CAIRO: Up until last year, the career of Egypt’s new defense minister and army chief, General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi – the man who oversaw the recent crackdown against militants in the Sinai – had been a model of quiet progression. Rising through the ranks after graduating from Egyptian Military Academy in 1977, he became commander of the entire North Sinai region before eventually being promoted to head of military intelligence.
Then all of a sudden, he made a crashing and very public faux pas.
After 17 female protesters were arrested in March last year and subjected to a humiliating series of so-called “virginity tests,” the general popped up in the media and appeared to justify their degrading treatment.
It was a clumsy and widely criticized foray into the political arena. Sisi soon started back-pedaling, telling Amnesty International in an interview that the military would no longer carry out the tests.
For many Egyptians, it was an inauspicious introduction to the man who would later take over as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – a position he accepted after Mohammad Mursi unceremoniously dismissed long-serving army chief, Hussein Tantawi, last month.
Following Sisi’s appointment, there was speculation about his reported links to the Muslim Brotherhood – a rumor mill which fed off the general’s supposed religiosity.
Tawfiq Okasha, the outspoken pro-Mubarak TV host, claimed Sisi was the Brotherhood’s “man in SCAF” – a suggestion which has been roundly scotched by analysts and officials.
Yet the man who now enjoys overall command of nearly half a million active servicemen – the tenth largest army in the world – also maintains close ties with the U.S.
It is a country he first traveled to more than 30 years ago on a basic infantry training course, and as head of military intelligence he had regular contact with top American officials.
So who exactly is Sisi? Many Egyptians, not least those in the Muslim Brotherhood, haven’t got a clue.
“The first time I heard about him was when he was appointed defense minister,” admitted Dr. Amr Darrag, a senior member of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. “Maybe you know more about him than I do.”
Darrag is not alone. Given the veil of secrecy which so often hangs over military matters in Egypt, the new defense minister is something of a blank canvas.
One person who did spend a significant amount of time with him is Steve Gerras, a retired colonel who was Sisi’s professor during his year at Pennsylvania’s U.S. Army War College back in 2006.
Gerras spent many weeks getting to know the future army chief, both in classes as the general’s faculty adviser, but also during the occasional times when Sisi would visit his family home.
He remembered a warm but introverted man who was devoted to his faith. “He was clearly devout,” said Gerras, speaking to The Daily Star. “But he was devout in the same way that a good Christian would be devout. I never picked up any radical stuff.”
He remembered when Sisi visited the family home during the February 2006 American football Superbowl – the same month that a deadly spiral of violence had been unleashed in Iraq following the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
“For many Americans at the time,” Gerras said, “Islam didn’t have a great reputation. For him it was important that we knew about the good things in his religion.”
“I used to live in Ankara in Turkey, and my wife and I picked up lots of artefacts and knick knacks when we were there, a lot of them with Arabic calligraphy. One of them was an imprint of the main door of the mosque in Mecca.
“My mother still talks about the time when he gave her a tour around the house and explained some of the religious significance of the artefacts.
“I think he felt that part of his role was to learn about American culture, but also to communicate about Arab culture to the Americans.”
During their time together, Gerras said, Sisi never spoke about Hosni Mubarak or his opinions on the political problems back home. “He saw Egypt as a country which was going to become more democratic. He thought it was important that the U.S. play a role, and he saw the U.S. as a strong ally.”
The picture of Sisi as a serious-minded professional is backed up by Dr. Robert Springborg, a California-based expert on the Egyptian military who told The Daily Star he had seen classified U.S. government assessments of the new defense minister.
“He is thought of as being very professional,” Springborg said. “He is deemed to be rather more serious than his predecessor, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, particularly about issues in the Sinai.”
According to Springborg, Tantawi often appeared reluctant to address problems related to militants operating out of the Sinai desert – a reticence which Sisi immediately ditched by overseeing the large-scale troop deployments which followed last month’s deadly terrorist attack on a detachment of Egyptian troops.
Many senior officers felt disillusioned with Tantawi, Springborg added. “From a military perspective, officers felt very frustrated. Many in the senior ranks were asking, ‘are we going to be a professional army, or are we going to be something else?’”
For some, the appointment of a fresh-faced general more than two decades Tantawi’s junior was a welcome development.
And the new man seems keen to capitalize on the goodwill. One Egyptian officer, a first lieutenant who asked not to be identified, revealed to The Daily Star that at a recent closed-door meeting last month, Sisi promised to raise the salary of all middle-ranking officers by $50 a month – no small sum in a country where around 40 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day.