Egypt's Sisi: From 'Morsi's man' to people's army chief
Issued on: Modified:
When Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi appointed Abdel Fattah al Sisi the new army chief and defence minister last year, there were rumours of Sisi's alleged Muslim Brotherhood links. Now Morsi's appointed army chief has taken on the president.
Barely a year after he was named Egypt’s army chief by President Mohammed Morsi, Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi issued an ultimatum to the man who appointed him – as well as other Egyptian politicians – on Monday night.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called on the army on Tuesday to withdraw the ultimatum for him to share power with his opponents.
"President Mohammed Morsi asserts his grasp on constitutional legitimacy and...calls on the armed forces to withdraw their warning and refuses to be dictated to internally or externally," said a post on the Egyptian president's official Twitter feed.
As the sturdy, square-jawed military man warned Egypt’s politicians that they had 48 hours to clear up the current crisis or face the consequences, his TV appearance sparked jubilant scenes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Protesters cheered, motorists honked their horns, and as army helicopters hovered over the square dropping Egyptian flags in a startling display of populism, protesters roared, “Come down Sisi, Morsi is not my president”.
From a man who was once reviled for attempting to justify the army’s invasive “virginity tests” on female detainees to a hero of the crowds on Tahrir Square, Sisi has shot sky high in the opposition’s popularity ratings.
‘The Brotherhood’s No. 1 choice’
Born in Cairo on November 19, 1954, Sisi was viewed as the face of a new generation when he was appointed army chief and defence minister in August 2012.
The appointment came shortly after Morsi assumed office and ordered Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the 76-year-old head of SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) into retirement.
But Sisi’s appointment by Egypt’s first non-military, Islamist president also sparked reports that the new army chief had links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The reports of Islamist links were denied by Muslim Brotherhood officials. But the rumours persisted.
In an interview with the US news site, The Daily Beast, Robert Springborg, an Egyptian military expert at the US Naval Postgraduate School, described Sisi as the Brotherhood’s point-man for months before he was named defence minister last year. “He was their go-to guy,” said Springborg. “They trusted him and they were aware of his political leanings, which were Islamist. Does that mean he was a Brotherhood loyalist? I doubt it. But he had his connections, and he was clearly the Brotherhood’s No. 1 choice.”
A year in Pennsylvania
The 59-year-old Egyptian defence minister also has close links to the US military, an asset in a military that’s heavily funded by the Pentagon.
A graduate of the Egyptian military academy, Sisi studied for a year at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania, where one of his advisors described the future Egyptian army chief as warm, introverted and “clearly very devout”.
In an interview with the Daily Star, Steve Gerras, a retired US colonel who was Sisi's professor in 2006, noted that, "For many Americans at the time, Islam didn't have a great reputation. For him [Sisi] it was important that we knew about the good things in his religion."
For his part, Springborg noted that Sisi’s academic papers at the US Army War College, were almost like Islamist tracts.
But many Egyptian experts maintain that Sisi would not have been able to rise up the military ranks under ousted Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak if he had suspected Brotherhood links. In an institution notorious for its crackdowns on suspected Islamists – particularly in the Mubarak era – Sisi’s February 2011 appointment as military intelligence chief would have raised alarm bells in Egypt’s military ranks, they note.
Certainly over the past few days, Sisi’s popularity has soared among secular, liberal Egyptians. As the Egyptian Al-Shorouk put it, "Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has managed to become popular with revolutionaries [anti-Morsi protesters] as well as the supporters of the old regime, who view him as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood”.
On-the-job lessons in women’s rights
Following Sisi’s Monday ultimatum, many anti-Morsi demonstrators have voiced their willingness to let the Egyptian military hold the reigns of power until the country has a new constitution and new elections are held.
But the Egyptian army appears to have little appetite for a political role, which was underlined on Monday night, when the military issued a second declaration denying that the earlier statement by Sisi amounted to a military coup. The purpose of the ultimatum, the second statement clarified, was merely to push the country’s politicians to reach a consensus.
There’s little doubt that the military’s dismal political record in the period spanning Mubarak’s ouster and Morsi’s swearing-in ceremony has taught Sisi some invaluable lessons on handling civil society groups.
In April 2012, during a nationwide uproar over the military’s forced virginity tests on female detainees, the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper quoted Sisi as saying, "the virginity-test procedure was done to protect the girls from rape as well to protect the soldiers and officers from rape accusations".
The subsequent uproar forced SCAF to distance itself from the comments. Months later, during a meeting with Amnesty International, Sisi maintained that the army would no longer carry out the controversial tests. He also stressed the importance of ensuring social justice for all Egyptians.
It’s not clear if all Egyptians are reassured by his promises. In a deeply divided country, supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood are unlikely to accept the military's “roadmap for the future” if the country's politicians fail to hammer out a political compromise.
And for the corps of army officials under him, Sisi has to prove that although he may have been appointed by the unpopular Islamist president, he’s not really Morsi’s man after all.