Meet General El-Sisi, Egypt's defence minister

Zeinab El Gundy , Monday 13 Aug 2012

Little-known General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi makes history as Egypt's first armed forces chief to be appointed by a civilian president and the country's first middle-ranking defence minister

El Sisi
General El Sisi swearing in last Sunday (Photo:Reuters)

Since 1991, Egypt's one-time de facto ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has been the country's minister of defence. For more than twenty years, Tantawi, known for his loyalty to former president Hosni Mubarak, was the "face" of Egypt's famously closed armed forces.

Following Mubarak's ouster, it was Tantawi, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), who assumed full control over the country.

As Egypt elected its new president in June 2011, Tantawi protected his coveted position as defence minister, head of the military council and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in an unpopular military-authored addendum to Egypt's Constitutional Declaration.   

However, on 12 August 2012 Egypt's first civilian president, Mohamed Morsi, shocked the nation by cancelling the constitutional document, sending the aging military leader into early retirement and appointing a new minister of defence, General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

El-Sisi swore an oath in front of the president on Sunday, propelling the little-known general and military intelligence head into the spotlight as the new commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Notably El-Sisi is Egypt's first defence minister not to hold the top rank of Field Marshal.

Despite being part of the military council since February last year, Egypt's new army chief has kept a relatively low profile.

El-Sisi was born on 19 November 1954, reportedly making him the youngest member of SCAF at just 57 years old.  He graduated from Egypt's military academy in 1977 becoming an army officer serving in the infantry corps.

El-Sisi held various leading posts in the army including commander of Egypt's Mechanized Infantry Battalion and the head of information and security at the General Secretariat of the Defence Ministry.

He also served as the Egyptian military attaché in Saudi Arabia, following Tantawi's career path: Tantawi served as a military attaché in Pakistan for several years.

Among other notable appointments, El-Sisi was made chief of staff of the Northern Military Zone (located in Alexandria) and then commander of the Northern Military Zone before being promoted to head of military intelligence.

Media-shy El-Sisi sparked national and international uproar when he publically admitted that members of the army had subjected female protesters, arrested during the infamous March 2011 clashes on Tahrir Square, to forced "virginity tests."

In an April press statement intended to defend the behaviour of the armed forces, the military spy chief admitted that "the virginity test procedure was done to protect the girls from rape as well to protect the soldiers and officers from rape accusations."

El-Sisi then went on to promise human rights group Amnesty International, during an organised meeting in Cairo in June, that the army would no longer carry out the controversial forced tests.          

The relatively youthful age of Egypt's new defence minister is seen to give him an edge over Egypt's previous military commanders-in-chief such as 76-year-old Tantawi or 84-year-old Mubarak.

El-Sisi is also the first defence minister in Egyptian history to be appointed by a democratically elected head of state.

Following El-Sisi's appointment, accusations originally propagated by controversial anti-revolutionary talk show host Tawfik Okasha in June that he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or "their man in SCAF" were again leveled at the general. Rumours have also spread that his wife wears the niqab (full face veil).

However, the SCAF released a short statement denying these claims and insisting that its members have no partisan or ideological affiliation to any political powers in Egypt.

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