Sisi's Secret Islamism

The Rhetoric and Reality of Egypt's New President

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a television interview in Cairo on May 6, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

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

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