El-Sisi: From army chief to presidential hopeful

Dina Ezzat, Thursday 27 Mar 2014

El-Sisi’s path towards Wednesday's announcement of his presidential candidacy has been marked with careful calculations, the support of the army's command and some trepidation

el sisi
Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (Photo :Ahram )

When Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi celebrates his 60th birthday in November, he will probably do so in the presidential palace. However, it is not clear under which conditions El-Sisi, as president, will be blowing out the candles on his cake.

After all, it was in November 2012 that former president Mohamed Morsi, inaugurated in June of the same year, had begun the fast and irreversible decline that would ultimately end in his loss of the top executive post.

It was Morsi who appointed El-Sisi as defence minister. A year later, El-Sisi helped remove the Muslim Brotherhood president after mass demonstrations against his rule. The move called to mind February 2011, when El-Sisi, as part of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), decided that then-president Hosni Mubarak had to bow to the winds of the 25 January revolution. Mubarak had also given El-Sisi a lucrative appointment, when, in 2010, he was selected to be the trusted and highly influential head of military intelligence.

Now, in 2014, El-Sisi has decided – "after much hesitation," according to informed sources – to resign from his position as head of the army and contest Egypt's presidency.

El-Sisi, who is likely be inaugurated in late June or early July, is hoping for better luck than Morsi — even though he understands that once he is out of the protective confines of the army, he will become an easier target for public contempt and maybe also the same military pressure that, in different ways, forced out the country’s last two presidents.

“But don’t underestimate El-Sisi. He is a very resourceful man. He has planned everything so well. He paved the way to his presidency and he is sure not to walk it alone,” said a politician who regularly meets with him.

Those who have served with him or participated in any of the closed door talks he has conducted since 25 January 2011 know the former defence minister to be ambitious. Still, El-Sisi took his time to decide on whether or not he should pursue the presidency at a time when there was overwhelming public demand for him to do so.

“He never said he did not want it. He was flattered with the popularity that came his way when he removed Morsi, but he does not act impulsively. He calculates. He takes his time. He is a slow decision-maker. He likes to take everything into consideration,” an associate said.

'The army has nothing to do with politics'

When Morsi issued a decree on 22 November, giving himself absolute powers, beyond judicial review, El-Sisi saw the public's growing outrage, but did not immediately follow the sentiment of the masses, even while carefully monitoring the chances that this anger could expand and observing some state bodies as they directly intervened to augment the anti-Morsi sentiment.

According to one informed source, the first thing that El-Sisi opted to do at the time was to appeal to both sides: the president — “not all of the Muslim Brotherhood; he did not care for all of them and he was just focused on Mohamed Morsi” — and the public.

He offered to facilitate an exit from the political dilemma, and he almost had Morsi convinced to take his offer had it not been for the intervention of the influential and now jailed Brotherhood number two, Khairat El-Shater. At the same time, he reassured Morsi through direct and indirect remarks that he could never order the army to turn against the elected president.

According to a former advisor of the ousted Brotherhood president, “Morsi never trusted the army. He knew they did not accept the idea of a Muslim Brotherhood president. He knew they wanted Ahmed Shafiq,” a former military figure who finished second against Morsi in the 2012 presidential elections.

“Still, [Morsi] trusted El-Sisi. He was really impressed by the fact that El-Sisi was very observant as a Muslim and that he knew the entire Quran by heart and that he got his children to recite it at a very young age. El-Sisi was also assuring him,” the former advisor said.

While breaking their fast together on one Monday — a ritual kept by very pious Muslims — Morsi, according to the same source, asked El-Sisi whether he thought the army would intervene. El-Sisi said, in no uncertain terms, that the military had nothing to do with politics.

In the retrospective analysis of this Morsi advisor, El-Sisi might have meant exactly what he said — “except that he meant it for that particular time and not as a rule of thumb.”

Foreign diplomats in Cairo now say that when they spoke with El-Sisi and his current successor as defence minister, Sobhi Sedki, they were really convinced that El-Sisi was not going to intervene, but that he was thinking of something.

“It seems now that this 'something' was basically the calculations of the intervention and whether or not to do it," one European ambassador said.

'A calculating mind'

Regarding his current presidential bid: "He has a very calculating mind and I am not surprised he took such a long time — although it was rather too long — to make his announcement,” said the same ambassador.

Informed sources say that El-Sisi took care of almost every detail before he decided to part ways with the uniform. He secured immunity for the armed forces and for the defence minister in 2014's redrafted constitution — something that sources at the drafting committee said was clearly done to protect him should his calculations lead him against the presidential path.

“El-Sisi was at some point willing to stay as head of defence and to keep Adly Mansour as interim president for a couple of years while the political heat abated. There were discussions of including an interim line in the constitution to allow for this arrangement, but it was not possible," due to logistical reasons related to Mansour himself, said a source from the constitution drafting committee.

Later, El-Sisi secured the presence of trusted men at the top jobs in all of the three national security bodies: military, intelligence and police.

Sources within and close to these three bodies speak of over 70 people who were either sent to retirement or removed from their posts and placed in less influential positions.

He assembled a new military unit under the title of anti-terror force, which would be in charge of police work upon the command of the military — with him not being head of SCAF but still commander in chief of the armed forces, by virtue of being head of state.

“When the military discussed the nomination of El-Sisi with him, there were some in the SCAF who were opposed to the idea and they thought it would bring back the military to the political center stage — something they had bad memories of from the days of the first transition that was run by SCAF after Mubarak was forced to step down,” said a military source.

