Since forcing Egypt’s first elected president from office two weeks ago, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has become a folk hero. Popular songs praising the 58-year-old head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces fill the airwaves, while hagiographic portraits of the man who saved the revolution stir the emotions of his newly minted fans. They affectionately call him “Field Marshal of the People”—even though the career military officer is not a field marshal but holds the rank of colonel general. The fact that Egyptians are so eager to lavish him with titles and other adornments fit for a culture hero suggests that we are watching the birth of a personality cult.
Sisi hardly seems to mind. The man who deposed Morsi cavorts with celebrities, inviting Egyptian actors and actresses and singers to watch his American-funded army training. He has himself photographed leading his troops in a marathon run and other manly feats like an Egyptian version of Vladimir Putin. The general now in charge of the largest Arab state who, according to the Egyptian rumor/conspiracy mill, tells off CIA Director John Brennan, likes it to be known that he defies the Americans. The military figure who may have cashiered Egypt’s fledgling democratic process has big visions for himself and for Egypt. In his first speech since the coup, Sisi explained that he acted not only because of the country’s economic crisis, but because “Egypt’s influence and status in its region declined and, accordingly, so too did its role in the community of nations.” Perhaps most alarmingly, Sisi consults regularly with Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the 89-year-old journalist and former confidante of Gamal abd-el Nasser, the most charismatic Arab leader of the last century, whose dangerous narcissism entangled Egypt in two catastrophic wars.
Even if Sisi has no Nasserist aspirations to lead the region, he is a very different type of military figure than the ones who have defended, and led, Egypt over the last 30 years. The man who led SCAF prior to Sisi, and ruled Egypt after Hosni Mubarak, was Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. “Tantawi was not an ambitious man, he was a bureaucrat” says Samuel Tadros, a fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and author of the just published book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. “Fouad Ajami famously described Mubarak as a civil servant with the rank of president,” says Tadros, “Tantawi was a civil servant with the rank of field marshal.”
Morsi retired the 77-year-old Tantawi last August and replaced him with Sisi, a much younger man who relishes the spotlight as his predecessor did not. “Tantawi would never give interviews to the media,” says Tadros. “He allowed all the other generals to appear on TV, which suggested that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was more of a collective project.” Sisi on the other hand wants it known that he’s calling the shots. “He’s the only one who appears on TV,” says Tadros, “Sisi and the army’s spokesman. Sisi dominates the scene.”
Some analysts have noted that Sisi’s coup and his dragnet arresting hundreds of key Muslim Brotherhood members is similar to Nasser’s confrontation with the Brotherhood, but the similarities may go further. After all, Sisi is taking some of his cues from the same man who was Nasser’s brain, Heikal. A prolific author and former editor of Egypt’s flagship newspaper, Al-Ahram, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal is most famous for his close relationship with Nasser. Whether Heikal directed Nasser’s political moves, as the dean of Egyptian journalists likes to let on, or he merely witnessed up close Nasser’s decision-making process, his reputation as a great man is premised almost entirely on his history with Arab nationalism’s greatest hero. According to reports, Sisi met with Heikal regularly before the coup. Egyptian sources say that Heikal wrote both Sisi’s speech giving Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum, and Sisi’s post-coup announcement.
“It’s not surprising Sisi would fall for someone like Heikal,” says Tadros. “Even 40 years after the death of Nasser, Heikal retains this aura of greatness around him—a great mind, a genius, someone who is well connected and knows the world and its ways better than anyone else. This reputation is undeserved but would appeal to someone like Sisi, whose experience of the world is very limited. Compare him to Mubarak and Tantawi. Many of these older officers were trained in the Soviet Union, so Mubarak’s distaste for socialism was based on living there and seeing what it was like. What we know of Sisi on the other hand is that he was a military attaché in Saudi Arabia and trained for a brief time in the United States. This is not a man of the world.”
Indeed, it is perhaps Sisi’s provincialism, his view of Egypt as the center of the world, as much as his ambition that led him to embrace Heikal. Nasser was the champion of Arab nationalism, but in his hands this ideological conceit of one great unified Arab nation was always an instrument for Egyptian national interests—often at the expense of other regional players, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In committing troops to fight alongside the republican forces during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war, Nasser was engaged in a proxy war with Riyadh, a disastrous policy often referred to as Egypt’s Vietnam. With tens of thousands of troops in Yemen, Nasser found himself fighting on another front in June 1967, when Israel crushed Egypt, seizing the Sinai in six days.
If Sisi removed Morsi with the idea of righting the ship of state, he couldn’t have chosen a worse example than Nasser. “I don’t think this means Sisi will attack Israel,” says Tadros. “Though that might be a problem at some point. What it means for Sisi is Egypt’s return to a place of prominence. Because of our civilization—pharaonic civilization, Islamic civilization—Egyptians think that our country deserves to be ruled by someone with more of a vision that Mubarak or Morsi. Sisi fits into this narrative of an Egypt sure of its destiny and leading the region.”
The concern is that in Sisi’s view, it is the army that will lead Egypt, and Sisi the army.