That Egypt has a new strongman is no longer in doubt. Since the Egyptian military ousted the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi last month following protests across the country, posters of Egypt’s de facto leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have become more ubiquitous on Cairo streets than Sphinx souvenirs. The head of the Army stares out from café walls and the windows of government buildings, the red and the gold of his uniform remaining bright, even as the features of his face fade under the relentless sun. “He is the one we can trust,” read some of the posters. Others call him “the eagle of the Arabs.”
It’s a ubiquitous image—but an enigmatic one. More than a month after assuming power, al-Sisi remains as opaque as his dark glasses. In Egypt, he is often compared with the charismatic and ruthless leader of the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, yet few people know anything about his family or background. He hardly ever talks to reporters, and his close friends and allies are reluctant to speak—begging off interview requests, or agreeing to talk, only to cancel later after checking with the general’s staff.
But understanding al-Sisi is critical to understanding where Egypt is headed—especially after this week’s bloodletting, which has seen his soldiers crack down on pro–Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators. And one place to begin is in Cairo’s ancient Khan al-Khalili bazaar, in a shop called Al-Sisi, where finely crafted Egyptian boxes made of intricately inlaid mother-of-pearl grace the shelves.
THE GENERAL grew up in the Gamaleya district of Cairo, the same warren of alleys among time-worn mosques and caravansaries that the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz wrote about in his landmark trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. Even today the precincts that include the bazaar are alive with scenes that may appear exotic to a foreign visitor. Vendors of perfume and hookahs, of brass palm trees and glittering bras for belly dancers, line the streets. In some corners raw sewage spills into the road and garbage is piled high against crumbling mud walls; in others, just steps away, the dust of spices hangs in the air like mist. When Egyptians say that their country is “the mother of the world,” it is this crumbling but intensely proud and immensely alive neighborhood that comes to mind.
Mahfouz’s pages are filled with the same issues that face Egypt today: the frustrations of young men, the oppression of women, the unpredictable thuggery and occasional clemency of the police, and the idealism, fanaticism, and sophistry of the Muslim Brothers. “Islam is a creed, a way of worship, a nation and a nationality, a religion, a state, a form of spirituality, a Holy Book, and a sword,” preaches a sheik from the Brethren in Sugar Street, written in the 1950s and set in the ’40s. It is language not unlike that of today’s Islamists.
Al-Sisi’s family is religious, as are the vast majority of Egyptians—and pride of place in the Al-Sisi shop’s showroom goes to a work of striking grace and delicacy with the fundamental devotional phrase of Islam: “There is no God but God.” It was crafted by al-Sisi’s father, Said Hussein Khalili al-Sisi, known as Hassan, the founder of the family business and a true patriarch in the eyes of those who worked with him. The store manager, Hussein Ali, says he has been told not to talk about the general, whom he has known for years. But he cannot help talking about the father. “You don’t need me to speak about Abdel Fattah,” he says. “When you speak about Hassan, you speak about all his sons. They are copies of him.”
Hassan loved to read about history and law, and he loved to listen to the powerful, intensely nationalistic music of the great singer Oum Kalthoum. He also knew several of the leading religious sheiks in Cairo, who were clients as well as friends, says Hussein. He was conservative, but not radical in any sense of the word. He had three sons and five daughters. All were university educated.
On the wall above the manager, a photograph of the old man looks down, framed by the mother-of-pearl arabesques that exemplified his craft. “Abdel Fattah is just like Hassan,” he says. “Hassan was very good at inspiring everyone around him. When he looked into your eyes, he knew what you wanted to say. He knew how to send messages when he spoke. If he was talking to a doctor, he knew how to talk to him. And if he was talking to a worker, he knew how to talk to him. And his children took that from him.”
Hassan liked business, so one of his sons, Hussein, followed him into that. Hassan liked law, so his son Ahmed became a judge. “And he was like a general—everything accurate, everything on time, everything in order ... And so his son became a general.”
Hassan loved to tell jokes, says Hussein. Abdel Fattah, on the other hand, rarely kidded around. “He might sit there for a long time, but maybe say only one or two words.” He was a listener, but with authority: “In fact, they used to call him ‘the general’ since the time he was young,” says Hussein’s brother Tamer, who also works in the shop.
