The date 30 June 2013 will go down in Egypt’s history as one which changed the destiny of an entire nation, one which made the seemingly impossible a reality on the ground. It was the day on which some 33 million Egyptians took to the streets to demand that the Islamist president Muhammad Mursi should leave. Mursi refused to do so and, three days later
, was overthrown by the military who explicitly backed the people’s will. The champion of the day: Colonel General [today retired Field Marshal] Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, currently President of Egypt.
To fathom the momentous scale of what happened in Egypt that fateful day in June 2013, and the epic role played by Sisi, one has to go far back into the history of Egypt.
Back in time
Egyptians have from time immemorial been famous for their deep religious faith, small wonder in a land where the very substance of life is dependant on the sun and the annual inundation brought by the flooding waters of the Nile. The Sun and Nile were worshipped in Egypt as life givers till Christianity came in during the first century AD, followed by Islam in the 7th. Today, the majority of Egyptians are Muslim—pious Muslims for that matter. What more natural than for this faithful majority to yearn for a judicious Islamic rule that would ensure not only justice on earth but also paradise in the afterlife? Enter the Muslim Brothers (MB), a movement born in the late 1920s in the wake of the downfall of the Islamic Ottoman Empire after WWI, to call for just that.
Yet the MB did not start off explicitly calling for an Islamic caliphate; they began as a charity which swiftly built a sympathetic public base and metamorphosed into a political Islam group. It adopted a secretive strategy of violence and, by the 1940s and 50s, had committed sufficient bombings and political assassinations to have it banned and its members land in prison where their thought became more radicalised. Those not caught operated underground. In the 1970s Egypt’s then president Anwar al-Sadat released them and gave them a free hand to operate, hoping to counter the leftists who then were his main political opponents. But Sadat himself was assassinated in 1981 by the MB for having made peace with Israel. During the 1980s and 90s Egypt went through a horrible period of Islamist terrorism until, in the early 2000s, the Islamists agreed to ‘renounce violence’ in return for a degree of freedom to operate on the political field. Legally, however, the MB remained ‘banned’.
Come January 2011, the MB were instrumental in the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, which ended with long-time President Hosni Mubarak stepping down. They swiftly claimed full credit for the revolution and worked to assume the reins of power. Predictably, their renowned Islamic-based formula of offering people a good life on earth and paradise in the thereafter worked; in the first two post-Arab Spring elections they won majority stakes. But this only helped expose their real mettle to Egyptians who realised the MB were not as good as their word. Their popularity nosedived and in 2012 their candidate Muhammad Mursi became Egypt’s president by a very thin margin in elections that are still being contested in court.
It took Mursi one year in office to drive home the message to Egyptians that the MB were exploiting religious sentiments to reach their own ends. Egyptian concerns mattered nothing to the MB, and Egypt herself had to take a backseat to the wider Islamic dream of a pan-world Islamic caliphate. The radical Islamic views did not sit well with Egyptians and conflicted with their time-honoured moderateness and tolerance. The MB promise of prosperity was exposed as a big lie. Public disfavour rose to unprecedented levels, and Mursi found that the only way to implement Islamist measures against the people’s will was to grant himself sweeping powers and immune his decisions against being contested in court. He rejected all demands by the public and Egypt’s civic forces for real democracy, the result being that the ceiling of those demands rose to ask for nothing less than that he should leave.
Rule or kill?
Egyptians rebelled. The grassroots Tamarud (Rebel) movement was born in April 2013 with the aim of gathering sufficient public support to drive Mursi out on the first anniversary of his swearing in, 30 June. Mursi had reportedly been voted in with 13 million votes; Tamarud aimed at gathering signatures that exceeded this number to ‘vote him out’. They gathered 22 million signatures, and rallied for street protest to demonstrate the people’s will.
Mursi’s first anniversary was thus celebrated with 33 million Egyptians demanding his ouster. The street rallies exceeded even the most ambitious expectations, and were absolutely peaceful; not a single dispute or harassment incident was reported. The MB, naturally, had kept out of it.
Enter Colonel General Sisi. The soft-spoken commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces issued a 48-hour ultimatum for “the ‘civic forces’ in Egypt to resolve the crisis. Otherwise,” Sisi said, “the military would have to step in out of fear for the nation, with a Roadmap to rescue it from the threat of imminent civil war.”
In an interview he later granted the independent Cairo daily Al-Masri al-Youm, printed in October 2013, Sisi said that he had three times talked to Mursi before 30 June in attempts to push him to resolve the impasse. “If you plan a coup,” he said, “you don’t resort to dialogue. But Mursi stopped his ears.” Sisi also recalled the belligerence of the MB when he related how one of their leading figures Khairat al-Shater threatened, some 10 days before Mursi was brought down, that if a MB president was toppled, members of the group would conduct “uncontrollable terrorist operations” in Egypt. It was then that Sisi made his now famous remark: “Is it that you either rule over us or kill us?”
In a near three-hour televised speech that galled Egyptians Mursi belligerently rejected the army’s ultimatum.
And so it was that, on 3 July, Sisi appeared in a TV address which, even though it included not a single reference to Mursi, effectively overthrew him. Flanked by representatives of Egypt’s civic forces, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and the Coptic Pope Tawadros II, Sisi announced the Roadmap Egypt would follow to a democratic, peaceful future.
