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The wildly popular head of the country's armed forces resigned Wednesday in order to stand in the upcoming elections. Leaked recordings suggest his supporters are in for a surprise.
Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)
CAIRO, Egypt — Field Marshal Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, who resigned his position as armed forces chief and announced his candidacy for the Egyptian presidency Wednesday, is the most popular figure in modern Egyptian politics. Polls suggest he is likely to win the upcoming election by a landslide.
But what would a Sisi presidency look like?
His vague public pronouncements, filled with calls for national unity and praise for the common man, have won him millions of Egyptian admirers, for whom he represents a much-needed aspiration of stability after the turbulent past three years.
But away from the speeches, there is another Sisi.
Between October and December 2013, a series of private recordings appeared on YouTube and were publicized by Rassd, an online news outlet associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Jazeera. The recordings, which included off-the-record interviews between Sisi and unidentified journalists as well as internal military video, are thought to have taken place between late 2012 and shortly before they became public, though it’s difficult to tell, as the Egyptian Armed Forces refuse to comment.
The recordings aren't news to the Egyptian public, nor to Western audiences — who are much more likely to view Sisi as a typical military strongman, anyway. But while some Egyptians have heard of the leaks — at least one was widely broadcast on Bassem Youssef’s popular “El Bernameg” satirical news program — many outlets in Egypt, including state media, have declined to report on them. Two Rassd journalists charged with distributing the recordings were referred to a military court in February, while Al Jazeera’s troubles with the Egyptian government, beginning even before the leaks, now regularly make headlines the world around.
What the recordings reveal might surprise Egyptians who think Sisi is their ticket out of hard times.
"The people think that I'm a soft guy,” the military commander’s voice is heard saying in one. “It's not like that ... Sisi is torture and suffering." It isn't clear whether or not he's being ironic.
One of the things the leaked recordings reveal is Sisi’s appreciation of the risks involved in seeking the presidency. In fact, the recordings offer a compelling explanation for Sisi’s delay in announcing his candidacy in the past six months.
In order to run, Sisi knew he had to resign from his post of head of the armed forces.
In a recording released on Oct. 10, while a new constitution was being written and ever louder voices were clamoring for him to stand, Sisi told journalist and supporter Yasser Rizq, "You have to make a campaign with cultured people to add an article to the constitution in order to immunize Sisi in his office as Minister of Defense and let him return to his office even if he did not reach the presidency." Aware that he sought a position from which two recent occupants had been routed in defeat, Sisi appeared eager to secure a path for retreat.
No such clause was introduced in the months following that recording. It soon became clear that his support among the electorate was overwhelming, but still, Sisi hesitated. Rather than declare his candidacy, for months he admonished supporters and journalists to wait, even as his poster plastered Cairo's streets, and his picture adorned chocolates and T-shirts. He was promoted to field marshal and received the formal blessing of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to enter the presidential race on Jan. 27.
In the next months more news pieces reported his reticence, citing various concerns: the shifting sands of support within the military, the difficulty of being president as Egypt’s financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates seemed likely to dry up.
A delegation of agricultural workers visited the field marshal on March 9, imploring him to stand, and addressing him by the title of president. "Field Marshal Sisi expressed his fear of the impatience of Egyptians because of the economic difficulties facing the country," a source told al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.
One reason Sisi appeared in the recordings to be understandably nervous about running is that Egypt's faltering economy and rising prices have been the judge, jury, and executioner of his predecessors, Morsi and Mubarak. While Sisi’s appreciation for Egypt’s economic troubles is public knowledge, his particular and probably unpopular prescription for them, revealed by the recordings, is less well-known.
Egypt needs to turn its huge budget deficit into a surplus to allow the state to pay off debts, defend the currency, and invest in job-creating industry to help incomes catch up with inflation, now over 10 percent. Sisi’s approach to the deficit may involve asking Egyptians to work harder, pay more, and endure greater hardships than they have before. Only hints of this position have been given publicly: "How many of you have considered walking to university so that you can save for Egypt?” he asked an audience of junior doctors in early March.
Even comments like this provoked an online backlash. Behind closed doors, Sisi has been far more blunt.
In one recording he spoke, as if to the Egyptian people, about the hardships they may expect to endure should they elect him.
"If I make you walk on foot, can you stand it?" he asks. "If I make you wake at 5 o'clock in the morning every day, can you stand it? If we become short of food, can you stand it? If we lack air conditioning, can you stand it? Can you stand it if I take away subsidies in one go? Can you stand that from me?"
Subsidies currently make bread, gasoline, electricity and a few other necessities vastly cheaper for Egyptians. Efforts are underway to target bread subsidies better toward the poor and reduce waste, but energy subsidies alone account for more than 20 percent of government spending.
