Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president who has been ruling Egypt since mid-2014, has staged the most brutal crackdown on his country’s Islamist forces in modern history. The army chief-turned president was born to an observant middle-class family. However, the type of Islam Sisi experienced as a child was different from the one Egypt’s Islamist movements try to impose.
Sisi was born on November 19, 1954, to a middle-class family that lived in Gamaliya District, at the heart of Fatimid Cairo. His father owned a bazaar in the same district and mainly worked in trade.
Sisi’s father was a member of the Mughaziya tribe which had several branches across the Nile Delta. The same tribe was known for its respect of Islamic and Arab traditions and principles.
Sisi’s mother, Suaad Ibrahim, was a devout Muslim. She was his first school of faith. She taught him the moderate teachings of the Islamic religion. She did the same with his other two brothers and five sisters.
Gamaliya is home to the nation’s oldest mosques and Islamic relics. Sisi’s life in the district left its mark on his behavior and the way he thought. As he grew up and moved from one place to another, he carried with him the moderate way of thinking he experienced among the residents of the district. He spoke numerous times about the people he used to see in his district as well as the tolerance they demonstrated in their day-to-day dealings. He is now the staunches religious reform advocate in his country.
Sisi used to work with his father at the bazaar. He saw people buying and selling things, which helped him acquire a sense of negotiation and haggling. When he became president, he negotiated the financial value of the contracts of some of his country’s development projects, including gigantic power plants built by German conglomerate Siemens.
Sisi did not like to work in trade. He was always infatuated with the military. When he finished middle school in 1970, he preferred to join the Air Force School. Three years later, he joined the Military College. In 1987, Sisi obtained a master’s degree from the Command and Staff College. Five years later, he obtained another master’s degree from the Joint Services Command and Staff College in the UK. He was also a fellow of the National War College in the US.
Through all those years, Sisi built a reputation as a hardworking officer. He also read widely about Islam and Egypt’s problems as he reveals from time to time.
This background energized the career of the aspiring officer. A short time after Sisi returned from the US, he was promoted to head of the Information and Security Department of the Egyptian Ministry of Defense. He was then promoted to commander of one of the army’s mechanized infantry battalions. Sisi kept moving up on the military career ladder until he became the commander of the Northern Military Zone in 2008 and then the head of military intelligence in 2010.
As head of the military intelligence, Sisi joined the army council, which consists of top army commanders. Nevertheless, he was the youngest member of the 23-member council.
In August 2012, Sisi, who was widely known among army recruits, officers and commanders as an observant Muslim, was picked by Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to be the new minister of defense. However, this proved to be a turning point for him; for Egypt; for political Islam in this populous country, and the Arab region as a whole.
Morsi selected Sisi for the top army spot in his bid to win the army over to his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the world’s oldest and most organized Islamist organization.
When it came to power in mid-2012, for the first time after decades of suppression, the Brotherhood believed it would stay in power for centuries to come. Nevertheless, little did the Islamist organization know that the man it picked to control the army and secure its submission to it would cause its political project to collapse like a house of cards.
Before winning the presidential elections of mid-2012, the Brotherhood won a majority of seats in the legislature. The movement’s lawmakers and their Salafi allies worked tooth and nail to change election laws, including the division of constituencies, to ensure continual election victory.
Nonetheless, the army was a very hard obstacle for the Islamist movement on its road to full control of Egypt. The group reportedly tried to form a parallel army, something out of the mould of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps, in order to counterbalance the power of the army and possess the military power that enables it to guard its own political gains. This explains the overtures Morsi took to Iran, a traditional enemy of the traditional allies of Egypt, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Morsi also eased the movement into Sinai, a mainly desert territory in the northeastern part of Egypt, on the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip and Israel, by the residents of the Gaza Strip. Members of the Gaza-ruling faction, Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, were free to cross into Sinai and then to Cairo. Other Islamists, including some who were released from Egyptian jails, were also allowed to move into Sinai and establish presence in it. As minister of defense and military intelligence chief before that, Sisi realized that the Brotherhood had plans for turning Sinai into a major camp for Jihadists and venomous Islamists.
He and other army commanders also saw the Brotherhood’s failure to address Egypt’s economic and social problems, a kind of failure that made the public angry and opened the door for political and security unrest. Brotherhood supporters bullied opponents and even denigrated their faith, accusing those speaking against or criticizing Morsi of being “infidels”. As the gap widened between the nation’s Islamists and secularists, including the majority of Egypt’s political parties and groups, the army tried to intervene to prevent this gap from morphing into a civil war, especially with the supporters of both sides descending on the streets.
However, Sisi revealed later that he was warned by Brotherhood leaders against intervening or taking sides with the secular opposition. One of the Brotherhood leaders told him that the Brotherhood would open the gates of hell on the army if it intervenes to solve the then-going political crisis between Islamists, on one hand, and the secularists and the liberals, on the other.
Sisi’s deep study into Islamic teachings also made him quickly realize that the Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations were abusing this religion intending to reach power and maintain it at all costs.
Sisi and other army commanders saw the polarization of the Egyptian society increase day after day. The military establishment’s repeated attempts to convince Morsi to take measures to calm the streets down, including reversing a presidential decree to exempt the decisions of the president from judicial oversight, also failed. In June 2013, the opposition descended on the streets in its hundreds of thousands. Morsi’s backers also staged several sit-ins in Egyptian capital Cairo in support of the Islamist president. Egypt seemed to be braced for civil war with people in both camps starting to fight. This was when the army decided to act. It acted by taking sides with the majority of the people who quickly realized that the Brotherhood was incapable of solving their country’s problems and that its project was about nothing but political manipulation and religious radicalization.
