In just 17 months, Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi went from little-known colonel general to a national hero. His journey is that of a career soldier with humble origins, who is now leaving the military and running for president following popular campaigns demanding he takes the highest executive post.
Very little is known about Sisi and his early life. Many of the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) made frequent media appearances during the period when SCAF directly ruled the country, from February 2011 until the election of former President Mohamed Morsi. But, Sisi, born in 1954 and the youngest member of the council, remained largely unknown. Few apart from military analysts and insiders knew his name until he became the military face of the “virginity tests” controversy in June 2011.
In a meeting with Amnesty International, Sisi, the head of Military Intelligence at the time, said that the military had carried out “virginity tests” to protect the military against possible rape allegations, and promised that the Armed Forces would not carry out similar tests in the future, as confirmed in a statement issued by Amnesty at the time.
Sisi reverted back to anonymity until August 2012, when he was appointed senior military commander by Morsi. It was then that biographies began to emerge about his past, attempting to uncover details that his official biography on the State Information Services website omitted, citing “sports” and “reading” among his interests.
His father made handicrafts in the central Cairo neighborhood of Gamaleya. The family was religious and traditional. Sisi himself was pious and penned graduate papers that emphasized Islamic history, spurring speculation that this was why Morsi had chosen him.
Sisi’s military profile suggested other reasons for his selection. He entered the military academy and graduated in 1977, specializing in how to command mechanized infantry. This has arguably garnered him a base of support from within the corps. The Egyptian military had just concluded its last war with Israel, and the military transitioned from a Soviet client state warring with Israel to a domestic business empire and end user for products of the US defense industry.
Sisi moved up through the ranks, serving in a number of portfolios that, in hindsight, prepared him for a political role. He was educated at the US War College, which became Egypt’s main sponsor of military supplies. He was defense attaché in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s regional powerhouse and the current government’s most ardent international supporter.
But, what made him Morsi’s logical choice to succeed Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi was arguably his intelligence profile. He served as the head of information and security at the Defense Ministry’s general secretariat, and as head of military intelligence he was charged with averting military coups.
After months of Brotherhood-military contests for power, Morsi had thought that Sisi would help him place the military under his control.
Immediately after the election of the Brotherhood-dominated parliament in January 2012, a power struggle started between the group and SCAF, which had until then retained executive and legislative power since the removal of Hosni Mubarak a year before.
Also, on the eve of Morsi’s election, SCAF issued a decree reassigning legislative authority to itself after the elected parliament was dismantled by a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling. Finally, in August 2012, Morsi dropped a bomb by forcibly retiring Tantawy and Chief of Staff Sami Anan in an extensive reshuffle of SCAF.
Morsi appointed Sisi as the new defense minister and promoted him two ranks to colonel general. Sisi then forcibly retired another 70 generals, including six fellow members of SCAF. He was now the highest-ranking soldier in Egypt, and one with a public profile, something he had never had before.
Sisi did not intervene in politics openly as Morsi usurped back legislative power and made himself legally inviolate, ramming through a constitutional declaration, and reigniting civil unrest between his supporters and opponents that resulted in street battles.
After clashes between the president’s supporters and opponents left a dozen dead, Sisi issued the first of what would be a string of ominous statements in 2013, at the end of January. He said that the country was sliding into chaos, and that the military would not sit idly by.
Weeks of relative calm were marked by power outages and the Tamarod signature campaign supporting early elections. Military officials made contingency plans in case they devolved into violence and cultivated contacts with Tamarod, delivering indirect support. Sisi watched a long-winded speech by Morsi defending his record, and attempted to host a week of political dialogue sessions, to no avail.
By the time hundreds of thousands of Tamarod signatories and supporters took to the streets on June 30, the demand for early elections had evolved into the single request that Morsi step down. The next day, Sisi appeared on television and said the government had issued a 48-hour ultimatum to resolve the political stalemate. Sure enough, 48 hours later, Sisi appeared on television flanked by a number of political and religious leaders and announced a new transitional plan.
Sisi immediately overshadowed interim President Adly Mansour, becoming the face of the interim government and Egyptians elevated him to mythical status. He frequently addressed the general public during military occasions that he attended as Minister of Defense. Sisi spoke quietly, putting his emphasis instead on nationalistic language. He was becoming a figure with a public profile larger than his current position, triggering speculation he was aiming for higher.
On July 19, the spokesperson of the Armed Forces vehemently denied reports that Sisi intended to run for president, calling them “absolutely false and not based on any facts.” The spokesperson said that Sisi was “honored to see this unprecedented fusion between the people and their Armed Forces, and has no further aspirations.”
Media outlets quoted “sources close” to Sisi reporting that he had said he would not run, adding, “I will not allow history to say that the Egyptian military moved to secure its own interests.”
Facing large protests led by the Muslim Brotherhood demanding the return of Morsi, Sisi gave a speech in dark sunglasses, requesting that the people mobilize on Friday July 26, to give a mandate to the Armed Forces to “fight terrorism.”
Following a wide demonstration of support, security forces violently dispersed two pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14, killing hundreds in one day. The dispersal of the sit-ins was widely condemned by international organizations, and held against Sisi by the opposition. With Morsi’s photo now taboo, Sisi’s face was everywhere on the street. Most government movements were interpreted as test balloons for Sisi’s candidacy, not least the referendum on the constitution.
When the constitution passed with over 95 percent of the votes, the results were considered to reflect the popularity of Sisi, who implicitly supported the constitution and invited people to take part in the referendum.
Sisi became less adamant about denying his intention to run for president. Answering a question about his intention to run during an event earlier this month, he said, “when the Egyptian people give me a command I have to obey it, I will never turn my back to the people.”
This statement gave more hope to Sisi supporters, who filled Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the January 25 revolution demanding he run. Two days later, he was abruptly promoted to field marshall, becoming the first man to hold that rank without combat experience. Sisi was silent as commentators said this was the next preparation for a presidential run, except for a short line thanking SCAF for allowing him to perform his “national duty.”
On March 26, Sisi announced his official resignation from the military and his campaign for the presidency in a televised address, stressing Egypt's sovereignty and the economic challenges ahead.