Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Gamal Abdel Nasser at the time he led a 1952 coup as a general. He was a colonel at the time. The article has been updated.
CAIRO — He is a savvy operator, people who have worked with him say, a career military officer who methodically campaigned a year ago to become Egypt’s defense minister under its first democratically elected president.
Now Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is faced with a society even more bitterly divided than it was a year ago, when Mohamed Morsi took office as president.
Islamist supporters of Morsi, who was ousted by the military last month, warned Wednesday that authorities risk provoking “civil war” if they go ahead with plans to break up protest camps, as officials have threatened to do after the collapse of international mediation efforts.
To those Islamists, Sissi is intent on wiping their faction off the nation’s political map in a quest for absolute power. But a substantially larger share of Egyptians appears to ardently support the general, and many tout his name above all others in the search for a new leader.
Sissi, viewed as a pious Muslim, was supposed to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s man running the military. Now his sunglasses-clad face is venerated in Cairo’s streets and his pictures pasted on the windows of minibuses and storefronts and clutched by men and women who wave Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square. For the most popular man in Egypt, the question is: Does he want to be the country’s next president?
Sissi, 58, has been coy about his plans, saying in an interview with The Washington Post last week that he did not aspire to a higher office but declining to rule out a presidential bid. “When the people love you,” he said, “this is the most important thing for me.”
Egyptian officials say that Sissi’s commitment to returning the country to civilian-led democracy is genuine and that they do not think that he will run in elections, expected to be held next year.
But in a country where the only leader in six decades not to have a military background was just deposed in a coup, many say they would not be surprised if the charismatic Sissi decided to throw his high-brimmed officer’s hat into the ring. Some supporters are hailing him as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revered colonel who led the 1952 coup that overthrew Egypt’s monarchy.
“I think it’s hugely tempting for anyone,” said a high-ranking Western official, referring to the possibility that Sissi might take his popularity to the polls. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
The clamor to bring Sissi into the presidential palace is ironic, critics here say, given that many of his advocates were bitter foes of the military-backed rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander. Public support also quickly soured for the military council that temporarily ruled after Mubarak was toppled in the 2011 revolution.
After Morsi’s inauguration in June 2012, Sissi was seen as a man who would be willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood despite decades of military persecution of the organization. Sissi, considered by acquaintances who have talked faith with him to be deeply religious without being dogmatic, was considered a natural ally for Morsi, who was struggling to assert civilian control over the army.
Sissi was then a fast-rising officer who had taken over as head of military intelligence and was assigned to serve as the armed forces’ liaison to the Brotherhood after the revolution. His most prominent turn in the news during the year that generals ran the country came when he defended the military after security forces were accused of administering “virginity tests” to female protesters. Rights groups said the practice amounted to state-sanctioned sexual assault.
U.S. and Egyptian observers say Sissi was quietly positioning himself as a successor to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, a man about two decades his senior who was then leading the military.
“I personally was not surprised at all that he would be picked” as defense minister, said Sameh Seif el-Yazel, a former Egyptian intelligence officer with close ties to the military who said he had spoken frequently to Sissi since the 2011 revolution. “He’s a man who is straightforward, black and white. There is no gray area in dealing with strategic issues.”
Even before the revolution, Sissi was among a group of rising leaders in Egypt’s army, participating in a prestigious international program at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in the mid-2000s. There he wrote a paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East” and studied civilian-
military relations, according to his adviser, Stephen Gerras.
The focus was on the war then raging in Iraq, not on Egypt.
“He said this isn’t going to go the way you think,” Gerras said. “The culture, the influence of religion, the poor quality of education, the impact of state-run media — all of those things make it very difficult to bring a Western form of democracy in the Mideast. And he would say, ‘You guys were kind of naive in Iraq.’ ”
Another professor, Sherifa Zuhur, said the general was reserved but very intelligent.
“He distinguished himself with this quiet and reflective character. But then when he spoke, you could hear his experience,” she said. “The whole discussion of what happens when you suppress democracy was very much part of the discourse.”
Zuhur said Sissi’s wife wore the niqab, a face covering.
That piety led many to think that Morsi’s August 2012 appointment of Sissi as defense minister meant a new era in relations between the military and the civilian Islamist leadership.
But by Sissi’s own account, their relationship quickly became strained. Even before he became defense minister, he said in The Post interview, he was concerned about Morsi’s attempts to rein in the judiciary, which was packed with appointees from the Mubarak era.
At October celebrations to commemorate the 1973 war with Israel, Sissi was miffed to have to sit in the stands near Tarek el-Zomor, who was convicted of being complicit in the plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, according to a fellow Egyptian officer who spoke to Sissi about the incident.
When Morsi granted himself vastly expanded powers in late November, Sissi unilaterally called for a meeting of the country’s political leaders — an unusual step for a defense minister in a civilian-led government. Morsi overruled him, before dialing back his broad assertion of power.
By spring, tensions were even higher, as the economy continued to plummet and lines started building up at gas stations. Former Morsi advisers accuse Sissi of meeting with opposition leaders behind Morsi’s back. Sissi has said that he warned Morsi and U.S. officials that Egypt’s problems were worsening.
“Months ago, I told [U.S. officials] there was a very big problem in Egypt. I asked them for their support, for their consultation, for their advice, as they are our strategic partner and allies,” he said.
Still, few observers thought Sissi was plotting against Morsi.
“For the most part, until very nearly the endgame, he tried to live up to his end of the bargain,” said Steven Simon, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who until earlier this year was a senior National Security Council official focused on the Middle East.
Tensions boiled over in June, as the scope and potential scale of anti-Morsi demonstrations scheduled for the end of the month started to become apparent. Sissi warned Morsi that he needed to make concessions and set a deadline for him to meet the demands of protesters, who were calling for him to step aside.
Sissi told The Post last week that he gave Morsi one last chance to put himself before the voters in a referendum. When Morsi refused, the military took him into custody. He has since been held in a secret location, and the crackdown against his allies has quickly widened. Security forces have killed more than 140 Morsi supporters since his July 3 ouster. Many international observers and rights groups fear a bloodbath if the interim government, quickly appointed by Sissi after Morsi’s ouster, tries to use force to dislodge the tent-city sit-ins involving thousands of people who want Morsi restored to power.
Since Morsi’s fall, Sissi has kept a relatively low public profile even as his followers spread his image across Cairo. But a late July speech in which he called for Egyptians to take to the streets by the millions to give him a popular mandate to fight “terrorism” led many Egyptians to wonder whether he might aspire to even greater power.
If Sissi launches a presidential campaign, officials who know him say, that speech will be seen as the kickoff.
“Who else is out there right now who commands such broad popular admiration or respect?” said Simon, the former National Security Council official. “Or who is even just tolerable to a broad slice of the electorate?”
Abigail Hauslohner, Amer Shakhatreh and Lara el-Gibaly contributed to this report.