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.