Many opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood thought Mohamed Morsi had brought the army under his control once and for all when, during his year-long presidency, he appointed a deeply religious general as defence minister. But not only did the president trigger his own demise in doing so, it also emboldened General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to emerge from the shadows as a “national saviour” and a powerful leader in the making.
Described as a pious Muslim by the military personnel who regularly interacted with him before he rose to fame, it was clear El-Sisi would have no qualms turning against the president who promoted him when he cut a dim figure during a speech by Morsi in the final days of his one-year rule in June.
Enthusiastic attendees clapped Morsi when he called the army “men of gold” in 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 go-between in an attempt to resolve a growing conflict, remained seated among the audience, one hand resting on his chin and the other holding the military beret that he would abandon less than a year later to run for president.
El-Sisi’s decision to run signals the imminent return of military strongmen to the presidency, more than three years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was considered a major blow to the army’s control over state affairs.
“El-Sisi was mainly appointed as a defence minister because he is a devout Muslim. They [the Brotherhood] thought that 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.
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, huge numbers of protesters took to the streets in Cairo and other cities nationwide, calling on Morsi to step down.
Anticipation built in the immediate aftermath, and all eyes were on the soft-spoken general, after the army issued an ultimatum for Morsi shortly after the mass demonstrations erupted.
It quickly became clear that Morsi would not respond to the military’s demands and make concessions to his opponents, and El-Sisi moved fast, announcing the president's removal and suspending the constitution, putting in place a transitional roadmap drawn up by a diverse group of national figures including key political opponents of Morsi (including the biggest Salafist party), clerics, youth activists and intellectuals.
Incessant clashes ensued between security forces and pro-Morsi demonstrators, resulting in hundreds of protester and dozens of policemen deaths, most notably on 14 August when Egypt’s interim authorities crushed two camps of Morsi's supporters in Cairo.
Opponents portray El-Sisi as an oppressor who orchestrated a coup to restore a police state, while supporters hail 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 Sabbahi.
El-Sisi kept a low profile despite being part of the ruling military council during the tumultuous period that followed the ouster of Mubarak in 2011.
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 answer criticism of the army’s handling of a transitional period.
El-Sisi’s sole media contribution was controversial. In comments he gave to the CNN and Amnesty International, he spoke of virginity tests carried out on female demonstrators detained at a protest in March 2011, one month after Mubarak was toppled.
“The virginity tests were carried out to protect the army against possible allegations of rape, but will not be carried out again,” he was quoted as saying.
El-Sisi’s previous posts include a spell as a defence attaché in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He also took up command positions in Sinai 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 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 by poverty and underdevelopment to democratization
“I recall his efforts to respond to claims about the inability of Muslim societies to democratize. He alluded to positive and long-standing egalitarian and equalizing 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.”
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 to give him a mandate to “confront violence and terrorism”, a call that was heeded by millions of people who demonstrated holding his picture and feverishly shouting pro-army slogans.
He initially trod cautiously when he was asked whether he had any presidential aspirations, but changed his tone after basking in a popularity not seen since the era of another military strongman in Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the man whom he was likened to by many.
Both have toppled leaders, battled Islamists, enjoyed wide support among ordinary people and have, 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 when he, as expected, wins by a landslide in the presidential elections.
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.
“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.”