Who is Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi?

With Egyptian presidential elections coming up next week, Ashraf Ramelah takes a look at the man who is almost certain to be the next president of Egypt.

Egyptian hero Al-Sisi: A game-changer or mirage?

by Ashraf Ramelah

Heading into this month’s presidential elections set for May 26 and 27, Egyptians discuss the candidate most likely to win at the polls. Retired Field Marshal Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi — favored by pro-democracy freedom-fighters because of his split from the former Morsi regime to carry out the will of the people and end its reign of terror — has garnered more than one million endorsements, 50 times the amount needed to run for president. Overrun by emotion and gratitude for what Al-Sisi has done for Egypt in the past 10 months, Egyptians speculate about the kind of president the former General will make.

Al-Sisi supporters see him as their hero, and yet not all see him as their ideal president. Former President Mohammed Morsi appointed Al-Sisi as his Defense Minister upon firing Mohammed Hussein Tantawy, who was the former SCAF head instrumental in getting Morsi elected — a fatal miscalculation for the Morsi regime. The former President installed a man who would understand the moment and seize it for the people. Today, Egyptians have no choice but to settle for a man to whom they are indebted and to place their faith in him to handle Islamist insiders, a fundamental imperative for real change.

Al-Sisi is their only option. Besides, the success of the freedom movement’s overthrow of the dreaded Brotherhood-backed regime proves that mass uprisings do work and could succeed again if necessary — despite the fact that Morsi’s fall is widely viewed as a “miracle.” Nonetheless, it has inspired confidence in a nation now willful and hopeful for the first time in modern history so that Egyptians wait to see who Al-Sisi will be for them.

The 59 year-old Al-Sisi has one opponent in the presidential race, Hamdeen Sabahay. He has 200,000 endorsements with a campaign platform that mainly speaks to the amelioration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s plight. Because of the disparity in power and popularity of the two figures, some see the forthcoming election as more of a referendum. It will be difficult for any opposition to question or challenge Al-Sisi’s win. But whether Al-Sisi will be a transformer of Egypt or another Mubarak who began with great promise, it is hard to tell. This question occupies Egyptians in the final weeks before the election. Will the man responsible for halting the rise of Sharia law by arresting President Morsi and locking up his backers (and following through with much more) continue to be an asset to the pro-democracy, secular, freedom movement once he is elected?

Freedom-fighters, including Copts, have seen Al-Sisi for some time as an agent of human rights and equality in Egypt. The Field Marshall, who exchanged his uniform for a suit just one month ago, has the trust of Egyptians who watched him roll back Morsi’s backward, pro-terror initiatives (think religion police). Al-Sisi applied the pre-Morsi suspended constitution to install the head of the High Constitutional Court as the head of Egypt’s interim government, removed the MB and weaponry from its 45-day sit-in implementing a comprehensive plan to stop the MB from damaging progress, and demolished the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. Was this all for Egypt’s benefit and the rights of the ordinary citizen in the long run, or is it, as some suggest, evidence of a personal power struggle and Al-Sisi’s final takeover?

Very recently, Al-Sisi spoke unambiguously about “minorities.” He added that he does not need to speak of them because all citizens of Egypt are equal. It would be difficult for Copts not to view this statement as positive and hopeful. In a country where Islam is the official state religion and Al-Sisi’s statement iconoclastic, a vote for him for president will include the expectation that he will limit the religious authority of Al Azhar Institute — its interference in the daily lives of Egyptians.

If Al-Sisi manages to do that, the political ambitions of the fanatical Salafis, who now fill the gap left after the crackdown of the MB from power, could be satisfactorily suppressed for Al-Sisi to address a well-balanced Parliament. Egypt’s Salafi Al Noor Party endorsed Al-Sisi last month, not surprisingly, since Al-Sisi holds the power and the most likelihood of becoming Egypt’s next president. Never mind that the candidate Hamdeen Sabahay is the perfect ideologue for the Al Noor cause. Some say Al-Sisi has not rejected the Salafi endorsement because Al-Sisi seeks unity for the country. Others are skeptical of this because the Al Noor Party is illegitimate and spells danger down the road.

The Al Noor Party was formed after the collapse of Mubarak through a government waiver of an Egyptian law stating that no political party can be formed on the basis of religion. Al-Sisi admirers do not know how Al-Sisi will handle a buildup of power by the Al Noor Party for which seeds have already been planted. The leader of the Al Noor Party, Yasser Borhami, visited the royal Saudi office and the Saudi Arabian Mufti Deputy recently where arrangements were made for the Al Noor Party to receive funding through a Pakistani broker (Ahewar.org, “Why did the Al Noor Salafi Party endorse Field Marshall Al-Sisi?” by Asassy Abd Al-Hameed, May 12).

This money transfer sealed a relationship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Al Noor Party accompanied by Borhami’s promise to maintain Islamic doctrine in order to address the common enemy (Copts, liberals, secularists, Nasserites and Communists). What sort of future alliance with Al-Sisi does Borhami’s Al Noor Party endorsement anticipate? Should this be pre-empted by the immediate dissolution of the Al Noor Party? In dealing with this national security threat, Al-Sisi needs to maintain the courage and direction he has shown so far to Egyptians in order to keep the support of the freedom movement and the majority of Egyptians behind him.

A private man who is normally reserved in public, Al-Sisi is now conspicuously quiet about his vision for Egypt. He cannot easily be read — the extent of his loyalties or his capacity to deliver the promise of Egypt’s future. In a recent TV campaign ad, Al-Sisi defined himself as an “Egyptian Muslim.” To the highly sensitized Copts, this is more than a simple gesture. It is ominous — reminiscent of President Anwar Sadat who labeled himself “the believer president” on his way to Islamizing Egypt. Of course, there is the possibility in the case of Al-Sisi, that proclaiming his religious identity may merely be his attempt to assure the broader Arab-Muslim community that his faith is intact — and simply that.

However, forward-thinking Egyptians get jittery hearing rhetoric from earlier decades — a painful reminder of their country’s ruin brought about by the deep and lengthy process of Islamization. The failed reign of Morsi and the MB — the culmination of those years — brings Egypt to this crossroads now. And it’s troubling for Copts to know that as Defense Minister under the current Monsour interim government in charge of the military’s restoration of properties, Al-Sisi allowed repair of the ransacked Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque while ignoring 84 churches in rubble.

When it comes to international policy, Egyptians see Al-Sisi vacillating on the issue of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. In comments made one week apart, Al-Sisi first tells local media he will respect all international treaties including the existing treaty with Israel, and then in an interview with foreign media (Sky News, May 11) he contradicts this by saying that he will amend the treaty with Israel “if we are asked.” None of this is likely to change the minds of Egyptians regarding Al-Sisi. Now the hope is that the man instrumental in ousting Egypt’s fascist ruler will tackle political Islam once he is in office. This will begin to allow Egypt to modernize and compete in the 21st century.

Dr. Ashraf Ramelah is founder and president of Voice of the Copts, a human rights organization, and a board member of Stop Islamization of Nations (SION).

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