Few outside Egypt knew much of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until nine months ago when, amid a mass revolt, he intervened to remove President Mohamed Morsi. Since then, Egyptians have suffered through a violent crackdown worse than the military-led revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952.
Ironically, it was President Morsi who had appointed Sisi only months earlier. According to one account, Sisi shook like a leaf when Morsi asked him to replace longtime Mubarak military chief Hussein Tantawi, who in his late 70s had nurtured Sisi's military career. On 12 August 2012 Sisi was appointed Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of Egypt's armed forces. Within months he would overthrow the man who brought him to power.
Since that dramatic moment last July, Sisi has been the central figure of Egypt's military-backed interim government. His persona among the masses has reached fever pitch. In that time, at least 2500 Egyptians have been killed in demonstrations and at least 19,000 have been arrested for affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood or for participating in pro-Morsi protests. Last week an Egyptian court shocked the world when it sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death.
This is the new Egypt.
A career soldier, Sisi remains a bit of a mystery. Few know much about him.
The softly spoken Field Marshal is a devout Muslim from a conservative family. His wife wares the niqab, a full-face veil. In 2006 Sisi traveled to the US to study a master's degree at the Army War College. In a research paper on the impact of democratising the Middle East, Sisi discussed the role of Islam, arguing 'the practice of Islam and democracy can coexist'. He addressed the problems of media censorship and those created by a wealthy elite ruling the poor.
But his conciliatory tone in the essay jars with much of his recent track record. [fold]
Some in Egypt suspect his religious leanings were the reason President Morsi appointed him commander-in-chief. And at times Sisi has been questioned over his loyalties. In June 2012, talk show host Tawfiq Okasha, described as the Glenn Beck of Egypt, accused Sisi of being a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) promptly denied the claim. Yet during Morsi's short rule Sisi let the Brotherhood think he was their man while simultaneously assuring the military he was protecting their interests.
A year earlier, as head of military intelligence, Sisi had made another public splash when he appeared to defend the controversial practice of 'virginity tests' carried out by security forces on women protesters. He said the forced tests had been conducted on 17 female detainees who had been protesting against Mubarak in Tahrir Square to 'protect' the army against possible allegations of rape.
Before reaching the senior ranks of the military, Sisi's career went mostly unnoticed. He never saw active combat. However, he did spend time overseas at the UK's Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC), at the US Army War College, and as military attache in Riyadh.
The official state-sponsored version of Sisi's life paints of a picture of a man born to lead. Friends and acquaintances who grew up with Sisi in Cairo's Gamaliya neighbourhood recall a young man with focus. One resident told Reuters that while other boys played football or smoked, the young Sisi and his friends lifted barbells made of metal pipes and rocks. Today, many Egyptians see him as the strongman needed to steer the country from instability to prosperity.
Yet Sisi's record in recent months offers little comfort. It seems unlikely he'll reform the security apparatus and steer the country toward civilian rule. Far from securing the state, Egypt's interim military-backed government has done much to diminish it. Once Morsi was ousted, interim President Adly Mansour moved quickly to introduce an anti-protest law, the Muslim Brotherhood was labeled a 'terrorist organisation', and activists, bloggers and journalists were imprisoned, including Australian Peter Greste. Under Sisi's leadership the security apparatus continues to blur the lines between 'terrorism' and anyone who opposes the official mantra.
On a recent visit to Cairo I asked a veteran Egyptian journalist if they thought life under Sisi would be worse or better than Mubarak. She leant into my ear so no one else in the room could hear: 'worse, much worse', she said. When I raised my eyebrows she added: 'but the people have felt freedom, they have a thirst, it won't stop, we will fight'.