Last updated: 27 January, 2014

Egypt’s new icon brings nationalism to the table

Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom the military has endorsed for the presidency after he ousted a civilian leader, has emerged as a nationalist icon in the mould of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Sisi, 59, has not yet said whether he will seek the country’s highest office, but Egypt’s military commanders on Monday said in a statement that “the people’s trust in Sisi is a call that must be heeded as the free choice of the people.”

The statement said Sisi thanked the military leadership during a meeting for allowing him “the right to respond to the call of duty.”

Adly Mansour, who was installed as interim president by the army after it toppled the elected Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi in July, issued a decree earlier on Monday promoting Sisi to the military’s highest rank of field marshal.

Sisi and Nasser, the charismatic colonel who ruled Egypt between 1954 and 1970, were both military men whose popularity was stoked by rising nationalism and who oversaw wide-ranging crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood.

But unlike Nasser, a champion of pan-Arabism whose speeches brought people into the streets across the region, Sisi has kept a lower profile, rarely giving public addresses.

Hosni Mubarak, the long-ruling dictator overthrown in the 2011 uprising, had appointed Sisi as his military intelligence chief, making him the youngest officer to hold the post.

Morsi later promoted Sisi to defence minister in what was seen at the time as an assertion of civilian control over the military, which had ruled the country between Mubarak’s overthrow and Morsi’s election in June 2012.

At the time, Morsi’s opponents speculated that Sisi had been chosen because he too was an Islamist, but the rumours were swiftly dispelled less than a year later, when Sisi ousted Morsi as millions of protesters demanded an end to his divisive year-long rule.

Sisi has since become the most popular political figure in the country, with his supporters celebrating the harsh crackdown on the increasingly unpopular Brotherhood and viewing him as a tough leader who can restore stability after years of unrest.

Sisi has said that if there is “popular demand” for his candidacy he will stand in elections planned for later this year.

Aides say they expect him to announce his candidacy soon, but only after he is satisfied he will be able to stabilise the country and repair an economy battered by three years of turmoil.

Sisi “wants to unite the people, restore security and Egypt’s international standing,” a military general said on condition of anonymity.

Views of Sisi reflect country’s divide

Egypt’s next president will rule over a deeply polarised country, with Morsi supporters regularly holding demonstrations that set off clashes with police and opponents, and with radical Islamists carrying out increasingly bold attacks on security forces.

The crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has seen more than 1,000 people, mainly Islamists, killed in street clashes and the jailing of thousands more, including virtually the entire top leadership of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s most well-organised political movement.

“CC (Sisi’s name in graffiti shorthand) is a killer” reads a slogan scrawled across the capital by protesters who continue to demand Morsi’s reinstatement.

But such slogans are dwarfed by the ubiquitous image of the uniformed Sisi plastered on walls and car windows, and even on cakes sold in bakeries.

To his supporters, Sisi is a pious and humble man of the people, who addresses them in infrequent speeches using colloquial rather than classical Arabic.

Like most Egyptian Muslim women, Sisi’s wife covers her hair with a scarf, and an aide said he prays five times a day in accordance with Islam.

Morsi supporters have nevertheless compared him to a pharaoh and to villains of Islamic lore.

Sisi was born near the Hussein mosque, a pilgrimage site in Cairo’s old city, in 1954, and joined the military academy in 1977.

During studies at the US Army War College in 2006, he wrote a thesis saying that support from Islamic opinion makers was crucial for democratic governance in the Middle East.

He has four children, including an eldest son in the army who is married to the daughter of the current military intelligence chief.