The Next Pharaoh? Meet General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Jul 03, 2013 at 7:39 PM ET

The air was thick with jubilation and irony on Wednesday as Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was removed from power by the very man whom he appointed to protect the country: General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Soft spoken, devout and little-known before he became the head of the Egyptian military last fall, al-Sisi, 59, is now a national hero to many, but whether he can stay that way is the question mark hanging over Egypt’s fragile democracy—or at least what’s left of it.

On Wednesday, as millions cheered in the streets from Alexandria to Aswan, al-Sisi suspended the country’s highly contentious constitution and named Adly Mansour, the newly-appointed head of the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, as Egypt’s interim president. “He [al-Sisi] saved Egypt!” said Raja Kabil, an interior designer from Cairo. “He should be man of the year!”

Ironically, choosing al-Sisi to lead the military was one of Morsi’s most celebrated decisions as president. Last year, the military’s previous head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, aroused the public’s ire after 16 months as Egypt’s de facto leader in the aftermath of the 2011 protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak. Among other things, Tantawi, the country’s longtime defense minister, dissolved Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament just hours before the country’s presidential election, which sparked outrage in the streets. Protesters from all political parties cried foul, and some in the secular opposition suspected that the Muslim Brotherhood had formed an alliance with the military for a chance to claim the presidency.

Morsi, a former member of the Brotherhood, came into office already hamstrung by his reputation as an Islamist. But al-Sisi’s appointment seemed to legitimize him. While some worried that al-Sisi was too close to the new president, others, mainly younger Egyptians, saw him as a fresh face. A graduate of the Egyptian military academy and the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, al-Sisi, who has no combat experience, was the first army commander to be appointed by a civilian president. “He learned from Tantawi’s mistakes and chose to be remembered well in the history of Egypt,” said Maha Fouad, a Cairo-based architect.

Yet al-Sisi’s rise wasn’t without controversy. He was an advocate of the “virginity tests” given to female protesters during the revolution, which he said served to protect girls from rape and the army from allegations of it. He later vowed to ban the practice.

In the months leading up to Wednesday’s revolution, al-Sisi had repeatedly warned of the perils of political unrest, yet appeared to be staying out of politics. In November, amid violent protests between pro and anti-Morsi demonstrators, he declared: “The armed forces’ loyalty is to the people and the nation.”

In the aftermath of the coup, however, some analysts believe that the perceived alliance between al-Sisi and Morsi’s government was only for show. “Al-Sisi saw Morsi and company as a threat to Egypt, given his [Morsi’s] connections to extremism and extremists,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor of North African economics at National Defense University in Washington.

That willingness to confront the threat of extremism should make the general a natural ally of the United States, a country with which al-Sisi appears to have a good relationship. But in light of Wednesday’s events, he may soon be walking on eggshells. Egypt receives about $1.3 billion in military aid every year from the U.S., and in May, Secretary of State John Kerry allocated an additional $250 million in aid to support Egypt’s “future as a democracy.”

The money is now a source of criticism on Capitol Hill. Only hours after the military declared an end to Morsi’s rule, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the U.S. is required by law to cut aid to Egypt following a coups d’etat. “The Morsi government has been a great disappointment to the people of Egypt, and to all who wish Egypt a successful transition to responsive, representative government under the rule of law,” Leahy said in a statement. “Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise.”

If he manages to keep his relationship with the U.S. in tact, that could also be problematic for al-Sisi; many of his new supporters are unhappy with Egypt’s close ties to America. Those who joined the June 30 “Tamarod” (rebel) movement to overthrow Morsi also started a new Twitter hashtag called #MindYourOwnBusinessUS, which instantly went viral.

The real question now is whether al-Sisi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will try and dominate Egyptian politics like Morsi did. Even amid the post-coup pandemonium on Wednesday, there was a fierce debate among the various revolutionary forces about the precedent set by toppling a democratically elected leader via military coup. And within hours of al-Sisi’s announcement that Morsi was no longer president, the military rounded up members of the now-defunct regime one-by-one and shut down several hardline Islamist television networks—practices eerily reminiscent of the Mubarak era.

“The army’s stake in the political process is largely defined by its longstanding interest in preserving the unusual political and economic privileges it currently enjoys,” said Heshan Sallam, the co-editor of Jadaliyya ezine, an Arab affairs e-magazine.

“It is hard to believe that the insiders of the military establishment will not seek to once again intervene in politics …to ensure that any new political order respects their special status as guardians of the state.”

If al-Sisi’s guardianship winds up leading to prolonged military rule, then his government may suffer the same fate as Tantawi’s, and Morsi’s for that matter. In other words, the onus is on the general to prove that he’s learned from the mistakes of his predecessors.

Vivian Salama is a freelance journalist who has been reporting on the Middle East for a decade.