While energy subsidies mainly benefit those rich enough to own cars, air conditioning units, and so on, withdrawing them in the manner these recordings Sisi describes would devastate Egypt’s poor. Even a targeted restructuring, which is beyond the government's technical capacities, would risk provoking a backlash from the middle class, and may nonetheless be insufficient to balance the budget. Famously, an attempt by former President Anwar Sadat to cut subsidies in 1977 provoked mass riots.
In another leaked recording, Sisi exhorted Egyptians to make huge sacrifices, drawing attention to other countries in which he believes austerity has been endured for the national good.
"I would like to tell you that Germany reduced 50 percent of the salaries for its austerity plan, and people accepted that. When South Sudan seceded from the north in order to become independent, it cut salaries by 50 percent. People said nothing. ... Today, it is impossible to pay 107 billion Egyptian pounds to subsidize energy and 17 billion for bread," he said.
The caveat to these striking quotes (aside from the fact that the Germany and South Sudan figures are somewhat exaggerated) is that the leaked comments are segments cut from much longer original recordings. The journalists who obtained the original recordings chose which segments to publish, but have not allowed the remainder to become public. It may be that the portions made public reflect the biases of outlets, like Rassd, which opposes Sisi. Segments from the recordings that qualify his views or present him in a more sympathetic light may well have been omitted, given that the opposition — like many impartial analysts — believes that popular discontent about the economy is Sisi’s greatest vulnerability.
Sisi’s record suggests he may be prepared to supplement austerity with massive "national projects" funded from the military's secret coffers and with aid from the Gulf, though critics say cronyism and corruption may limit the impact of such projects.
Why, if economic troubles and the work needed to fix them is likely to sink him, is Sisi seeking the presidency to begin with? One possibility is that, after the last three years, the Egyptian Armed Forces simply do not believe they can trust anyone else to achieve stability and protect their interests.
But another more troubling possibility is that Sisi believes the presidency to be his divinely ordained destiny. In another leak, he tells journalist Yasser Rizq that for 35 years he has had "visions," dreams that proved to reveal the future.
In one, he said, "I was with Sadat, and I was talking to him, and he told me, “I knew that I would be the president of the republic,” and I said to him, “I also know that I’m going to be the president of the republic.”
Rizq asked Sisi if he felt that he could one day lead the nation. "There’s a prayer I always say, that I could be that," Sisi replied.
In another dream, Sisi pictured himself wearing a watch with an omega on it, perhaps a reference to the watch brand of the same name. “This watch is named for me,” he said. “It’s an Omega, and I’m Abdel Fattah, so I put the Omega, with … the global nature, with Abdel Fattah. Not me, the dream …”
The general appeared to be referring to the phrase “I am the alpha and the omega,” a line attributed to Jesus Christ in the Book of Revelations — an odd line for a devout Muslim. In another dream, he saw a burning sword bearing the words “there is no god but God,” the Islamic declaration of faith.
Western observers reacted to the recording when it was leaked In December with a mixture of concern and ridicule.
In a video filmed by a military officer during late 2012, a fellow officer named Omar encouraged Sisi to restore respect for the military in the media — officially, reporting anything about the armed forces is illegal without their permission — with a mixture of threats and encouragement.
Sisi replies: "The revolution has dismantled all pre-existing shackles, not only for us … but for the entire state. The shackles have been dismantled, and are being rearranged. … But take things back to the way they were, where nobody mentions your name or talks about you? Not yet."
“Not yet” isn't reassuring language for those who supported the 2011 revolution.
Counterintuitively, however, the most concerning aspects of Sisi's record might not be revealed in his leaked statements, but in his public appearances.
In April 2012, while still head of military intelligence, he defended the virginity tests forcibly carried out on several female protesters arrested by soldiers in March 2011. The tests were carried out "to protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape," he said. Courts subsequently banned the procedure.
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More recently, he allowed himself to be associated with the farcical announcement of a military officer (and sometime advocate of herbal remedies) who claimed at an armed forces press conference to have discovered cures for AIDS and hepatitis C, which allegedly involved feeding AIDS-infused kebabs to patients.
At the conference, the officer publicly thanked Sisi, who was sitting in the front row, for his encouragement. A scientific adviser to the president subsequently described the claims as a "scandal," but neither Sisi nor the military have distanced themselves from the officer.
In his youth, growing up in the Gammaleya district of Cairo, Sisi distinguished himself by his hard work and seriousness. "Abdel Fattah always seemed to have a goal. He had willpower," a local man who remembered the young Sisi told Reuters. Others remember him lifting makeshift barbells made of metal pipe and rocks.
That iron resolve will be severely tested by the impoverishment and volatility of the Egyptian streets.
The most insightful comment on the challenges ahead might be from former president Mohammed Morsi, now a prisoner, speaking to his lawyer about Sisi in yet another leaked recording:
"He actually wants to be president?"