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Monday, August 19, 2013

What We Know About The Man Calling The Shots In Egypt

Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reviews honor guards during an arrival ceremony for his U.S. counterpart at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, April 24, 2013. (Jim Watson/AP)

Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reviews honor guards during an arrival ceremony for his U.S. counterpart at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, April 24, 2013. (Jim Watson/AP)

The head of Egypt’s armed forces, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, gave a speech to the army and police officers over the weekend.

“We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching of the nation,” el-Sissi is quoted as saying on the military’s Facebook page.

El-Sissi’s military deposed president Mohammed Morsi last month, and el-Sissi is believed to be calling the shots.

Not much is known about the general, but journalist Christopher Dickey says to understand where Egypt is going, it’s critical to understand el-Sissi.




Well over the weekend, the head of the Egyptian military, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, told the country's army and police that, quote, "we will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people." El-Sisi is head of the military that deposed President Mohamed Morsi last month, and now he's believed to be calling the shots in the country, making him Egypt's most important but least understood man.

However, reporter Christopher Dickey says in order to understand where Egypt is going, it's critical to understand el-Sisi. For instance, he was a quiet and intense child who, even as a boy, earned the nickname the general. Let's learn even more. Christopher Dickey joins us via Skype. He's Paris bureau chief and Mideast editor for the Daily Beast and Newsweek. Welcome.

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: It's a pleasure, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you first tell us what evidence is there on the streets of Cairo regarding the popularity, if that's the right term, of General el-Sisi?

DICKEY: Over the last month, you've just seen his posters on vegetable stands, on walls, in alleys, in government buildings, as we've seen this cult of personality develop.

CHAKRABARTI: It's interesting because in your reporting, even though his picture may be virtually ubiquitous on the streets of Cairo, you say that he's an enigma even to many Egyptians themselves.

DICKEY: Well, I think he absolutely is or has been. It's very rare for any Egyptian military man to become a public figure until or unless they become president or the leader of the country, in which case there's a whole cult of personality. So it's interesting to see that el-Sisi is playing this game of developing the cult of personality while he's still only technically the supreme commander of the armed forces.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, take us back into what you discovered about el-Sisi himself. Is there anything that we can gather from the neighborhood in Cairo where he grew up?

DICKEY: Yeah, I think it's extremely important to understand that el-Sisi is a deeply rooted Egyptian nationalist. He grew up in the Gamaleya neighborhood of Cairo, which is where the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar is. If you've ever been there as a tourist, you certainly went to that bazaar, and it is the heart and soul of the city and he, el-Sisi, comes from that. So I think when he look at say even the Muslim Brotherhood, and certainly when he looks at the United States, he sees something foreign to his Egyptian nationalism, and he plays on that with his people.

CHAKRABARTI: What about the role of Islam? What role did religion play in his young life?

DICKEY: Well, I think he sees religion as part and parcel of his Egyptian nationalism. What he does not believe in is the idea that religion should be an ideology the way it's interpreted by the Muslim Brotherhood that is bent on creating an international Brotherhood empire.

CHAKRABARTI: Chris, in your reporting you mentioned that el-Sisi was selected in 2006 to attend the Army War College here in the United States. And at that time he would frequently encounter veterans of the Iraq War. What were you able to gather about el-Sisi's time there and his view of American intervention in the Middle East?

DICKEY: Well, I think that he feels that the Americans are essentially outsiders to the culture of the Middle East, this even though he was in many ways brought up with American military doctrines. He was serving in an Egyptian military that was receiving well over a billion dollars every year from Washington. But that doesn't make people love us.

And what he discovered in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at the Army War College, was an awful lot of disillusion and angry American officers who were just out of Iraq, where the war was going very, very badly in 2006, who tended to talk about the Iraqis and the Arabs generally and Muslims generally as barbarians. And I think he reacted against that and eventually writing a paper that I think has been somewhat misinterpreted, saying that it has to be understood that Islam is part and parcel of life in these countries, and you can't just go around denouncing Muslims as barbarians.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, in fact you quote part of his paper, where he says Americans believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Islamic cultures cling to principles of fairness, justice, equality, unity and charity. What window does this give us on the man today? I mean, this is the same man who now is refusing to take calls from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

DICKEY: Yes, for a while Hagel was calling him almost every day, and now he just doesn't want to hear it because what the Americans want to try and do is get him to quite shooting his own people, get him to quit cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood. And he really doesn't care what we say.

In his mind, he is saving the country from chaos and anarchy and from this international as he calls it terrorist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a lot of other Egyptians feel that way, too. At the same time, the United States has kept its aid levels to Egypt at pretty much the same level for the last 20 years, whereas now the Saudis, who are very close to General el-Sisi, are pouring billions and billions of dollars into Egypt, much more than the Americans are, and the Saudis also want to see this radical crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which they don't like at all.

So I think that he just basically just doesn't have time for the Obama administration. He knows that if he doesn't move against Israel, then he ultimately will be able to make his peace with Washington, or Washington will be able to make its peace with him.

CHAKRABARTI: So Chris, this powerful, enigmatic man, who wasn't even the head of the army during the Arab Spring and in fact was appointed head of the Egyptian army by the man he ends up overthrowing, Mohamed Morsi, now is sitting here basically running the country. So what can we gather for what steps he may take next?

DICKEY: Well, it is an old truism about the Egyptian military that it does not want the responsibility of ruling, but it does not want to be ruled by civilians. Now Morsi thought that he had cut a deal with the high command and especially with el-Sisi in which he basically would leave them with all their prerogatives and all their power, and they would let him do whatever he wanted.

At the end of the day, that was leading to such chaos that el-Sisi said this is unacceptable. Everybody we talked to made it a point to say el-Sisi doesn't really want to be president. But it's hard to see how they can open up the political process again and try and exclude the massively organized and widely supported Muslim Brotherhood.

So what we'll probably see is that el-Sisi at the end of the day will claim, as thousands and thousands of dictators have throughout history, that really he had no choice. He's the only one who can really pull the country together and keep it away from chaos and anarchy, and therefore he has decided to be the ruler of the country in some formal way.

CHAKRABARTI: Christopher Dickey is Paris bureau chief and Mid-East editor for the Daily Beast and Newsweek. He and his colleague Mike Giglio wrote about General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in Newsweek magazine. Chris, thank you so much.

DICKEY: Thank you very much.


Now a quick check on some of the other stories we're following. New data from the federal government show that the sequestration has eliminated more than 50,000 places for children in Head Start programs this fall. And efforts have begun at libraries across the country to digitize historical documents buried in the archives. It's called the Digital Public Library of America. But the project has a serious obstacle: copyrighted works. Coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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