Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has come under pressure to run from members
of the public who reject the Islamist government he toppled last
year, and from the armed forces who want a president who can face
down growing political violence.
He has calculated that he can win the votes of those who backed
Mohamed Mursi for president in 2012 simply because he represented
change from the era of former air force commander Mubarak, ousted in
the revolutions that swept the Arab world.
But despite his present popularity, Sisi has no record as a democrat
and has shown himself willing to use deadly force against those who
disagree with him.
Sisi has trodden a careful path to power since overthrowing Mursi,
Egypt's first freely elected president, last July.
It's the kind of measured advance he has made all his life, from his
childhood in the dirt lanes of Cairo's Gamaliya district, to the
highest rank in one of the largest armies in the Middle East. On
Monday, the presidency announced he was promoted to field marshal
Friends and family speak of him of as a man of few words and
"He loved to listen and carefully study what was said. After he
heard many opinions then he would suddenly strike," said his cousin
Fathi al-Sisi, who runs a shop selling handicrafts.
"Abdel Fattah had one thing in mind: work, the military, rising to
The world knew little of Sisi before he appeared on television on
July 3 and announced the removal of Mursi after mass protests
against the Islamist leader.
It was Mursi who appointed Sisi army chief of staff and defense
minister in August 2012, perhaps his gravest mistake.
Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, wanted a young general to reduce
the influence of the military old guard who had served under the
autocratic Mubarak before the 2011 revolution.
His reputation for being a pious Muslim may have also appealed to
But while Mursi appeared deaf to criticism, Sisi was tuned in to the
rising discontent on the streets over the Brotherhood's
mismanagement. Eventually he issued an ultimatum to the man who
appointed him: Bow to the demands of protesters within 48 hours or
the military will act.
Sisi, born on November 19, 1954, honed his strategic skills in the
shadowy world of military intelligence, which he headed under
Mubarak. He was the youngest member of the military council which
ruled Egypt for 18 months after Mubarak's fall.
Western diplomats say Sisi has been weighing whether to stand for
president with his usual caution, and only decided to run recently.
"I suppose in the back of his mind is the fact that once he takes
off his military uniform, he suddenly becomes more vulnerable. There
is always the chance of another takeover," said a Western diplomat.
A senior European diplomat says it's mission impossible.
"There is a belief among diplomats that he is making a big mistake
by going for this job. He will expose himself and the army. The army
may act if things go wrong and its image is tarnished. His fall
could be sudden and sharp," said the diplomat.
Others also seem to have had their doubts. The prime minister of the
United Arab Emirates, a major financial backer of Egypt after the
downfall of Mursi, said it would be better if Sisi stayed in the
military, before rapidly issuing a clarification saying that was not
what he had meant.
Sisi's comments in the spring of 2013, when frustrations with Mursi
were growing, suggested he would never stage a military takeover,
let alone run for president even though he was deeply suspicious of
the Muslim Brotherhood.
"With all respect for those who say to the army: 'go into the
street', if this happened, we won't be able to speak of Egypt moving
forward for 30 or 40 years," Sisi said then.
His own writings from his time at the U.S. Army War College in
Pennsylvania in 2006 reflected an awareness that ensuring democracy
in the Middle East may be fraught with difficulties.
Despite the risks, Sisi decided to run because pressure from the
street had grown immensely and junior officers in the army urged him
to contest elections because they did not feel politicians could
handle Egypt's security challenges.
Islamist militants in the Sinai have stepped up attacks since Sisi
ousted Mursi, killing hundreds of security forces. And the Islamist
insurgency is also gathering pace in other parts of Egypt, including
Sisi enjoys the backing of the army, Egypt's most powerful
institution, the Interior Ministry, many liberal politicians and
Mubarak era officials and businessmen who have made a comeback since
Judging by his popularity, those forces are likely to give him
plenty of time to prove himself as president, and there are no other
politicians who could challenge Sisi anytime soon.
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It remains to be seen whether Sisi's caution, which worked for him as
a military strongman, can be translated into the skills needed as a
But his maneuvering before Mursi's fall suggests Sisi
could grow into the role of politician. He gained consensus among
key players, from political leaders to clerics, before making his
Sisi has not said how he intends to tackle Egypt's many problems,
from a stuttering economy to street chaos and escalating militant
violence by militants. But those who have met him recently say he
understands the need to fight poverty.
To many Egyptians, he seems invincible for now, a strong figure many
are craving after years of turbulence.
At a coffee shop near his old neighborhood, a Sisi poster is
displayed alongside black and white photographs of previous soldiers
turned rulers: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
CAN HE SAVE EGYPT?
Admirers of Sisi, who knew him as a young man, believe his
single-mindedness will be enough to rescue Egypt.
A resident who knew him said that while other local boys played
football or smoked, Sisi and friends lifted barbells made of metal
pipes and rocks — an early sign of the discipline that would take
"Abdel Fattah always seemed to have a goal. He had willpower," said
Aaatif al Zaabalawi, a dye factory worker who used to see Sisi in
Neighbors say he came from a tightly knit religious family. His
cousin said Sisi had memorized the Koran and his favorite dish was
one often eaten on religious occasions.
The father encouraged him to work in his shop every day after
school. He lived in a small apartment on the rooftop of a run-down
building owned by his extended family.
"When an apartment was sold it was only sold within the family.
Between brothers for instance," said his cousin, adding that Sisi
had married within the extended family.
These days it's hard to escape Sisi. His image is on everything from
mugs and T-shirts to pajamas and even chocolates.
But critics, both Islamists and liberals, are alarmed by what
appears to be a systematic stifling of dissent. Since Sisi removed
Mursi, hundreds of Islamist protesters have been killed and
In a few days in August, security forces smashed up Muslim
Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo, killing hundreds in the
bloodiest civil unrest in Egypt's modern history.
In recent months, the ruthless crackdown has extended to prominent
liberals, including some who supported the army's removal of Mursi.
Under Sisi, protesting without permission has become a crime which
can be punished by a life sentence.
Sisi's election would signal a return to the oppression of the past,
"It will be the final confirmation that Egypt is going backwards and
that a corrupt, brutal, anti-democratic illegitimate leadership has
aborted Egyptian's dreams of a democratic civil state," said Salma
Ali, a spokeswoman for an Islamist alliance that opposes Mursi's
Yet even visiting American politicians seem to have been swept up in
Sisi mania. After meeting with Sisi, Representative Cynthia Loomis
sounded deeply impressed.
"He spoke both aspirationally and as an implementer. It seemed like
he was multi-dimensional."
Retired general Sameh Seif Elyazal says Sisi will likely ask
Egyptians, who have driven out two presidents in the past three
years, to be patient.
"He hasn't got an immediate solution for everything. I think he will
tell the people we have issues and these issues will take some time.
You have to bear with me. We will suffer a little bit," said
Elyazal, who meets Sisi on a monthly basis.
But some wonder if the people will be more patient with Sisi than
they were with Mursi, who lasted only a year in office.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Sameh Bardissi;
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