Abdel Fatah el-Sissi has become the most popular man in Egypt, but also has… (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GETTY…)
An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Gamal Abdel Nasser at the time he led a 1952 coup as a general. He was a colonel at the time. The article has been updated.
CAIRO — He is a savvy operator, people who have worked with him say, a career military officer who methodically campaigned a year ago to become Egypt’s defense minister under its first democratically elected president.
Now Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is faced with a society even more bitterly divided than it was a year ago, when Mohamed Morsi took office as president.
Islamist supporters of Morsi, who was ousted by the military last month, warned Wednesday that authorities risk provoking “civil war” if they go ahead with plans to break up protest camps, as officials have threatened to do after the collapse of international mediation efforts.
To those Islamists, Sissi is intent on wiping their faction off the nation’s political map in a quest for absolute power. But a substantially larger share of Egyptians appears to ardently support the general, and many tout his name above all others in the search for a new leader.
Sissi, viewed as a pious Muslim, was supposed to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s man running the military. Now his sunglasses-clad face is venerated in Cairo’s streets and his pictures pasted on the windows of minibuses and storefronts and clutched by men and women who wave Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square. For the most popular man in Egypt, the question is: Does he want to be the country’s next president?
Noncommittal on plans
Sissi, 58, has been coy about his plans, saying in an interview with The Washington Post last week that he did not aspire to a higher office but declining to rule out a presidential bid. “When the people love you,” he said, “this is the most important thing for me.”
Egyptian officials say that Sissi’s commitment to returning the country to civilian-led democracy is genuine and that they do not think that he will run in elections, expected to be held next year.
But in a country where the only leader in six decades not to have a military background was just deposed in a coup, many say they would not be surprised if the charismatic Sissi decided to throw his high-brimmed officer’s hat into the ring. Some supporters are hailing him as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revered colonel who led the 1952 coup that overthrew Egypt’s monarchy.
“I think it’s hugely tempting for anyone,” said a high-ranking Western official, referring to the possibility that Sissi might take his popularity to the polls. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
The clamor to bring Sissi into the presidential palace is ironic, critics here say, given that many of his advocates were bitter foes of the military-backed rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander. Public support also quickly soured for the military council that temporarily ruled after Mubarak was toppled in the 2011 revolution.
Ties to Brotherhood
After Morsi’s inauguration in June 2012, Sissi was seen as a man who would be willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood despite decades of military persecution of the organization. Sissi, considered by acquaintances who have talked faith with him to be deeply religious without being dogmatic, was considered a natural ally for Morsi, who was struggling to assert civilian control over the army.
Sissi was then a fast-rising officer who had taken over as head of military intelligence and was assigned to serve as the armed forces’ liaison to the Brotherhood after the revolution. His most prominent turn in the news during the year that generals ran the country came when he defended the military after security forces were accused of administering “virginity tests” to female protesters. Rights groups said the practice amounted to state-sanctioned sexual assault.
U.S. and Egyptian observers say Sissi was quietly positioning himself as a successor to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, a man about two decades his senior who was then leading the military.
“I personally was not surprised at all that he would be picked” as defense minister, said Sameh Seif el-Yazel, a former Egyptian intelligence officer with close ties to the military who said he had spoken frequently to Sissi since the 2011 revolution. “He’s a man who is straightforward, black and white. There is no gray area in dealing with strategic issues.”
Even before the revolution, Sissi was among a group of rising leaders in Egypt’s army, participating in a prestigious international program at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in the mid-2000s. There he wrote a paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East” and studied civilian-
military relations, according to his adviser, Stephen Gerras.
The focus was on the war then raging in Iraq, not on Egypt.