It was God’s answer to the prayers of Egyptians who never imagined in their wildest dreams that the oppressive Islamist rule could really come to an end.
The Roadmap, as Pope Tawadros said on the 3 July televised address, was jointly drawn by every one present. The following day the head of Egypt’s supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour was sworn in as interim president; January 2014 saw a new Constitution approved by a landslide 98 per cent; and June 2014 saw Sisi installed as President by a 97 per cent vote in elections that witnessed an unprecedented 47 per cent turnout. The remaining final step on the Roadmap is the establishment of a parliament. Parliamentary elections have been scheduled for next month.
President of Egypt
Once Mursi was overthrown, many in the world accused Sisi of having waged a coup. Sisi went on TV and earnestly asked, pleaded, with the people to take to the streets to grant the army a mandate to work the required changes and implement the Roadmap. This they did on 26 July 2013, in more millions than those who protested against Mursi on 30 June.
The MB, however, had already started their terror campaign against Egypt’s military, police and civilians. The police and army fought back, but the terrorism did not fade off till Sisi was sworn in on 8 June.
In one of the first moves he made once he was president, Sisi headed to hospital to visit a young woman who had been victim to a horrendous instance of harassment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where crowds had gathered to celebrate Sisi’s swearing in. It was an emotional encounter, with Sisi offering her roses and an explicit apology “to you [the victim] and all Egyptian women” and promising that such crimes would not go unpunished. Seven men had been arrested in connection with the assault and 27 others on account of other complaints of sexual harassment. The social media was full of horrified remarks on the incidents which many insist are the work of the MB. “Why is there never any sexual assault against MB women who regularly take part in their violent demonstrations? The MB are out to get us,” a young woman commented. MB or not, however, it must be admitted that harassment is a social ill that plagues Egypt, and has escalated to unprecedented levels on the streets during the last three-and-a-half years owing to the security breakdown. A few weeks before he left office, Interim President Adly Mansour signed a decree stipulating harsher sentences for harassment offences.
Family and career man
Born on 19 November 1954 to a modest, pious family in the populous district of Gamaliya in Cairo, Sisi attended the local school where he was famous for his love of reading and sports. In the holidays, he helped his father keep shop. He later joined the Military Academy and, once he graduated in 1977, married his childhood sweetheart Intissar Amer who is also his maternal cousin. They have three sons: Mustafa who works with the Administrative Control; Mahmoud, a Captain in the Military Intelligence; Hassan, a petroleum engineer; and one daughter, Aya, a graduate of the Naval Academy. All four are married, and Sisi and his wife now have five grandchildren. The Sisis are known to be moderate, practising Muslims.
Sisi grew in his career as an infantry officer, earned several diplomas and degrees from military academies inside and outside Egypt, the last was from the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 2006.
Sisi was an unfamiliar face till Mursi made him army chief in August 2012. Fathi al-Sisi, a cousin to the President, believes that the General’s piousness was what recommended him to Mursi. “Sisi revers his mother, and always seeks her blessing,” Fathi al-Sisi says. “On that fateful 3 July, once Mursi was overthrown, Sisi rushed to see his mother and ask for her prayers.”
In a paper for his War College degree, Sisi extolled the concept of the ‘national homeland’ and wrote that in case of Egypt, Egyptians rejected extremist Islamic notions even though they were devout Muslims. The idea was that Egyptians would never accept a radical Islamic State, and would never give up on their national identity. He stressed that moderate Islam does not conflict with democracy, and that the army’s one and only loyalty should be to the homeland, not the ruler.
Sisi criticised the US for supporting undemocratic regimes in the Middle East, and wrote that he wished America would spend its billions to help people not to invade their lands as in case of Iraq or Afghanistan.
The bi-monthly Foreign Policy magazine commented that Sisi’s study in the US did not give America any hold over him; quite the contrary, he applied policies the Americans did not approve of, and criticised the US for having “abandoned the Egyptian people”. The magazine went on to say that Sisi’s contemporaries at the War Academy remember him as a pious Muslim, but one who had no affiliation to any group of political Islam.
He is known to be focused and to speak clearly and firmly, using simple language. Ever since he caught the public eye, his focus has unfailingly been “Egypt”, insisting the army would never lean towards anything but the Egyptian people’s will.
Maker of joy
Sisi is a Scorpio. Those born under this sign are known to condone no half-solutions; matters for them are black or white. They are fanatic about justice, smart, strong-willed, and very difficult to ‘break’. They are famous for the depth of their thoughts; their goals are clear and set, and they work hard to achieve them.
The President has shown himself to master the ability to communicate with the Egyptian public in the language and insinuations they understand and use. Small wonder, seeing that he comes from their working classes. His values are one with theirs; his rhetoric the same as the one they use. He aptly expresses their fears, hopes and aspirations. His strong decisions basing on his in-depth knowledge and his core Egyptian values have further endeared him to them. Egyptians in their wide majority firmly believe Sisi is the right, if not the only, man to lead them out of the quagmire they landed in after three-and-a-half years of turmoil including a year of Islamist rule. The Middle East chaotic, threatening situation does not make things any better.
If anyone can today lead Egypt to a safe shore, it’s Sisi. The writer and poet Fatma Naout called him the “Maker of joy”. Egyptians couldn’t agree more.
18 June 2014