Abdel Fattah el-Sisi resigned as Egypt’s defence minister on March 26 with his eyes on a greater prize: the nation’s presidency. The move came eight months after he led the military in ousting the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3, 2013.
Promoted to the rank of Field Marshal by the interim president, Sisi swiftly became a polarising figure. His supporters see him as a national hero who saved the country from slipping into violence under the rule of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
His opponents consider him a counter-revolutionary figurehead and the man responsible for the many human rights abuses that have taken place in Egypt since Morsi’s overthrow.
In the wake of last summer’s political turmoil, hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands of political activists were arrested, including senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is in addition to grim reports about widespread police abuses, torture in detention centres, mass trials – in which hundreds of defendants were sentenced to death in just minutes – and a crackdown on journalists and media freedoms, including the ongoing detention of Al Jazeera reporters and producers.
Sisi was handpicked by Morsi as defence minister in August 2012, after the new president removed several senior leaders of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled the country since Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in the popular uprising of February 2011.
The removal of SCAF leaders was a popular political move that was expected to promote a younger generation of generals, less loyal to the former Mubarak regime and closer to the revolution and the ideas of democratic transition.
As a career military officer and a former head of military intelligence, very little was known about Sisi as his appointment made headlines around the world.
He had briefly come to public attention in the summer of 2011, when he admitted to reporters that female activists arrested in anti-government protests were forcibly subjected to “virginity tests” while in military detention.
Sisi initially defended the practise, saying that such intrusive examinations were carried out “to protect the army against possible allegations of rape”. After widespread public criticism, Sisi announced that the practise would be discontinued.
Soon after removing the elected president, Sisi’s popularity soared.
A video of him training with troops in uniform was played on local TV channels while songs praising the military and its move to oust the elected president played. A cult of personality spread around Egypt, with people printing his photo on chocolate bars and garments as signs of their adoration.
In a public-relations charm offensive, he attended the graduation of new police officers to show the military’s support for the security institution loathed by pro-revolution activists and Morsi supporters alike.
Soon after the removal of the president, he asked Egyptians to rally on the streets in opposition to the tens of thousands of Morsi supporters taking part in sit-in protests across Cairo. He begged his supporters for a “mandate to fight possible violence or terrorism”.
The call proved controversial, especially after a subsequent crackdown on pro-Morsi camps on August 14 left hundreds of people dead. A wave of violence engulfed the country, killing dozens more, with several police stations attacked. After Morsi supporters blamed Egypt’s Christian minority for siding with the military, tens of churches and Christian institutions were destroyed.
As a presidential candidate, Sisi has yet to release a full manifesto explaining what he plans to achieve, should he win the presidency – a virtual certainty despite the efforts of veteran leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi. Not coming from a party political background, many of Egypt’s voters have been left wondering what kind of team he might appoint or policies he may adopt once he formally ascends to power.
Ideologically, Sisi often speaks about patriotism, the need to protect the state, and the role of the military in protecting the nation and representing its best values.
He also says he wants to unite Egyptians in order to achieve an ambitious development plan – the detail of which is still unknown. To this end, he has called on the media and cultural institutions to help him mobilise and educate people about “the challenges” facing the country, and to “whisper in officials’ ears” if they notice mistakes – instead of rushing to report them to the public.
His professed patriotism is matched only by his emphasis on religiosity. “Everything is in the hands of God and destined by him,” Sisi often says. He also told a delegation of Sufi representatives that his seizing of power was done “to protect Islam”.
Sisi has been known to speak of “state Islam” as a counter-discourse to the religious ideas spread by the country’s political-religious groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. He describes their ideas as destructive to the fabric of Egyptian society and an obstacle to development similar to religious violence faced by European countries “four to five centuries ago”.
He says that the state, with all its religious and educational institutions, has a role to play in spreading a discourse that is more tolerant towards religious minorities and the world.
Sisi has said that democracy is a goal to be achieved gradually, which might take 20-25 years to fully develop in a country such as Egypt.
In 2006, during a scholarship stint at the US Army War College, he wrote a research paper, published by US conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch entitled “Democracy in the Middle East”, in which he was critical of US efforts for “moving too quickly” to spread democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is important that Middle Eastern countries move towards democracy in a logical, steady and controlled manner done on the terms of Middle Eastern countries,” he wrote.
He warned that “conflict is likely to occur either externally or internally as the new democracies mature”. He recommended that the West should help pave the way for democracy in the Middle East by supporting reforms in education, economy, media and the role of religion in politics.
In recent domestic interviews, Sisi has promised to help move the country towards democracy and freedoms and called on opinion leaders and political activists to avoid comparing political conditions in a country such as Egypt with those in full developed democracies.
Despite such vocal support for democratic reforms, Sisi also supported a controversial protest law that requires police approval ahead of holding political rallies. He also called on activists to be patient and avoid pressuring fragile state institutions.
It is important that Middle Eastern countries move towards democracy in a logical, steady and controlled manner done on the terms of Middle Eastern countries.
Sisi has promised no return to Mubarak regime policies which supported only political elites. Citing public rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has also vowed to rid Egypt of the once-popular former underground movement, often describing its leaders as “terrorists”.
Security and economic development dominate Sisi’s recent speeches. He has urged the world to accept that he is fighting his own “war on terrorism”, as the Middle East faces a resurgence of violence and instability in many countries, especially Syria and Libya. He warns that Syria could be “another Afghanistan” in the heart of the Middle East.
But despite rejecting foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs, Sisi has accepted a package of $650m in military aid from Washington, in addition to 10 Apache helicopters.
He continues to express his desire for global support for his fight against “terrorist groups”, though many global powers have quietly voiced discomfort over his use of the term to include political opponents.
Sisi has received further financial backing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait since ousting Morsi. He told Egyptian TV that the three countries had offered Egypt more than $20bn in aid.
In dealing with Egypt’s economic challenges, Sisi says he wants to lay the infrastructure for a new era of major development projects. He has asked voters for a two-year window of opportunity before they are to see the fruits of his economic plans.
He says he wants to invest millions of dollars in each of Egypt’s 28 provinces to work on mega-infrastructure, agricultural, and industrial projects in partnership with the private sector, the military and government-owned companies.
His most daunting challenge will be cashflow, as Egypt suffers a rising debt and budget deficit. Sisi says he will manage this by fighting corruption and reforming Egypt’s subsidy system to make sure that government aid flows only to the poor. He has called on Egyptians to save and invest more in their own economy, but will be relying on friendly governments to continue propping the country up with more aid and direct investment.
Egypt will hold its presidential election on May 26 and 27, with only Sisi and Sabahi contesting the top job. The world awaits Egypt’s inevitable decision.