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Egypt's Sisi: From coup leader to authoritarian strongman

Khaled Desouk, AFP | A re-election campaign poster for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seen in the streets of Cairo.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is all but guaranteed re-election after running almost uncontested in Egypt's March 26-28 presidential vote. Hailed by many for providing stability, he has also been criticised for returning Egypt to autocratic rule.


Sisi took his first steps toward becoming Egypt’s most powerful man in 2013, whenthe army chief and defence minister appeared on national television to issue then president Mohammed Morsi an ultimatum: Step down within 48 hours or face the consequences.

The proclamation followed weeks of mass protests against Morsi’s government, which had failed to lift the country out of the political and economic crisis that had followed the overthrow of longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

Sisi’s ultimatum was met with often jubilant scenes in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square at the time. Protesters cheered, motorists honked their horns andcrowds roared: “Come down Sisi, Morsi is not my president.

When Morsi refused to resign, the military detained him, and Sisi stepped in to fill the power void. Less than a year later Sisi won the presidency in a landslide election with 96.9 percent of the vote.

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Since then he has come under criticism for plunging Egypt deeper into authoritarianism. Yet for many, Sisi is still seen as the answer to the turmoil that gripped Egypt following the Arab Spring protests and Mubarak’s ouster.

From bazaar stall to presidency

Born in Cairo on November 19, 1954, Sisi was the second of eight children. He grew up in a well-off family in the city’s old Gamaliya district, where neighbours remember him as an unusually disciplined young boy. While other children in the area played football or smoked, Sisi and his group of friends lifted weights made from metal pipes and rocks.

“Abdel Fattah always seemed to have a goal. He had willpower,” Atif al-Zaabalawi, a dye worker who used to see Sisi in Gamaliya, told Reuters.

Sisi came from a family of merchants, and his father – who ran a stall in the touristic Khan al-Khalili bazaar – encouraged him to work at his shop every day after school. In 1977 he graduated from Egypt’s military academy, where he had enrolled to train as an officer.

Chris Moore reports from Cairo

Over the next three decades he rose steadily up the ranks, studying abroad at Britain’s military staff college in Surrey in 1992 as well as at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2006, where he was described by staff as introverted and “clearly very devout”.

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In a 2013 interview with the Daily Star newspaper, Steve Gerras, Sisi's faculty adviser at the War College, 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".

Shortly after Mubarak’s ouster, Sisi was named head of military intelligence. He was later promoted to the role of defence minister in August 2012, after a newlyelected Morsi 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 Morsi – Egypt’s first freelyelected, non-military president sparked widespread speculation that the new army chief had links to Morsi’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Although the Brotherhood denied reports of any links, the rumours persisted. And many Egyptian experts argue that Sisi would not have been able to rise up the military ranks under Mubarak if he had ties to the movement.

Military coup

Wherever Sisi’s sympathies may have lay before becoming defence minister, it soon became clear they were no longer with Morsi.

As discontent with the president’s leadership grew, Sisi signalled that he might be compelled to intervene. After millions turned out to demand Morsi’s resignation, his resolve hardened into action. On July 1, 2013, Sisi issued his now fateful ultimatum, demanding Morsi’s government “meet the demands of the people” within 48 hours or Egypt’s military would step in to restore order. Two days later, Morsi was in custody.

By the time of the coup, Sisi’s popularity had soared among secular, liberal Egyptians. As the Egyptian newspaper 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.”

Yet as the country’s interim leader and then as president, Sisi has returned Egypt to autocratic rule, cracking down on all forms of dissent.

Rights groups have deplored his record of imprisoning or otherwise silencing journalists and activists critical of his leadership, while the judiciary has granted death sentences to hundreds of Brotherhood supporters.

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He has also ruthlessly cracked down on political opposition, standing largely unchallenged in the March 26-28 presidential election after his two main rivals were detained.

“The government arrested the key challengers or intimidated them out of the election race,” Amr Magdi, a Middle East and North Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Reuters, adding that repression in Egypt is worse now than it was under Mubarak.

Chris Moore looks back on Egypt President Sisi's first term

Just last month, Sisi gave a speech before an audience that included his own defence minister in which he said he would not allow anyone to threaten Egypt’s stability.

“I will die before anyone messes with its security,” he said, adding that what happened to Mubarak would not be repeated. “Be warned, what happened seven or eight years ago will not happen again in Egypt.

Although Sisi has vowed to respect Egypt’s two-term limit for presidents, his efforts to consolidate power by eliminating opposition have stirred fears he may try to amend the constitution.

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“The way things are going tells us that [Sisi] ... will be keen on staying in power. You may see the government producing amendments to reduce term limits and introduce more repressive tools,” Magdi said.

But for many who turned out to vote this week, a vote for Sisi was simply a vote for stability.

“If it weren’t for Sisi, the country would have collapsed,” said Sayed Kamel, who runs a bookshop in Cairo.

Kamel’s comments were echoed by Fayez Amin, a 72-year-old tourism worker who voted in Cario’s upscale Zamalek neighbourhood.

“If it weren’t for Sisi, Egypt would have become like Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya they (Islamists) would have destroyed the country,” Amin said.


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