How to Contain Putin’s Russia
A Strategy for Countering a Rising Revisionist Power
Egyptians have long known that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, deputy prime minister of Egypt and former minister of defense, would win their country’s presidential election, but he has tried to keep them from knowing much more beyond that. Even his election campaign gave little indication of his character; his appearances were limited to a handful of prerecorded and heavily edited television interviews that revealed little about his vision for the country. (Sisi claimed that terrorist threats prevented him from campaigning in the open, and the public didn’t seem to mind either way.)
Of course, studied silence was never a sustainable strategy. Despite Sisi’s best efforts, his personality has revealed itself over the course of the past several months. Indeed, it has always been possible to glimpse his real character and intentions for Egypt underneath his public persona. And, as I argued in a previous article for Foreign Affairs, those intentions are troubling: Sisi will draw far more heavily upon Islam to legitimate his autocratic regime than he has led Egyptian and foreign observers to believe.
The most telling aspect of Sisi’s campaign was its very reticence. Sisi is an exceedingly private person, someone who has always kept his thoughts to himself. Within the Egyptian military establishment, he was long known as a loner, someone who preferred to keep company with a small group of friends. That reputation for discretion helped make him a favorite of Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, former minister of defense. The officers around him, meanwhile, appreciated that Sisi refrained from being overly obsequious to Tantawi or from ostentatiously exploiting his relationship with him.
Since becoming Egypt’s de facto leader one year ago, Sisi has staffed the military and intelligence services with allies from his very tight inner circle. As a result, Egypt’s minister of defense, the head of the Republican Guard, and other high-ranking defense officials are all people who have known Sisi either since they were fellow students in the military academy or since they served with him in mechanized infantry in the early stages of his career. Sisi’s personal mentor from those days in the mechanized infantry, for example, is now director of General Intelligence, while his classmate at the military academy -- also the father of his son’s wife -- is now chief of staff. This pattern of relying upon intimates to consolidate his personal control over the military implies that he will similarly rely upon trusted subordinates to operate the state. His instincts have always been exclusive, rather than inclusive.
As for what informs his policy views, Sisi was mostly at pains during the campaign to suggest that he is not particularly religious. When he announced the military’s “roadmap to democracy” in the wake of the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, he had onstage with him the Coptic Pope, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the country's most venerable institution of Islamic learning, and Galal al-Murra, a prominent Salafist. He distanced himself from the conservative Islamist parties that endorsed his candidacy and surrounded himself with moderate Muslim figures, including the Islamic scholar and former grand mufti Ali Gomaa, whose interpretations of Islam are palatable to Egypt’s foreign ministry and Western audiences. His campaign has also received endorsements and operational support from prominent Egyptian secularists, including Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a distinguished journalist; Amr Moussa, Egypt’s former minister of foreign affairs; and Hisham Kassem, a publisher and democracy activist.
But Sisi’s private views contrast starkly with his public image as a religious moderate. In a leaked audio recording of a conversation last summer between Sisi and a journalist for the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yawm, Sisi is asked whether he had ever dreamed of becoming head of the Egyptian armed forces or even president of the country. Sisi replies that he has, and goes on to explain that he was inspired by a religious vision in which he was wielding a sword inscribed in blood with the words “No God but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God” and in which he saw the devout former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, who promised him that he would be president.
Despite efforts to conceal his views, Sisi has occasionally revealed the depths of his religiosity to the Egyptian public. When crowds protested against the military for imposing “virginity tests” on female protesters in 2011, Sisi declared that it was his responsibility, as leader of an honorable national institution, to “decide if [protesters] were honorable.” He has enjoined Egyptians to “put their trust in God, the army, and the civilian police to take Egypt to freedom, stability, and progress.” He has attributed corruption to “the detachment of religious speech from reality” and called for the need to “represent God in a good way through our words and deeds.” When asked in the first television interview of his presidential campaign about foreign policy under his presidency, he replied not by describing a policy but by praising Saudi King Abdullah as the leading Arab head of state. While this can be interpreted as a public thank-you for the financial and other support provided by Saudi Arabia for Sisi and Egypt, it also suggests that Sisi is comfortable with the conservative Islam of that ruler and his country. And he has never rejected the Salafist parties’ endorsement of him, which suggests that he could be prepared to offer their members positions in the state bureaucracy or conceivably even the government after his inauguration.
Sisi’s dominant personality traits -- his religiosity and his intense secrecy -- are both entirely consistent with his biography. He was raised in a traditional and highly devout family in Gamaliya, a densely populated quarter in Cairo that is known for being the epicenter of Egypt’s Shia community, for some of its leading Sufi orders, and, most importantly, as home to Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s premier educational institution. Sisi is reported to have memorized the Koran at an early age and, according to Dina Ezzat, a highly respected journalist at the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, he still fasts twice weekly, prays five times daily, and regularly punctuates his speech with religious references. Unlike many of his fellow officers, he also avoids social settings where alcohol is served and women are “inappropriately” dressed. Also unusual for an Egyptian military officer, he has ensured that all of the women in his family -- including sisters, wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law -- wear a hijab that covers all but their face.
A 2006 paper that Sisi wrote for the U.S. Army War College, in which he argued that democracy in the Middle East could only be of an Islamic nature, also suggests that Islam provides the intellectual framework for his political beliefs. And absent Sisi’s personal and political religiosity, it is impossible to understand the almost unlimited faith that Morsi and his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood placed in Sisi. Having promoted him to minister of defense in place of Tantawi, apparently because at least some in the Brothers’ leadership had convinced themselves he was a secret supporter of their organization, they continued to believe that he would remain loyal to their cause almost until the moment Sisi initiated the decisive coup on July 3, 2013.
It is also important to note that the core of Sisi’s disagreement with the Brotherhood has never been doctrinal. Nowhere has he specified how his beliefs differ from theirs, or where theirs are erroneous. His condemnation of the Brotherhood stems from the same source as the Saudi ruling family's antagonism toward it -- namely, competition for control of the state. Just like the Brothers, Sisi believes that the existential role of the state is to foster a moral order based in Islam. But the key issue is who should do that fostering. For Sisi it is the military and, ultimately, himself. In other words, he, like the Brotherhood, believes in a messianic Islam. The difference is that Sisi sees himself and the military in the Messiah role.
Sisi’s devotion to Islam is sure to suffuse his military-backed rule of Egypt. Connecting him and the military to the country’s Islamic institutions will constitute a primary source of legitimation of his presidency. This will likely give those Islamic institutions important leverage over a range of domestic policies, including those dealing with gender equality. It will also help shape Egypt's foreign policy, as indicated by Sisi's friendliness toward Saudi Arabia. Finally, it will serve to reinforce the military’s ever-growing role in the economy, as the military's avariciousness can now be portrayed as evidence of an interest in creating a morally sound Islamic economy. Sisi’s Egypt, in sum, will be one in which religion will reinforce military authoritarianism and serve to justify repression of opponents, most notably those whose politics, paradoxically, are also informed by Islam. This was not the image being conveyed during Sisi's campaign, but it is a reality that Westerners and Egyptians alike would be wise to prepare themselves for.