Abdulfattah el-Sisi, who won 97 per cent of the vote in last week’s presidential election, was little known to either Egyptians or the outside world before his swift rise to power.
The advisers have told The Telegraph he had already been identified by the army’s top brass before the 2011 revolution as its coming man, at a time when splits were growing between the military and the family of the 82-year-old Mr Mubarak.
In late 2010, when the then General Sisi was head of military intelligence, he was asked by his then bosses, who had already decided he should be the next minister of defence under any political settlement, to prepare a study of Egypt’s political future.
He predicted that Mr Mubarak would try to pass on the country’s leadership to his son, Gamal, possibly as early as the following May, and that this could cause popular unrest. The report recommended the army should be prepared to move in to ensure stability – and preserve its own central role in the state.
As it turned out, events moved faster than anyone expected, with the uprising in Tunisia triggering street protests in Cairo in January 2011. Within a week, the army had enacted the plan Mr Sisi recommended, putting troops on the streets and saying it stood with the Egyptian people – making clear that Mr Mubarak and his sons were expendable, but the army was not.
Mr Mubarak was duly forced to resign on February 11.
The revelations about the army’s role at the time of his downfall are causing many of the revolutionaries to question whether the Tahrir Square protests brought down anything more than the figurehead of the old regime.
“When the revolution of January 25 exploded, the army already had plans to deploy,” said Hassan Nafaa, a prominent political scientist who was briefed personally on his report by the then General Sisi.
“I came to the conclusion that the army took advantage of the revolution to get rid of Mr Mubarak’s scheme of succession – maybe also that they had to sacrifice Mubarak, rather than the regime itself.”
Mr Sisi, who was promoted to field marshal shortly before leaving the army to stand for election, is buoyed by an outpouring of praise in the mass media. The official message is that he represents the values of the 2011 revolution, whose catchphrase was “The people want the fall of the regime”.
This week, he obtained 97 per of the vote in the presidential election, far exceeding the relatively modest 88 per cent won by Mr Mubarak in his sole contested poll.
Mr Sisi’s promotion to defence minister in August 2012, shortly after Mr Morsi had become Egypt’s first freely elected leader, came as a surprise. For some, it was a sign that the new president was clearing out the army old guard, with its historic opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr Sisi was seen as Mr Morsi’s choice because of his well-documented religious piety. No Brotherhood supporter could have risen so high in the army, but a thesis that Mr Sisi wrote in 2006 while on secondment to the US War College contained strongly Islamist themes, arguing that the ideal state was a pan-Islamic Caliphate, rather than a Western-style democracy.
None the less, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawy, the defence minister under Mr Mubarak, called Mr Sisi his “son”, according to those around them. The Field Marshal duly picked Mr Sisi to be his successor as defence minister. “Even when he was still a colonel, we all knew he would be the next defence minister,” said a senior military officer who knows him personally. Field Marshal Tantawy had no personal political ambitions, but was keen to choose his own successor.
In doing so, he bypassed his second-in-command, General Sami Enan, who was close to America and also was seen as someone prepared to do business with the Brotherhood, according to Mr Nafaa, the political scientist.
The revelations about Mr Sisi’s rise are important because of the immense power he now wields over the Arab world’s most populous nation – and because his personal views were previously unknown. They also affect our understanding of the “Arab Spring”, as its supposed democratic gains unravel.
Ever since it became clear that Mr Sisi would stand for the presidency last year, he has given a series of interviews and speeches in which he has mixed a homespun philosophy of self-sacrifice and an almost messianic vision of his own role.
“Every day, before you have your breakfast, ask yourself, ’What I have given to my country? Have I given anything worthwhile, or haven’t I?’” he asked students at a graduating ceremony. “I wonder, does anyone say, ’I will walk so I save something for my country’? I wonder, does anyone say, ’I will go to the university on foot so I can save something for my country’?”
In a later interview, he expanded on the theme, saying that a Sisi presidency would be “torture” for the sake of Egypt: “If I make you wake at 5 o’clock in the morning every day, can you stand it? If we become short of food, can you stand it? If we lack air conditioning, can you stand it? Can you stand it if I take away subsidies in one go? Can you stand that from me?”
Mr Sisi’s work ethic dates from his childhood, according to relatives and his school friends, who remember that his life would revolve around prodigious amounts of schoolwork, the mosque and physical exercise, including weight-lifting on the roof.
“He always had three obligations: his prayers, his job, and his studies. Even in his relations with his family he was supremely focused. His theme was discipline,” said his cousin, Fathi el-Sisi. “This is one of the values he wants everyone to share – to get up at 5am. He won’t apply it with a stick. He will try to show the people that it is best to be disciplined.”
On policy, Mr Sisi is more vague, saying hard work and a greater contribution from the rich will solve Egypt’s problems. Business consultants fear that targeted cuts in subsidies and higher taxes on the elite may backfire, discouraging investment even further at a crucial time.
But Mr Sisi has suggested that his mandate is broader than can be understood in narrow political terms. In a recording that was later leaked, Mr Sisi told a journalist that he once had a dream of meeting Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who was assassinated in 1981 – and the dead leader told him he was going to be president.
Mr Sisi recalled that his dream was surrounded by religious imagery, showing him wielding a holy sword, and wearing an Omega watch which suggested to him that he was the “Alpha and Omega”.
Now Mr Sisi’s dream has finally come true. But with his legitimacy threatened by a lower than expected turnout in the election – and international challenges to its conduct – Mr Sisi has to carry out his plan to stabilise the country.
Already, he is being opposed not just by the Brotherhood but secular leaders like Mohammed ElBaradei, who supported the coup but later turned against Mr Sisi, accusing him of betraying the spirit of the revolution.
Those who know him say he has the acumen to manage expectations and choose the right people to move Egypt forward – even, perhaps, in a more democratic direction. “I was impressed by his demeanour, his self-control,” said Sherifa Zuhur, who taught him at the US Army War College. “And he is intelligent.”
But Hassan Nafaa wondered whether Mr Sisi realised that the revolution had given people, particularly the young, a voice that they would not now give up. Mr Sisi would be mistaken if he thought that he could simply restore an unquestioned old-style regime. “If he doesn’t take this into consideration, he isn’t convinced that Egypt has absolutely changed – that it will never be the same as it was before – he will fail,” said Mr Nafaa.
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