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Portrait of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - President of the Arab Republic of Egypt

Portrait of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - President of the Arab Republic of Egypt
 Jean-Pierre Filiu
Professor of Middle Eastern history at Sciences Po Paris

Aren't "strong men" often in fact weak men, incapable of really governing? Do they not claim to embody their country’s grandeur when they in fact primarily represent their people’s misfortune? It is at least what is suggested in the following portrait of Marshal Sisi by Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor at Science-Po and eminent expert of the Middle East.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.

In August 2012, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was promoted, to everyone’s surprise, Minister of Defense, thus replacing Marshal Tantawi, who had occupied this position for more than 20 years. It was an unexpected step up for the 57-year-old general, who had until then held the relatively minor position of Director of Military Intelligence. The author of this dramatic development is Mohammed Morsi, elected in June 2012 as Head of State with 51.7% of the votes, during the first democratic presidential elections in Egypt's history. A pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi replaced Tantawi with Sisi in order to ensure the armed forces’ loyalty to the government. That is all it took for the international press to worry about the new Minister's "notorious Islamism".
A year later, however, Sisi overthrew Morsi and violently crushed the Muslim Brotherhood's protests against his coup. After having claimed his refusal of personal power, he methodically prepared his own election as President of the Republic, in May 2014, during which he officially won 97% of the votes. His only opponent asserted that such figures were "an insult to the Egyptian people’s intelligence". In March 2018, Sisi will be yet again "re-elected" with 97% of the votes, this time against a candidate who is unconditionally loyal to the incumbent President. The nagging question is therefore whether or not Sisi is particularly devious and ambitious. Has he concealed his manoeuvres to then seize the supreme power and keep it at any price? Or is he the mere product of the long-term crisis in which Egypt has entered since the popular uprising against Mubarak's dictatorship (1981 to 2011)?

Abdel Fattah chose very early on to pursue a military career, which is an excellent way to climb the social ladder in an Egypt overwhelmed by all sorts of obstacles.

The current Egyptian President is one of the 14 children of a shopkeeper who worked in the tourist district of Khan al-Khalili in Cairo. His father married twice, and Sisi’s mother was his first spouse. He grew up in a conservative environment where boys and girls all had to learn the Koran by heart. He married one of his cousins without, it seems, it having been arranged. The fact that Mrs Sisi is veiled has fuelled many rumours on her husband's supposed "Islamism".

Abdel Fattah chose very early on to pursue a military career, which is an excellent way to climb the social ladder in an Egypt overwhelmed by all sorts of obstacles. He graduated from the Military Academy at the age of 23. In 1977, President Sadat boldly gambled on peace with Israel. This strategic shift led Egypt and its army to leave the Soviet orbit and to join the alliance with the United States. "Arab socialism", which was very popular when Nasser was in power (1954-70), gave way to an unbridled liberalism, influenced, on social issues, by punctilious piety.
In 1981, Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat, who was assassinated by a jihadist commando in the middle of a military parade. Once in power, he consolidated Egypt's alignment with the United States in 1990 by joining the Washington-led coalition aiming to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In 1991, Sisi participated, as part of the Egyptian contingent, in the few days of ground offensive that kept the Iraqi troops out of the emirate. To this day, this is his only active contribution to military operations. Compared to the officers of the previous generation who had to fight against Israel, sometimes on several occasions, Sisi only experienced one military intervention, which, in addition, was held under Saudi Arabia’s formal authority and the United States’s operational command. Missions in Riyadh and trainings across the Atlantic will only add to this tropism: Egyptian power is, according to this approach, derived from the generosity of both Washington (with a military aid worth $1.3 billion per year) and the oil monarchies.
Within Egypt’s military hierarchy, regulated by an exacerbated sense of clientelism, Sisi positioned himself under the protection of general Farid el-Tohamy. At first Director of Military Intelligence, Tohamy then headed from 2004 the "Administrative Oversight Authority", an organization all the more feared because it is in charge of corruption cases. This godfather carefully watched over Sissi's career, who was then commander of a mechanized infantry division, before heading the northern military zone, until he in turn became, in 2010, Director of Military Intelligence. Admittedly, this organization is the least endowed among the Egyptian community of intelligence services, and is dominated by the National Security Agency (under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry) and by the General Intelligence Directorate (the militarized backbone of a regime just as militarized). Yet Sisi, as head of Egypt’s military intelligence, was able to develop his own networks of influence within the armed forces, which were very worried about the prospect of a succession organized by Mubarak to the benefit of his son Gamal.

These tensions between the Head of State and the military institution explain why the latter did not hesitate to overthrow the former in February 2011, in order to calm people’s anger. Technically, it was a putsch, operated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a military junta that collectively exercises executive power. The SCAF soon found in the Muslim Brotherhood the ideal partner to curb the revolutionary fever. Sisi, SCAF’s youngest member, was in charge of the relations with the young activists who occupied Tahrir Square, in the center of Cairo. He thus supported the "virginity tests" carried out on female demonstrators, in the name of the "honor" of soldiers, who were to be defended against "rape" accusations.

