Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: New face of Egypt's old guard

  • Published
Abdul Fattah al-Sisi at a military funeral in Giza, Cairo (20 September 2013)Image source, AFP

Virtually unknown to the Egyptian public before the Spring of 2011, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi looks set to become the next president of Egypt.

This remarkable rise attests to the military's predominant power and to the field marshal's ability to harness that power for his own and for his institution's purposes.

Key to his political skill has been his secrecy coupled with expert role-playing that duped his opponents into thinking he was an unambitious professional officer while simultaneously appealing to the Egyptian public as the man to lead them out of the post-Mubarak political morass.

Who then is this rather mysterious officer and how and for what purposes is he likely to rule Egypt?

Media caption,

BBC News profiles Egypt's President-in-waiting, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi

Tantawi protege

First and foremost, Field Marshal Sisi is the product of the military high command under former President Hosni Mubarak, as his career trajectory and personal alliances suggest.

The "political track" in the Egyptian military is the army and within it, the infantry, the corps which produced both the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

Mr Mubarak was chosen by Sadat as his vice-president precisely because as an air force officer he did not command the loyalty of forces required for a coup.

After succeeding Sadat following his assassination in 1981, Mubarak ultimately settled on the lacklustre infantry general, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, to preside over the officer corps - more or less as a CEO - rewarding loyalists with promotions and patronage generated in the military's sprawling economy.

Field Marshal Sisi was one of Field Marshal Tantawi's favourites, who doled out plum assignments to this rising infantry officer.

He was provided the necessary foreign training, contacts and polish by stints at the UK's Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC), at the US Army War College, and as military attache in Riyadh.

His credentials as a commanding officer were burnished by appointments as battalion, brigade and division commander and chief-of-staff within the mechanised infantry and by his final operational command as chief-of-staff of the Northern Military Zone, headquartered in Alexandria.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi was succeeded by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi after 17 years in command

Having established the professional basis for military leadership and the personal connections within the officer corps so essential to it, he was then shifted to the yet more vital post of deputy head of Military Intelligence, the organisation with primary responsibility for watching over the officer corps.

It was from that position that Field Marshal Tantawi recruited him into the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), through which the former was ruling Egypt after having agreed to the overthrow of Mr Mubarak in 2011.

Not listed among the original 20 officers on the Scaf and then its youngest member, Field Marshal Sisi was obviously brought on board by Field Marshal Tantawi because of his personal loyalty and political talents.

He immediately became a key public face of the Scaf, handling such controversial matters as the "virginity tests" inflicted by the military upon female demonstrators they had arrested.

Building trust

Yet more important was Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's behind-the-scenes role as the Scaf's contact man with the Muslim Brotherhood, also assigned by Field Marshal Tantawi.

Widely known as a devout Muslim by virtue of his conservative family life, fondness for using Koranic phrases in his everyday speech, and by his advocacy of Islam to Western audiences, Field Marshal Sisi set about convincing the Brothers that he shared many of their views and was an officer they could trust.

In this he was hugely successful. President Mohammed Morsi turned to him in August 2012, when looking for an officer to replace Field Marshal Tantawi as commander-in-chief and defence minister.

He agreed, on the proviso that there be no victimisation of Field Marshal Tantawi, his Chief-of-Staff General Sami Enan, or any other officers close to them.

In the event, those key officers who were retired off were given honours, plum assignments or both, and a further 70 or so officers older than the then major general - hence of higher rank - were also retired, thereby placing him in effective as well as nominal control of the military.

So Abdul Fattah al-Sisi rose to the top not by overthrowing his seniors, but rather by looking after them.

Misplaced faith

President Morsi and his Brotherhood colleagues clearly believed that Field Marshal Sisi was their man, an image that he cultivated, while simultaneously assuring the military that he was protecting its interests.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
His reputation for being a pious Muslim may have appealed to President Mohammed Morsi

He was deferential to Mr Morsi in public and on those occasions where the media had deemed the two men disagreed, the military chief seemed to give way.

Yet on vital security interests in the Sinai and along the Suez Canal, he pre-empted the president by issuing a military decree, demonstrating to his officer colleagues that he would not subordinate the military's vital security role to the Brothers.

That impression was further reinforced by the 2012 constitution, drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly, which assigned more power and privileges to the military than it had enjoyed in any previous constitution dating back to the first in 1923.

A month prior to Field Marshal Sisi's "coup" against President Morsi on 3 July 2013, the Brotherhood's spokesman was going out of his way to extol the military and his leadership of it.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Morsi seemingly believed that the military's leadership would not turn on him

Khairat al-Shatir, the organisation's deputy general guide, financier and eminence grise, was sufficiently confident of the power relationship to rudely lecture Field Marshal Sisi on his responsibilities.

To the very end Mr Morsi clearly believed that the field marshal would stand by him, dismissing as he did the minister of defence's message on 1 July that the president had to take account of the will of the people or the military would be compelled to act.