Everyone, including the boys, visited the shop where the father taught and practiced his painstaking craft, taking countless tiny pieces of seashell and embedding them in delicately carved wood, creating an iridescent veneer of elaborate intertwined patterns worked out in Hassan’s mind. “The man, he had a vision,” says Tamer. “He created new models; he didn’t see old ones and make the same. He was extremely patient.” Typically the patriarch would imagine a grand project—a chair, a chest, a door—then delegate the work on different elements. The craftsmen were never supposed to look up, never supposed to break concentration, as they applied themselves to their assigned tasks. “Usually, at the end, none of the workers knew what it would look like,” says Tamer. Then Hassan would put it all together. Gathering everyone around, he’d reveal the finished piece and watch with pleasure the amazed expressions on the faces of those who’d worked on it.
UNLIKE THE country’s erstwhile strongman Hosni Mubarak, whose wife and family were well known to the Egyptians, al-Sisi has been protective of the privacy of his kin. According to his older brother, Ahmed al-Sisi, who only reluctantly agreed to talk, the general has four children: three sons and one daughter. His wife is said to wear a traditional head covering, the hijab, but, unlike the women of the previous generation, these days most Egyptian women do. Like his wife, the general’s five sisters don’t have jobs outside the home. “Our girls don’t work, they stay home and raise the kids,” says Ahmed.
For the boys in the family, though, it was always different. Life was outside the home, where they pursued ambitious careers. As Ahmed proudly says: “We come from a family that leads—not one that will be led.”
The little boy who would be general missed out on all of Egypt’s major wars. He was born in 1954, two years before Nasser became president, and was not quite 2 when Israel, France, and Britain attacked during the Suez Crisis. He was still only 12 when the Israelis crushed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies in the 1967 war. The finest brief moment of Egyptian military glory, the surprise crossing of the Suez Canal and the push to retake the Sinai from Israel in 1973, came four years before al-Sisi was commissioned. Then the Camp David peace accords ended Egypt’s wars with Israel in 1978, and more than $1 billion a year from the United States started pouring into the coffers of the Egyptian military.
The Army where al-Sisi made his career became less a war machine than a rigged slot machine that paid out rich dividends for its loyal officers and its American suppliers. The military draws on recruits from throughout Egyptian society, and in that sense it may be the closest thing to a meritocracy that exists in a state habitually plagued by nepotism and corruption. But as officers move up the ranks, they move ever-more deeply into a world intentionally isolated from the rest of the country. They have their own apartments, their own clubs, their own schools and stores. The Army has its own manufacturing empire and a vast construction business that frequently shuts out the private sector with little or no public accountability.
Under President Mubarak, himself a former general, the Egyptian military-industrial complex thrived as never before, and the very top officers, like Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the longtime defense minister, and many other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, allegedly made great fortunes. By comparison, al-Sisi is thought to be relatively clean.
Al-Sisi was selected to attend the U.S. Army War College in 2006 during a fraught moment in the Middle East—for Americans as well as for Arabs. At the prestigious and historic college in Pennsylvania, al-Sisi found himself confronted by U.S. officers fresh out of Iraq, where the war was failing and American and Iraqi casualties were mounting. While President George W. Bush promoted his “freedom agenda” in the Middle East, he was spending about $2.5 billion dollars every week on the war in Iraq—almost twice as much as the yearly aid to Egypt, where fraudulent elections had once more returned Mubarak to power.
According to Sherifa Zuhur, a professor at the War College when al-Sisi was there, many of the shell-shocked American soldiers got into heated arguments with their Arab and Muslim counterparts. Al-Sisi “was ready for debate, but not aggressive,” she said. He “can be angered, but possesses a lot of self-control and would choose not to respond when others might do so. He was not quiet because he was passive, but more contemplative, waiting, watching, and following along.
