Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Newsmaker: Abdel Fatah El Sisi

It would be fair to say that most men knocking on the door of their 60th birthday are looking forward to putting up their feet, taking it a bit more easy and, who knows, perhaps retiring from their careers and waving goodbye to the daily grind. It would also be fair to say that Field Marshal Abdel Fatah El Sisi is not one of those men. He will turn 60 in November but, by all the signs, his career is about to shift up a couple of gears and this year will be anything but easy because, in the past few days, El Sisi has been granted permission by Egypt’s powerful military to run for president.

For a man who has always fiercely guarded his private life, maintaining that degree of privacy will be hard enough, but to also run a country that for many decades has been in either constant turmoil or under the leaden hand of military dictatorship will be an extraordinary challenge. Delve into the history of El Sisi and his traditionalist family, however, and it is not hard to form the opinion that this is something he’s been leading up to, and maybe the final piece of a grand plan many years in the making.

For while relatively little is publicly known about the man widely referred to as the “Quiet General”, there is enough to suggest how Egypt might fare under a El Sisi presidency (and it would be a very foolish person who would bet against him holding that position after the upcoming elections).

Born Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil El Sisi on November 19, 1954, in Cairo, he grew up in the Gamaleya district of the city. His family was deeply religious and large (he has two brothers and five sisters). The father, Said Hussein Khalili al-Sisi (known as Hassan), instilled in his children strong values and he made sure they were all university educated. Hassan was also a craftsman who produced intricate wooden boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, which he sold through his store (still called El Sisi) in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili bazaar.

We know this because the store manager, Hussein Ali, spoke last summer to Newsweek magazine and, although he was under orders to keep quiet about the general, he was more than happy to talk about Hassan who, he said, was mirrored by his children. “You don’t need me to talk about Abdel Fattah,” he was quoted as saying. “When you speak about Hassan, you speak about all his sons. They are copies of him.”

Ali went on to say that Hassan was close to several of Cairo’s powerful religious sheikhs, who were clients of his store as well as being friends. “Abdel Fattah is just like Hassan,” he told Newsweek. “Hassan was very good at inspiring everyone around him. When he looked into your eyes, he knew what you wanted to say. He knew how to send messages when he spoke. If he was talking to a doctor, he knew how to talk to him. And if he was talking to a worker, he knew how to talk to him. And his children took that from him.”

One son, inspired by Hassan’s love of the law, became a judge. Another followed his father’s example and went into business, but it was Hassan’s orderly ways, his accuracy and punctuality that evidently rubbed off on Abdel Fattah who, from an early age was referred to as “The General”.

El Sisi’s natural reticence extends to his family and they, too, have avoided the media spotlight, but Newsweek’s reporters did manage to get one of his brothers, Ahmed (the one who became a judge), to open up a little – albeit reluctantly. He mentioned that Abdel Fattah has a wife, three sons and a daughter. His wife wears the hijab and stays at home, just like his five sisters. “Our girls don’t work, they stay home and raise the kids,” he said.

Outside the home, though, the boys were ambitious and determined in their chosen careers. “We come from a family that leads – not one that will be led,” Ahmed also was quoted as saying, and his brother has taken that talent to perhaps as far as it can go.

By the time he was of age, Egypt’s armed forces had ended the conflicts that had been a major part of El Sisi’s youth. The wars with Israel ceased and billions of dollars of foreign aid started to flow into the military’s coffers, principally from the United States. This money, in turn, led to army officers becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of society, despite their recruitment from every level of Egypt’s population. They left behind their former compatriots and set up their own housing developments, shops and even schools for their children.

Egypt’s army became untouchable, with little or no public accountability. Accusations of corruption became rife. It set up its own businesses and shut out the private sector from the contracts being awarded and many of those at the top allegedly became extremely wealthy, including the former president, Hosni Mubarak, who had previously served as general.

In contrast to his military predecessors, El Sisi’s reputation is untarnished, especially in the eyes of the majority of the public. And that majority seems determined that he should be president. As to his own politics, El Sisi himself is determined that it must be Egyptian in character and underscored by the virtues of Islam, rather than an imitation of a Western style of democracy.

On August 12, 2012, when President Mohammed Morsi appointed El Sisi as general commander of Egypt’s armed forces and defence minister, it was widely viewed as an attempt to claw back political power from the army, which had taken control after Mubarak was removed. But El Sisi warned Morsi of another army intervention if the government failed to respond to “the will of the people”. And, almost a year after his appointment, on July 3, 2013, he announced on state television that Morsi “did not meet the demands of the masses”. Morsi was duly ejected and replaced by a judge, Adly Mansour, sealing El Sisi’s popularity as a man of the people. And since that point he has been widely hailed as a future head of state.

True to form, El Sisi has so far remained silent on his intentions. He is the kind of leader who simply gets on with the job and people know what they need to know. Nothing more, nothing less.

On Monday morning, however, Mansour promoted El Sisi to field marshal, a promotion followed swiftly by his resignation from the army. Did this herald his candidature for the presidency? Apparently so, because eight hours later came this announcement from the military: “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces cannot but look respectfully and honourably on the desire of the great Egyptian people in nominating General Abdel Fatah El Sisi for the presidency,” read the statement, going on to confirm that El Sisi had thanked the military for granting him “the right to respond to the call of duty”.

This man, a born leader, had paid attention to Egypt’s people. Quietly biding his time until it was right to strike, his military training has paid off with a carefully planned and executed strategy that could very well bring prosperity and harmony to his country – something that has eluded almost all who have gone before him. We don’t know much about Abdel Fatah El Sisi, granted. But what we know is enough. As the “Quiet General”, a man of principle and action, his victory come polling day is expected to be nothing short of a landslide.

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