The same source added that to accommodate the apprehension of those leaders, El-Sisi agreed to get the defence minister to be head of the SCAF.

Too late for second thoughts

“He had almost made up his mind by then. He was still hesitant somewhat, and if you ask me today, almost on the eve of his resignation from the military to become president, I would tell you that somewhere in his heart he is still somewhat concerned, even though he wants to be president,” the same military source said before El-Sisi's announcement on Wednesday.

According to the military source, that moment a few weeks ago was a clear instance of hesitation — even cold feet.

“But he moved beyond this concern. Many people, not just in the military, but really from across the political spectrum, kept urging him to keep going. They told him it was too late in the day for him to have second thoughts,” the source added.

The account is confirmed by some of the politicians who spoke to El-Sisi. “I openly told him that if he was to change his mind now, it would mean one of two things. Either we go back to the scenario of 2012, with so many candidates that [they] will split the votes and also split the support of the state bodies, or the presidency going to [the Nasserist] Hamdeen Sabbahi,” the only presidential runner who is still contesting El-Sisi.

Sabbahi, according to several informed official and political sources, had not really wanted to run, but was encouraged by some of El-Sisi's closest associates, who feared that it would seem that El-Sisi had arrived to the presidency by referendum and not as a presidential runner if all of Egypt's key politicians declined to run against him.

Amr Moussa chose to support El-Sisi and told associates who had encouraged him to run that the state bodies would only bow to a military leader and that the best thing was not to counter-balance El-Sisi's popularity and command but rather to try and harness them to serve the purpose of national stability.

Today, Moussa is the number-one associate of El-Sisi, and appears set to be his prime minister following parliamentary elections later in the year.

No one but El-Sisi

Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, the former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and head of Strong Egypt Party, openly declined to join the presidential race, which he described as sure to be a "farce." So did Khaled Ali, the leftist labour lawyer, for similar reasons.

Sabbahi, according to one of his closest associates, was hesitant as well. “Some of the youth of his Egyptian Popular Current movement wanted him to run, but I think he ultimately decided after pressure from official quarters. I am not sure what they told him, but they did speak with him for sure,” said a commentator who has the confidence of the leader of the Popular Current.

“Sabbahi is really disappointed because when he was meeting with El-Sisi and his aides during the Rebel (Tamarod) campaign – which served as a focus for anti-Morsi public sentiment, with the obvious support of some state bodies – he was under the impression that there was an implicit deal that the army would support him in the next presidential race on the assumption that he was a revolutionary figure who bowed to the command of the army,” he added.

According to some military and non-military sources, it would be unfair to blame El-Sisi for Sabbahi's dismay. “There was no one in SCAF who would have accepted Sabbahi as president. Even those who would have preferred that El-Sisi didn't run and that some agreement had been made with, say, former Mubarak prime minister General Ahmed Shafiq – they could not have accepted any non-military [figure] after having got rid of Morsi,” said one.

The fact of the matter is that for El-Sisi, if he wasn't going to be president, then no other military figure would either. “That was not something he could settle for. At some point, he was pressured by some in the United Arab Emirates to consider staying in the more powerful post at the top of the military and make a deal with Shafiq. But he ultimately decided against it,” said a source.

The rationale was very simple: a new president with a military background could have the support of the army if he decided to marginalise or even scapegoat El-Sisi in order to contain the Islamists, who perceive the man as "the face of the coup." This would not be the case with a civil president.

For one younger military officer who served under the command of El-Sisi, anyone who thinks they can scapegoat El-Sisi is "simply underestimating the abilities of this man to make things go his way. He is always on top of things and he does not get too involved, to allow himself the chance to walk back if he wants.”

Delegating

Indeed, El-Sisi – who conducted a great deal of the talks between the state and revolutionaries, including Islamists, during the 18 days of the 25 January uprising – was never really the one who sealed any deal.

All the revolutionary figures who spoke with him agree that he was the shrewdest of all interlocutors — and the most elusive.

“He was at the square (Tahrir Square) several times during the early days of the revolution, but not in his uniform. He talked to different people and different groups, including the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. But at the end it was someone else who got the deals done,” said one of the revolutionaries who had spoken with El-Sisi.

That said, those who know El-Sisi say there are times where his strict nature and his own sense of power outwit his calculating style. For some, a good example was the crass remarks that he made regarding the virginity tests to which some girls were infamously forced to undergo after having been rounded up in Tahrir Square during the first transitional period.

But this, they say, is not something that happens often. Moreover, they add, it is something that El-Sisi is trying to control, essentially by narrowing the scope of his remarks and reducing them to patriotic sentiments, for example.

Indeed, as a presidential runner, to judge by his Wednesday evening televised statement to the nation, El-Sisi seems to be basing his bid on the theme of patriotism.

He is not planning, as he said, to give too many public speeches, but rather appears ready for top advisors like Moussa and Kamal El-Ganzouri to address the public while he focuses on his strongest point: calculations of how to deliver, who to work with and who to work against.

“It is something that he is known for. It was exactly why Mubarak chose him to be head of intelligence and why he managed to work so well with Morsi, to the extent that people in the army started speculating about a hidden affiliation between him and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said a former Morsi advisor who conferred with El-Sisi several times.

“He cannot stop it. It comes to him naturally.”

He added: “The question, however, is whether you need a good politician or a good head of military intelligence to lead the country at this moment of considerable internal turmoil, and whether or not the El-Sisi-Moussa combination will be the right formulation, with each one compensating what the other lacks.”

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