Middle East

Egypt's General al-Sisi: The man behind the image

Image copyright AFP

The bitterness Muslim Brotherhood supporters feel towards General Abdul al-Sisi, the Egyptian Defence Minister and Armed Forces chief who deposed President Mohammed Morsi last month, is all the greater because many of them thought of him as one of their own.

At the time of his appointment to the top military job last year there was, according to Mahmoud Khalifa, a university lecturer and Brotherhood member, a consensus "that General Sisi was a religious person".

Indeed he says that "some people accused him… [of being] a Muslim Brotherhood member in disguise. There were claims that he memorised the Koran and so on - for a moment I believed he was the guy for the job".

Today his view is very different. Hundreds of people, most of them Muslim Brotherhood members, have died since Gen Sisi's coup.

"In comparison with him, [former President Hosni] Mubarak was an angel", Dr Khalifa declares. "The pious thing was just a marketing technique".

The general's friends and admirers - and in today's Egypt they are many - emphatically reject the claim of sham piety. But the evidence that he is a man who likes to control his image is strong.

Mike Giglio, the Middle East correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast website, was commissioned to write an al-Sisi profile, and describes it as the most challenging assignment he has ever been given.

"It was, incredibly… difficult to dig up even the smallest personal details", he said.

When he and his team started to research in areas where the family had roots they found that even people who were helpful at first would "make phone calls, then call us back and say they weren't able to speak".

Mr Giglio concluded that Gen Sisi is "very, very conscious about image control. He has a plan about how he wants to be seen and how information should come out, and putting personal details out there right now is not part of that".

Image copyright AP

Khaled Fahmy, Head of History at the American University of Cairo and a keen student of the Egyptian military, has concluded that he is not above using the sex appeal that comes with a general's uniform.

Since President Morsi was deposed, Egyptian State TV has been playing a rousing armed-forces music video - al-Sisi's image features repeatedly in an almost erotic montage of rockets, tanks and lithe young men displaying balletic physical prowess.

"Middle class and upper class women, [who are] increasingly important in the revolution find him younger, handsome, powerful, macho, in command", says Mr Fahmy.

'Consistently self-controlled'

Egypt's new pharaoh - technically he remains defence minister, but no-one is in any doubt about where the power lies today - was born in 1954, and grew up in the Gamaleya district of the Egyptian capital.

If you have visited Cairo as a tourist you may have shopped there - its street markets are famous - and you may even have bought a souvenir produced by the family workshop. The general's father, Hasan, set up a business making furniture and decorative knick-knacks in wood and mother-of-pearl.

The household is said to have been pious and patriotic. And Mike Giglio turned up an intriguing insight into the way Gen Sisi senior liked to operate when he was making something.

He would give individual workers tasks without telling them what the final product would look like. Then he would assemble the pieces himself.

"When he'd pull back the curtain and show them what they had been working towards they were all amazed", Mr Giglio says, "they didn't see the final vision until it was in front of them."

Al-Sisi junior has earned a reputation for calculating carefully before showing his hand.

The army was a natural choice for an ambitious young man without much money or education to give him a start in life. On his way up the ranks he studied at the Staff College in Britain, and in 2005 was sent to the United States Army College in Pennsylvania for a master's degree.

Sherifa Zuhur, a research professor who taught him in her seminars there, remembers a student with a "nimble mind" who was "consistently self-controlled and reflective".

During his time at the college Abdul al-Sisi wrote a paper called Democracy in the Middle East, in which he argued that "the religious nature" of the region needed to be reflected in new democratic systems there.

He complained that "governments tend towards secular rule, disenfranchising large segments of the population who believe religion should not be excluded from government. Religious leaders who step beyond their bounds in government matters are often sent to prison without trial".

One can imagine any Muslim Brotherhood member reading that during the Mubarak years giving it a hearty "Hear, hear".

Views like that may help to explain why he originally found favour with Mohammed Morsi. When Gen a-Sisi took over from Field Marshall Tantawi as Defence Minister and head of the Armed Forces a year ago, he was widely seen as Mr Morsi's man.

But Khaled Fahmy believes that, pious Muslim though he may be, he always distrusted the Brotherhood. The army's antipathy to the organisation runs deep, and army service has been Gen Sisi's life.

On 18 August Gen Sisi told Egyptians that he doesn't have political ambitions. "This is not the rule of the soldiers", he declared in a televised address, "nor is there the slightest desire to rule Egypt."

Not everyone believes him, and, in Mike Giglio's judgement, "If Sisi did run in the upcoming elections he would win by a landslide - even his enemies admit that."

This edition of Profile was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 24 August 2013. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or the Profile podcast.