The Minister, despite his "modesty" praised by his thurifers, accepted to be promoted to the rank of marshal, before abandoning his military titles to participate as a "civil" in the plebiscite of May 2014.

In Autumn 2011, several bloody incidents between demonstrators and the police, who was firing live ammunition, took place in Tahrir and in its surrounding streets. To a delegation of Mubarak's opponents who had come to protest against such severe repression, Sisi brutally retorted that he had recorded greater losses in a simple military manoeuvre in the desert. It was the first time Sisi's mask seemed to drop, thus revealing a deep contempt for the lives of his compatriots, especially when they dared take the streets.
President Morsi's blindness truly benefited Sisi, as the former appointed the latter first, Minister of Defense, and then, guarantor of Egypt’s national unity in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasingly partisan policies. This is the moment when Sisi, assuming he had not begun to intrigue earlier, skilfully claimed his public neutrality, whilst at the same time advancing his own interests behind the scenes. The military hierarchy encouraged and supervised a vast anti-Morsi protest movement, which culminated at the end of June 2013. Sisi then issued an ultimatum to the Egyptian President, before overthrowing him, and dispersing the Islamist groups in a bloodbath. While the executive power was formally in the hands of the judge Adly Mansour, a wave of "Sisimania" overflowed Egypt. The Minister, despite his "modesty" praised by his thurifers, accepted to be promoted to the rank of marshal, before abandoning his military titles to participate as a "civil" in the plebiscite of May 2014.
In power for five years now, Sisi will have experienced his finest hour in August 2015, during the inauguration ceremony (alongside François Hollande) of the new Suez Canal, supposed to double the traffic between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The industrial performance is indisputable, even if it has fully mobilized a military institution that would have evidently been more effective had it administered great projects instead of restoring public order. The strategic Sinai peninsula has witnessed the development of an Egyptian branch of ISIS. A thousand Bedouin rebels still to this day oppose tens of thousands of soldiers sent by Sisi in military offensives, all qualified as "definitive". These disastrous results in terms of security only make the systematically repressed public freedoms more scandalous. Egypt indeed counts tens of thousands of political prisoners and, a phenomenon hitherto unknown in the country, thousands of "disappeared". Sisi accuses all forms of opposition of being "terrorist", including the Muslim Brotherhood of course, but also the secular and progressive protest movement. He however favors a rigorous practice of Islam, which he believes guarantees social stability, even if it means sacrificing birth control programs (hence a worrying revival of Egyptian demography, which is growing by 2.3% per year).

The Egypt Sisi dreams of is nevertheless nothing more than a shadow of itself, too entangled in its structural crisis to project power and exert influence beyond its borders.

Unlike Nasser, or even Sadat, Sisi is a mediocre orator, who seldom appears in public, even during his electoral "campaigns". This noticeable discretion is often associated to security considerations, especially since the 2018 presidential election revealed strong tensions within the ruling circle. Sisi overcame this ordeal by appointing the head of his own presidential guard to the Ministry of Defense, but it is clear that his suspicious tendencies have been reignited by this episode.

He sees himself as the contemporary embodiment of Egypt's grandeur, against which a coalition of dark forces, both Islamist and Western, would be conspiring. A patriot on the verge of xenophobia, he applauded the election of Donald Trump, who quickly welcomed him with regards in the White House. Sisi is equally comfortable with Putin, with whom he exchanged flamboyant visits and unprecedented agreements. His first decision once in power was to reestablish diplomatic relations with Bashar al-Assad's regime, whom he has always treated with respect.
The Egypt Sisi dreams of is nevertheless nothing more than a shadow of itself, too entangled in its structural crisis to project power and exert influence beyond its borders. Cairo's secondary role in Libya and its inability to determine Gaza's fate are severe reminders of this failure. Egypt never weighs as much as when it abstains, as it did, for example, when it wisely refused to get involved in the Yemen conflict. A sad observation for President Sisi, who is condemned, like so many of his predecessors, to spy endlessly on the military hierarchy in order to nip in the bud any temptation of dissent. Complicit in, and later instigator of two coups in two years, he measures more than anyone the fragility of power, even when it is absolute. The novelist Gamal el-Ghitani sublimated this autocratic fatality in a historical allegory, Zayni Barakat, published in 1973, which is unfortunately still topical.

Bibliographic selection

Jean-Pierre FILIU, From Deep state to Islamic state, New York, Oxford University press, 2015.
Gamal GHITANY, Zayni Barakat, Paris, Seuil, 2003.
Bernard ROUGIER et Stéphane LACROIX (under the direction of), L’Egypte en révolutions, Paris, PUF, 2015.
Robert SPRINGBORG, Egypt, Cambridge, Polity, 2017.


Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

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