While at the War College, al-Sisi wrote an 11-page academic paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East.” Whereas Americans believe in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Islamic cultures cling to principles of “fairness, justice, equality, unity, and charity,” he argued. Americans look to their republic’s Founding Fathers for guidance; Muslims cherish the memory of the ancient caliphate. However, “this does not mean a theocracy will be established,” wrote al-Sisi, “rather it means a democracy will be established based on Islamic beliefs.” In his paper, he pointed out the influence of Christianity and its culture on American government, especially in its early days, drawing a parallel with the role of Islam now in the establishment of nascent Middle Eastern democracies.
“He knew a lot and took pride in Egyptian and Islamic heritage,” says Zuhur, “and this was also a line of defense against some [American] peers, students who sometimes described Iraqis, for example, as little more than barbarians.”
Perhaps it is not surprising if this proud “American trained” general now makes it clear that he doesn’t need or love America. Since Morsi’s overthrow, al-Sisi has found the Sunni royals of the Gulf states much more generous than the United States, securing billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have their own agenda in Egypt.
In his view, Egypt got little support from the U.S. when Morsi turned autocratic and the Brotherhood subverted the popular will. As he bluntly told The Washington Post in a rare recent interview: “You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that.” It seemed a clear message to the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and perhaps his old friends in the American military: Egypt is a country that leads—not one that will be led.
IN THE early and still-heady days of the Arab Spring, Egypt’s high command was as surprised as anyone by the size and determination of the protests in Tahrir Square. Though the Army had supported Mubarak through his decades-long rule, military officers realized that, to protect their own institutions, perks, and bank accounts, they would have to step in on the side of the protesters against Mubarak. The defense minister, Tantawi, who had long been closely identified with Mubarak, still managed to linger on.
A few weeks later Egyptians saw a new face on TV: the youngest and least-known member of the high command and the new head of intelligence, Major General al-Sisi, who stepped in front of the cameras to defend the Army against charges that it was just as bad as before. According to several Egyptian journalists as well as former Mubarak insiders, the aged Tantawi had already picked al-Sisi as his successor. But now al-Sisi would have to prove that he could stay relevant in the new Egyptian political landscape.
As the country moved toward the 2012 elections, it became increasingly clear that the Brotherhood had the best political operation and would likely win the popular vote. Ever-pragmatic businessmen, the military officers realized that they had to negotiate with their erstwhile enemies about how a Brotherhood victory might affect the Army—and vice versa. Morsi was the Brotherhood representative in those talks; al-Sisi spoke for the officer corps.
After Morsi’s election last summer, the new president moved quickly to change the dinosaurs of the Army. Outsiders marveled at the seeming lack of resistance from the high command, without realizing that this was a generational change—a revolution within the military itself, led by al-Sisi. Morsi appointed al-Sisi the new defense minister, seemingly believing that neither he nor the other generals would turn on him as long as he respected their economic privileges.
Whatever the scope of his original goals, al-Sisi reportedly started stealthily to maneuver himself into a much more ambitious position late last year. As Morsi started claiming more dictatorial powers, excluding rivals from his team, and declaring himself immune to rulings by the courts, bloody riots broke out. The country, once more, seemed to be spiraling toward chaos.
Even as security forces were called on to defend the increasingly unpopular regime, al-Sisi began to behave in public as a player independent of the Morsi government. The general called a meeting for talks among opposition groups, and military intelligence officers began to communicate secretly through intermediaries with those who wanted to force Morsi out of office, according to anti-Morsi sources.
In May, old-guard elites, including intellectuals and journalists, met with al-Sisi at a military event and encouraged him to act. “Don’t rush,” he said, in a way that suggested, according to one of those present, “all in good time.” As the date approached for planned demonstrations at the end of June, activists were encouraged by intermediaries speaking on behalf of the military to build pressure on the street, according to protest leaders and one retired general who acted as a go-between. In the background, al-Sisi silently waited for the right moment, giving Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood more and more rope with which to hang themselves. Then finally, like his father in his workshop, he stepped out into the light to reveal what he had carefully constructed.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally implied that Mohamed Tantawi stepped down in 2011. He stepped down in 2012.
With reporting by Maged Atef and Sophia Jones in Cairo.
Mike Giglio is a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.