Although the Brotherhood and its leadership was obviously delusional in this and other respects, its failure to appreciate Field Marshal Sisi's objectives speaks of his ability to conceal them and to dupe his opponents.

Mentor's return

Lest there be any doubt about Field Marshal Sisi's independence from his original base in the Tantawi high command, personnel moves subsequent to overthrowing Mr Morsi should dispel them.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Field Marshal Sisi became a hero for some after he ousted President Morsi in a popularly backed coup

His very first appointment on the day he dispatched the president to jail was that of General Mohammed Farid al-Tohamy to head of General Intelligence Service (GIS), a key post into which Mr Morsi had some months earlier placed a loyalist.

Gen Tohamy, eight years older than Field Marshal Sisi, had acted as his mentor, first in the mechanised infantry and then in intelligence.

A Mubarak-Tantawi loyalist, Gen Tohamy had been retired from the military into the post of Director of the Administrative Oversight Authority, the government's chief anti-corruption organisation and one used primarily to cover up the misdeeds of those in power, including military officers.

Much hated by the Brotherhood, which had begun a campaign against him, Gen Tohamy was charged by Field Marshal Sisi with orchestrating the crackdown on it, which resulted some two weeks later in the massacre of some 1,000 demonstrators at two protest camps and the subsequent designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been portrayed as a struggle against "terrorism"

In retrospect, it seems incredible that the Brothers should ever have trusted Field Marshal Sisi, the known protege of General Tohamy, protector of the Mubarak-Tantawi networks of corruption, and strong advocate from his position in intelligence of a hardline policy against Islamists.

Propaganda machine

The degree to which Field Marshal Sisi is both a product of the military and continues to depend upon it is reflected in his nascent presidential campaign.

General Samir Farag - whose military career was also in the mechanised infantry and intelligence, who was appointed by Mr Mubarak as governor of Luxor and head of the Cairo Opera House, and who has been accused of extensive corruption in those roles - is rumoured to be a key campaign aide, as is former Assistant Defence Minister for Financial and Administrative Affairs, General Mahmoud Nasr - a man who might be thought of as "book-keeper" of the sprawling Mubarak-Tantawi patronage networks.

Thus far the campaign has been run out of the military's Department of Morale Affairs, which draws upon the military's own off-budget resources to finance the films, campaign posters, and presumably rent-a-crowds that have helped generate the groundswell of support for the field marshal.

Mohammed Hassanain Heykal, Nasser's confidant and able defender of his dubious legacy, including the role of the military, is thought to be a key campaign adviser.

Amr Moussa, former foreign minister under Mr Mubarak and then head of the Arab League, was called in by Field Marshal Sisi to oversee the drafting of the military-backed constitution, passed by referendum in January.

Mr Moussa, who was known to be close to the Scaf, and at one time was considered by it as their possible candidate for president, has endorsed Field Marshal Sisi's bid for the presidency.

Avoiding blame

The principal theme of the campaign so far is counter-terrorism, while the field marshal's rhetoric is heavily laced with references to Islam.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The military is the most powerful government entity and many say it operates like a state within a state

He has declared, for example, that Egyptians will have to "put their trust in God, the army and the civilian police to take Egypt to freedom, stability and progress".

His economic policy is shrouded in ambiguity. Negotiations with the IMF have been suspended, as conditions that organisation would impose for a loan would be political suicide for any candidate associated with them.

But negotiations with crony capitalists in exile have been resumed, presumably to lure them and their money back to Egypt.

A minimum wage for public servants has been declared, as has a stimulus package more generally.

In the meantime the economic crisis intensifies, as reflected in rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, and government debt, power outages, capital flight and an absence of tourists.

For all of this Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Hazem Beblawi resigned as prime minister amid criticism of his failure to deal with Egypt's economic woes

In an interview given in the United Arab Emirates before the announcement, he had himself evinced displeasure at the Beblawi government's performance.

One poll suggested that two-thirds of Egyptians approved of Field Marshal Sisi and his performance, with another indicating that only a fifth approved of Mr Beblawi and his government.

Traditional values

The field marshal's popularity is due to that of the military, which continues to be the most trusted institution in the country, with around 90% of Egyptians expressing their support for it; to his message of restoring stability by virtue of a crackdown on Islamists; by his skilful projection of an upbeat officer image, replete with snazzy headgear, combined with that of a devout Muslim harbouring traditional respect for women and Christians; and by his careful avoidance of substantive policies, especially those of economics.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Support for Field Marshal Sisi is strong in Cairo's al-Gamaliyya district, where he grew up

That this message, which avoids truly critical matters, can be so popular and believable attests in part to his skill in delivering it, which rests both on his military background and on his traditional upbringing in Cairo's al-Gamaliyya district, the very heart of historic, Islamic Cairo venerated by novelist Naguib Mahfouz and in the imagination of most Egyptians.

He is the very living example of what traditional Egyptian values and practices can produce.

