the crisis plaguing the nation. Following this, Islamist forces began warning against the dangers of violating the legitimacy of the president. When no solutions appeared, the Egyptian military granted Mursi a 48-hour deadline to resolve the situation, particularly as anti-government protests were escalating across the country. The Islamists responded by criticizing Egypt’s defense minister and warning of the consequences of a military coup against the democratically elected president. After the deadline passed, Sisi—backed by a broad section of Egyptian politicians, religious leaders, and senior judges—announced Mursi’s ouster, the annulment of his controversial constitution, and the appointment of Chief Justice Adly Mansour as interim president.

Sisi’s Facebook page reads: “The Egyptian people are the source of authority. The army is the nation’s shield.”

A source close to Sisi informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the general is a firm believer in military discipline and never expected to find himself at the helm of Egypt’s armed forces during such an unprecedented period in Egyptian history.

The military is Egypt’s strongest national institution, and has occupied a hallowed place in Egyptian society since the 1952 revolution. Many observers wondered how the military would deal with the new democratic-era in Egypt, particularly after it brought a civilian Islamist president to power.

The source informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the relationship between Mursi and Sisi grew increasingly complex due to fundamental differences in dealing with the Egyptian state, particularly as the Islamists that supported the president were pressuring him to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Egypt. While the military considered Egypt’s recognized geographic borders and its Arab surroundings as sacrosanct. The source stressed, “The state has policies and priorities that may be in conflict with Islamist organizations. Egypt has regional and international ties and must be controlled by the decisions made in Cairo.”

Since Mursi’s inauguration last year, everyone closely monitored the face he presented to the nation. The Islamists, perhaps led by Mohamed Mursi himself, wanted to get rid of anybody would could potentially stand in the way of the Ikhwanization of state institutes. They also sought to marginalize the powerful role played by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, placing Brotherhood figures in a number of key positions.

Since last February, reports and leaks indicate that many secular forces called on General El-Sisi to assume leadership of the country. Prior to Mursi’s ouster, some politicians even condemned Egypt’s army chief of sitting back and allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to destroy the country, saying that he should be playing a more proactive role. Sisi ultimately took the most pro-active decision after it became clear that Egypt’s opposition had taken to the streets, and would remain there, until Mursi’s ouster. At this point, Sisi took the critical decision.

Sisi first appeared on the public scene following President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down from power, when he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for administering state affairs. Coming from his position as director of military intelligence, Sisi was the youngest member of the military council.

Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was born in November, 1954 in the historic Khan Al-Khalil district in Cairo. He graduated from the war college and began his military career as an infantry officer in 1977. He continued his education attaining dual masters degrees in military sciences from Egyptian and British war colleges. He also attained the prestigious supreme war college fellowship at the Nasser Military Academy in 2003 as well as a fellowship at the US War College in 2006. He is married and has three sons and a daughter.

A former SCAF member recalls that Sisi rarely appeared in the media during Egypt’s transitional post-revolutionary state. The SCAF member said: “He [Sisi] didn’t want that. He listened more than he spoke. Many considered him a rare breed for a modern intelligence chief.”

Even though he was appointed to the military council that virtually ran Egypt’s affairs during the post-revolutionary period, Sisi was not as widely known as other military leaders like Hussein Tantawi, Sami Anan, Mohammad Al-Assar, and Mamdouh Shahin.

Sisi remained in virtual obscurity until Mursi’s presidency, where he was promoted to Defense Minister and army commander-in-chief following the president’s dispensal of Field Marshall Tantawi and Chief of Staff Anan. The new defense minister’s understated behavior drew the attention of many Egyptians at a time when dissatisfaction with the ruling Islamists was on the rise.

The Islamists and deposed president Mohamed Mursi now find themselves out in the cold, while Sisi and Egypt’s secular forces have taken center stage. What does the future hold for Egypt? What does the future hold for General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi? Only time will tell.