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From the barracks to Egypt's presidency: El-Sisi's journey towards Itihadiya

As Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is officially declared Egypt's president on Tuesday, Ahram Online examines his rise to the top post, from the ranks of the military to being the country's most-known man

Hatem Maher, Wednesday 4 Jun 2014
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President-elect ex-minister of defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi (Photo courtesy of El-Sisi official campaign website)
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Egypt's Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) announced on Tuesday that former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is Egypt's new president after winning a landslide victory in the presidential race which was held on 26-28 May.

El-Sisi garnered a record of nearly 24 million votes – or almost 97 percent – while his sole contender, the leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, collected 755,000 votes or 3 percent of the tally. In 2012, Mohamed Morsi got 13 million votes to become Egpt's first president after Jan 25 revolution.  

This resounding victory comes on the heels of two years full of twists and turns in the life of the general.

Although El-Sisi had long been a leading member of the military's highest circles, it wasn't until about two years ago, in August 2012, that he began to gain broader public attention, when he was appointed defence minister by then-president Mohamed Morsi.

At the time, many observers felt that Morsi had brought the army under his control once and for all by choosing El-Sisi, who was seen as a deeply religious general.

"El-Sisi was mainly appointed as defence minister because he was a devout Muslim. They [the Muslim Brotherhood] thought this would help them gain control over the military establishment," a military source who is an acquaintance of El-Sisi told Ahram Online, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, it was clear that El-Sisi would have no qualms about turning against the Islamist president.

The 59-year-old apparently kept his cards close to his chest in the lead-up to the first anniversary of Morsi's brief stint in office in June 2013, repeatedly dismissing calls by a growing opposition for the army to step into politics once more.

He famously warned in the spring of 2013 that Egyptians "would not be able to speak of the country moving forward for 30 or 40 years" if the army stepped in again. But on 30 June, unprecedented numbers of protesters took to the streets in Cairo and other cities nationwide, calling on Morsi to step down.

In his final days in office – before being ousted in July 2013 – Morsi attempted to woo the general when he publicly called the army "men of gold" – a move designed to deflect criticism over what detractors deemed his growing authoritarian rule.

But El-Sisi, who according to media reports acted as a liaison between Morsi and opponents in an attempt to resolve the growing conflict, remained unfazed by Morsi's flirtations.

All eyes were on the soft-spoken general after the army issued an ultimatum for Morsi shortly after the 30 June mass demonstrations erupted.

It quickly became clear that Morsi would not respond to the political forces and military's demands and make concessions to his opponents. El-Sisi moved fast and appeared on television on 3 July to announce the Islamist president's removal. He also declared the suspension of the constitution, the implementation of a transitional roadmap drawn up by a diverse group of national figures – key political opponents of Morsi (including Mohamed elBaradei and the biggest Salafist party), clerics, youth activists and intellectuals. 

El-Sisi's speech has since been fashioned as an example of the former general bowing to the will of the masses. Most importantly, it allowed him to carve a new future for himself as a "national hero".

Opponents portray El-Sisi as an oppressor who orchestrated a coup to restore a police state. They point to the incessant clashes that ensued between security forces and pro-Morsi demonstrators after the president's ouster, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protesters and dozens of policemen – most notably on 14 August, when Egypt's interim authorities crushed two camps of Morsi's supporters in Cairo.

El-Sisi's supporters, however, praise him as a hero who rescued Egypt from a potential civil war and a strongman who is capable of bringing much-needed stability to the turmoil-stricken country.

"He is very calm, a good speaker and listener and a very strong person. He knows when exactly to take a decisive action. He can convey any message in a simple manner," the military source said.

"Egyptians were looking for a leader, given the failure of the political figures to gain popularity, including the leaders of the National Salvation Front," he added, referring to an anti-Morsi coalition of liberal and leftist figures, including former UN nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran against El-Sisi in this year's presidential election.

Still, less than a year after Morsi's ouster, El-Sisi's decision to run for president left some declaring the imminent return of military strongmen to the country's top position – just three years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was considered a major blow to the army's control over state affairs.

Low profile      

Despite being part of the ruling military council during the tumultuous period that followed Mubarak's ouster in 2011, El-Sisi kept a low profile.

He was the youngest member of the council that ruled Egypt at the time, heading the army's intelligence apparatus. He was little-known back then, with more veteran leaders gaining publicity by appearing regularly on television shows, mostly to respond to criticism as to how the army was handling the transitional period.

El-Sisi's previous posts include a spell as a defence attaché in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He also took up command positions in the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt's second-biggest city, Alexandria.

He was a fellow at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2005-2006, where he was described by one of his professors as a cautious yet active participant who carefully measured his responses.

Sherifa Zuhur, who taught a class on the Middle East that El-Sisi took part in during his time in Pennsylvania, told Ahram Online that he engaged in "lively discussions" about Egypt's internal policies and democracy in the region.

"The international fellows tend to feel as if their every comment is repeated; if there are any difficulties they could be reported to their embassies' attaches, and so they are understandably cautious about their criticisms of their own countries," she said.

"El-Sisi and other fellows were engaged in lively discussions about Egypt's democratic development, and heated debate on the wisdom of certain US defence and political stances in Iraq, and on the narrative of democracy-building the [George W.] Bush administration had proposed for the region as a whole.

"The discussion about Egypt's internal policies pertained to the elections in 2005 and also the obstacles raised from poverty and underdevelopment to democratisation.

"I recall his efforts to respond to claims about the inability of Muslim societies to democratise.  He alluded to positive and long-standing egalitarian and equalising tendencies in Muslim societies as means of response and also pushed back on the notion that secularist democracy in the precise style found in the United States would be acceptable to the broader masses in the Middle East."

Presidential aspirations

Since he rose to prominence, El-Sisi has struck a favourable chord with Egyptians, stressing patriotic themes in his speeches. He has also been helped by fawning media coverage that has, since Morsi's ouster, adopted a strongly anti-Islamist tone.

His popularity was evident when he urged Egyptians to take to the streets on 26 July 2013 to give him a mandate to "confront violence and terrorism", a call that was heeded by millions of people who turned out holding his picture and feverishly shouting pro-army slogans.

He initially trod cautiously when he was asked whether he had any presidential aspirations, but then changed his tone after basking in a popularity not seen since the era of another military strongman, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, to whom many have likened him.

Both men have toppled leaders, battled Islamists, enjoyed wide support among ordinary people and, according to their critics, quashed dissent.

But El-Sisi, who was promoted to field marshal shortly before he announced his presidential run, is confronting a fiercer Islamist insurgency that analysts suggest will continue to haunt him after he settles in as president.

Hundreds of police and army personnel have been killed by jihadist groups in nationwide militant attacks since Morsi's ouster.

"Do not worry or fear; the army will sacrifice for Egypt. We will eliminate terrorism," he said at a military ceremony in December of last year.

"Do not allow these terrorist actions to affect you. If you want freedom and stability, which is not achieved easily, then you have to trust God and your army and your police."


 

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