On July 3, 2013, the army, al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt, and the Coptic Orthodox Church decided to suspend the constitution, appoint an interim president, and hold new presidential elections, almost a year after Morsi was elected. This was viewed as a “military coup” by Morsi’s backers and some members of the international community. It also opened the door for a wave of violence that Egypt continues to suffer from until now.
Sisi’s popularity increased dramatically in the months that followed the downfall of the Mohamed Morsi regime. The members of the public saw the army under his command fighting terrorism in factual terms in Sinai for the first time. They also saw the army working to bring law and order back to the streets as Morsi’s organization turned violent and staged an endless number of terrorist attacks. Public campaigns were formed to encourage Sisi to run for president. Egypt’s political parties also called on him to run for president, as national security was in peril and economic conditions worsened.
On March 26, 2014, Sisi resigned as minister of defense and declared his bid to run for president. Two months later, he competed against Egypt’s most prominent leftist politician, Hamdeen Sabahi, for the presidency. He won by a landslide. Sisi sought reelection four years later after the end of his first presidential term. A liberal party leader contested the elections with him. He won this election in March 2018 by a landslide too.
Sisi is probably the unluckiest of all the five presidents who ruled Egypt before him. In this, he comes close only to Anwar Sadat who came to Egypt’s helm in 1971 when Sinai was still occupied by the Israelis and the Egyptian army was still recovering from the defeat from Israel in 1967.
When Sisi came to power, Sinai was not occupied by another state. Nevertheless, there were thousands of Islamic State terrorists in it, who wanted to turn it into yet another part of the Islamic State that was forming in Iraq and Syria.
The economy was in a very bad condition, the tourism sector was in tatters, and the exports almost stopped. Thousands of factories shut down, Egypt suffered an acute electrical power shortage, foreign currency reserves were about to run out, and above all, there was no security on the streets whatsoever.
In 2016, Sisi’s administration launched a package of aggressive economic reforms with the aim of rescuing the economy from total collapse. The reforms included the liberalization of the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound, the elimination of most fuel, electricity and water subsidies and introducing new taxes.
Huge infrastructure projects were launched, including billions of dollar-worth electricity plants. The projects included dozens of new roads, water treatment plants, thousands of housing projects and 15 new cities, several fish farms, several renewable energy farms and hundreds of thousands of acres of cultivated land.
The projects created openings to close to 5 million people. They also made the machines inside tens of thousands of factories whir again after years of silence.
Apart from the jobs, the economic reforms improved national economic indicators greatly: foreign currency reserves started making a leap, the imports went down, the exports went up, electricity outages came to a total end, and the growth rate started rising for the first time in almost a decade.
Nonetheless, the reforms also came at the cost of the living standards of the majority of the public because of the rise they caused in the prices of almost all commodities. Food prices almost tripled in the past three years and the poverty rate rose.
When Sisi came to power in mid-2014, Egypt’s relations with most of the world had never been worse. The administration of then-US president Barack Obama withheld economic and military aid and most European nations viewed the new administration in Egypt in a low manner. Egypt was also kicked out of the African Union, the very organization it co-founded decades earlier.
This was yet another challenge for the new Egyptian president who had to reconnect with the world in a manner that makes Egypt the regional powerhouse it used to be.
It took Sisi and his administration officials hundreds of visits across the globe to clarify the facts about political developments in Egypt. Things started getting better. Egypt retained its relations with most of the world. It also returned to the African fold. Sisi is now the president of the African Union.
Nevertheless, as it started returning to the international community, Egypt found itself in a changing world, one where terrorist groups are threatening the very existence of nation-states. The map of the Middle East and Africa is also changing as new alliances emerge and new players make their presence felt.
Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown on political Islam has had its toll on political freedoms in Egypt in general, with some of the nation’s political forces and activists complaining against shrinking freedoms. Some of Egypt’s most prominent political figures are now in jail, which is turning local and international rights groups against Sisi’s administration.
The Egyptian president has always answered western journalists asking about freedoms and human rights conditions in his country by accusing western media and governments of caring only about political rights. He is always keen on asserting that jobs; food, healthcare; education, and safe housing are human rights too.
Amendments introduced to the constitution earlier this year will allow Sisi to stay in power, probably until 2032. However, if he seeks a third and a fourth term after the end of his current presidential term in 2022, Sisi will face a huge number of challenges. These challenges include protecting his country’s share of the water of the River Nile when Ethiopia operates its multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam on the Nile in 2022. Sisi will also have to find a way to convince his country’s people to put a lid on the national birth rate. Egypt’s population, now over 100 million, grows by 2.5% annually. If it continues as is, this birth rate will eat away the benefits of the national economic growth, now at 5.7%.
Egypt will also have to play a role in settling conflicts in neighboring states and regions, including in Libya, Yemen, and in the Sahel and Sahara region, in a way that protects its national security. Rampant unrest in Libya has its own toll on security conditions in Egypt with terrorist groups active in the North African state infiltrating the Egyptian border from time to time and staging attacks inside Egypt. The conflict in Yemen threatens navigation in the southern entrance of the Red Sea and consequently the Suez Canal. The expanding presence of terrorist groups in the Sahel and Sahara region also has an impact on Egypt’s national security.