Egypt will hold presidential elections later this month (May 26-27), and most political pundits believe that Field-Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will win in a landslide. Al-Sisi (will be 60-years old in November) has formally shed his military uniform and donned civilian clothes, but that has not eased the resentment of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its supporters. Al-Sisi ousted the former President, Mohammad Morsi, who is languishing in prison along with other MB leaders. The July 3, 2013 coup carried out by al-Sisi amounted to a second such coup in Egypt within three years.
The enigmatic al-Sisi, who graduated from Egypt’s military academy in 1977, has spent nearly 37 years in the military. In August 2012, President Morsi appointed al-Sisi as Minister of Defense, and the interim President Adly Mansour promoted him from general to Field Marshal, Egypt’s top military post. Previously, al-Sisi served as Commander of the Northern Military region headquartered in Alexandria, and then as Director of Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance. He was later admitted to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt (SCAF), as its youngest member. SCAF assumed power in Egypt during the revolution that ended the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak as President of Egypt. In June 2012, SCAF handed over power to the elected president Mohammad Morsi.
In a recent speech al-Sisi characterized the MB as “political stupidity and Religious stupidity” and vowed to eliminate the MB. Al-Sisi, in a televised interview pointed out that on June 30, 2013 the Egyptian people had called for an end to the MB when huge throngs of Egyptians marched to protest President Morsi rule. He insisted that there could be no reconciliation with them (MB), because the MB tricked those who voted for them, and were therefore rejected by the Egyptian people.
In explaining his opposition to Islamism and the MB, al Sisi argued that the belief of the MB is that politics should be subservient to Islam. He maintained that there has never been a state based on religion in Islam. Al-Sisi was quoted by Reuters (May 9, 2014) as saying: “I see that the religious discourse in the entire Islamic world has cost Islam its humanity. This requires us, and for that matter all leaders, to review their positions.”
Al-Sisi’s outward pious appearance reminds many Egyptian pundits of Anwar Sadat, but al-Sisi’s presidential campaign managers seek to present him more like the popular Egyptian revolutionary president Abdul Nasser, who helped depose the monarchy and disbanded the MB. President Sadat on the other hand used the MB against the political Left only to have the MB assassinate him. Sadat like Sisi was a pious Sunni Muslim.
According to Al-Ahram Weekly, an independent newspaper asked al-Sisi whether he has ever dreamed of becoming head of the Egyptian military. Then Army chief al-Sisi replied “the armed forces or something bigger.” The interviewer then asked if he thought he would be at the throne of Egypt. To which al-Sisi replied that he had been inspired by a vision in which he saw himself carrying a sword with the words “No God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” In the same dream, he also received a promise from the late president Anwar Sadat that he would be president of Egypt.
While there is no love lost for al-Sisi by the MB and other Islamists, some secular critics are alarmed by al-Sisi’s refusal to provide a clear answer regarding parliamentary oversight of the powerful military. All that al-Sisi could say was that the army “is a great institution, and I hope to God that all of Egypt rises to this level.”
The May 7, 2014 report of al-Sisi’s interview in The Daily News of Egypt also touched on a variety of topics including the MB, and foreign and domestic policy. In discussing Israeli-Palestinian relations, al-Sisi called on the Egyptian people not to allow ill-feelings towards Gaza-based Hamas. He went on to say that Egypt “respects all charters,” including peace with Israel, adding that Israel had a “real opportunity to give the Palestinians hope.” He added that he will visit Israel if the Jewish State will move forward on the Palestinian issue. Asked if he would be ready to visit Israel or invite an Israeli leader to visit Egypt, al-Sisi replied that all Israel has to do is to agree to Palestinian State with a capital in East Jerusalem.
On other foreign policy issues al-Sisi said that he would make his first foreign trip as president to Saudi Arabia (he served military attaché in Riyadh earlier in his military career). The Saudis have been al-Sisi staunchest supporters in removing Morsi, and have financed Egypt’s military purchases from Russia. In the interview, al-Sisi revealed that as Defense Minister he visited Russia, and confirmed that “Military relations with Russia were not interrupted and much of the equipment for the army comes from Russia”
In a May 15, 2014 interview with Reuters al-Sisi asked for US help to combat Jihadi terrorism. He called for the resumption of $1.3 billion in US military aid, which was partially frozen after his crackdown on the MB. Asked for his message to Obama al-Sisi said, “We are fighting a war against terrorism.”
In April 2012, Field Marshal al-Sisi made the headlines by defending “virginity tests” carried out on women detained and beaten by soldiers at an anti-Mubarak protest in Tahrir Square in March 2011. Asked to respond, al-Sisi said that the “virginity tests” were used “to protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusation of rape.”
During the second part of a televised interview which aired on May 6, 2014, al-Sisi alluded to his attitude towards women, saying, “I personally love the Egyptian women.” He pointed out that as president “all the women in Egypt would be my daughters.” Stating that he would work to crack down on deep-rooted issues of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt, he encouraged the media to increase awareness of the issue and promote legislation.
Most Egyptians yearn for a strong leader following three years of turmoil that have shattered their economy, especially the tourism sector. Two coups, endless demonstration, street violence, and the subsequent violent military crackdown, have made the soft spoken but stern former Field Marshal an attractive choice for a leader. They see in Abdul Fattah al-Sisi the strongman needed to end the instability that has beset Egypt. At the same time, Egyptian must also realize that they are trading what appeared as a brief moment of democratic will that toppled Mubarak’s dictatorship with another authoritarian leader. Al- Sisi removed the failed authoritarian and menacing Islamist regime of President Morsi, but will he be able to provide for the needs ordinary Egyptians yearn for – everyday staples and freedom? Only time will tell.
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