And even if he is ultimately revealed as a "fahlawi", a skilled deceiver of others, that too could be positively interpreted as a sign of his Egyptianness and suitability for a leadership role.

Nationalist pride

So what sort of a president might Field Marshal Sisi make?

Again there is an element of duplicity in the projected presidential image, which is that of a new, "believing" Nasser.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
A growing personality cult is developing in Egypt around Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Anwar Sadat (L) and Gamal Abdel Nasser (R)
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
It is fuelled partly by the yearnings of many Egyptians for a strong leader to end the political chaos...
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
...and partly by a savvy campaign by the military's department of morale affairs
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A fake identification card on sale list the field marshal's occupation as "Saviour of Egypt"
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Key rings and portraits are available from enterprising street vendors in Cairo's Tahrir Square
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
One coffee shop in Cairo has even created chocolates showing the field marshal in full ceremonial dress

But he cannot be a new Nasser, despite his probable efforts at emulation and Nasser's daughter Hoda's assertion that he will be - except in one vital respect, which is that of military authoritarianism.

He cannot be a new Nasser because of profound change in both the external and internal contexts.

The Cold War is over and Egypt's regional role much diminished.

But Field Marshal Sisi is seeking to rekindle nationalist pride, probably in part to offset inevitable domestic problems.

His dealings with Russia, including a well-timed trip to Moscow in mid-February to complete an arms deal, were intended as part of the launch of his presidential campaign, evoking memories of Nasser's rejection of the much hated West in favour of the Soviets.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Field Marshal Sisi's presidential bid received an early endorsement from Vladimir Putin in Russia

But in reality any arms deal with Moscow will be more in the way of political cover for the Egyptian military's continuing dependence on the US than an assertion of real independence.

Egypt's vulnerable economy precludes any substantive power projection into the region, which in any case is now populated with states comparatively much more powerful than they were in Nasser's era.

Grand project

As for the domestic economy, again the shadow of Nasser appears to loom over Field Marshal Sisi, who is already identifying the new era as one of grand projects, just as Nasser had done with the Aswan Dam and various other undertakings.

In this case the project is the proposed development of the Suez Canal area, which is being ballyhooed as the driving force behind Egypt's bright future as a leading emerging economy.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Egypt's Suez Canal used to carry about 8% of global seaborne trade

While development of this region makes sense economically and from the security perspective, it will be hobbled by the same governance issues that drag down Egypt's overall development, even though the Chinese and Russians may buy into it out of their own security calculations.

Moreover, the canal project has been chosen in part because that region is the very epicentre of the military's influence, and indeed its land ownership.

So here is the opportunity, at least in Field Marshal Sisi's view, for the military to demonstrate its management prowess, while generating further revenues for its own, off-budget economy.

Indeed, since he became the de facto ruler of the country, the pace of government contracting with military-controlled companies has significantly increased, suggesting both his move to cement his control of the officer corps as well as his plans for the future economic role of the military.

Deep state

In sum, the military under Field Marshal will expand its influence yet further into the economy and state, more or less as it did under Nasser, and in this it has every chance of success.

The three institutional components of the deep state - the military, the ministry of the interior, and the General Intelligence Service - are already under his control, something which none of his predecessors ever totally managed.

Nasser, Sadat and Mr Mubarak all had to build up the security and intelligence agencies under the interior ministry in order to balance off the military, whereas Field Marshal Sisi has no such need.

The counter-insurgency campaign currently under way draws upon both military and security forces, again a novel approach reflecting the field marshal's dominant position in both.

As for the directly political domains of parliament and political parties, Field Marshal Sisi does not have the need, as did Nasser, to formulate a single party to crowd out opposition, including in parliamentary elections, and to burnish his image.

At present, he is relying on the military, other elements of the deep state and Mubarak-era technocrats to manage his campaign, thereby suggesting he hopes to rule as a sort of presidential version of King Abdullah II of Jordan or King Muhammad VI of Morocco, balancing off the various political parties and forces under him while relying on the deep state for the essence of his rule.

In this way he can use nominally independent political forces and actors as political shock-absorbers, blaming them for failures while also manipulating them so they not coalesce in opposition to him.

At present, many of these political actors seem content to accept this role.

When and if they do not, he will still have the option to cobble together a political party under his tutelage, although this effort would suggest either weakness or overweening ambition on his part.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Though support for Field Marshal Sisi is widespread, many Egyptians fear a return to authoritarianism

Field Marshal Sisi is an enormously talented, manipulative, and highly politicised officer who has managed to rescue the military and the deep state more generally from potential destruction at the hands of revolutionaries or Muslim Brothers.

He was charged with that role by the high command of the Mubarak-Tantawi era, he has executed it, and is now reaping personal rewards for his sterling performance.

The danger is that his ambitions, combined with the institutional interests of an overly large, inadequately trained, arrogant and corrupt military will lead to political, economic and foreign policy over-reach, much as a similar combination did under Nasser.

Dr Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor at the Department of War Studies, King's College, London.