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The Man Who Toppled Morsi

Who is the officer who holds Egypt’s future in his hands?

4:40 PM, Jul 18, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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The Man Who Toppled Morsi

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.”

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