Egypt's New Strongman: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. The strongman behind this week's bloody crackdown in Egypt is army commander, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Technically, Sisi is only First Deputy Prime Minister. but few doubt he's calling the shots. Shades of Egypt's previous strongmen, posters of Sisi are now everywhere across Cairo. But as one reporter discovered, even Egyptians still don't know that much about him.

Christopher Dickey: We were able to talk to members of his family, one of his brothers, a nephew, and people who've known him since childhood, and he emerges as really a fascinating and complicated and a very "Egyptian" character.

Werman: Christopher Dickey just co-wrote a profile for Sisi for Newsweek.

Dickey: He grew up right in the heart of the old part of Cairo where the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar is and that sort of spirit of Egypt that you read about in Naguib Mahfouz's novels really is sort of the root of his character. But he's also a very calculating figure and even when he was a little boy people noticed that he would sit around and listen and wait and watch and then act. In fact, even when he was a little boy people called him "The General" before he even enlisted in the army.

Werman: It seems a lot of Egyptians don't know much about him. Why is he so elusive?

Dickey: Well, I think intentionally, we know that he intentionally tries to manage all information about him and keep it to a minimum. Now, to some extent that's something that the military has always done, but it's also true that he understands very clearly that he can portray himself as the eagle of the Arabs, as the savior of the country, and then let the Egyptians pour into the emptiness of information all their hopes and dreams about what they want him to be and right now there is so much fear, so much uncertainty in Egypt that he can do that in a way that says, "I'm going to bring order. I'm going to restore the greatness of Egypt," and he doesn't need to say much else and people will imbue him with those characteristics.

Werman: How long do you think he was planning to take over? And does he strike you as a kind of man who can relinquish power to the civilian government?

Dickey: Well, almost every dictator falls victim to the myth of his own indispensability. And I think that's particular true of people from military backgrounds. It's going to be very hard for him to relinquish power. It's going to be very hard for him to put up with a certain degree of anarchy, that is really what democracy entails. And he is going to try extremely hard to protect the institution of the military which is a whole military industrial complex of it's own – enormously rich, enormously powerful with perks that no civilian government, including Morsi's, has been able to infringe upon. I don't think he's going to give any of that up.

Werman: I mean the other thing that leaps out in your profile of him, Christopher, is that al-Sisi is a man of great faith, a good Muslim. His wife is said to wear hijab. How can that be reconciled though with his violence toward the Muslim Brotherhood? I mean how does that square?

Dickey: I think what you need to understand about the attitude he has toward the Muslim Brotherhood is that it is an alien ideology. It's not about faith. It uses faith as a mask for a kind of old-style fascistic ideology with an international agenda. What he is saying is, "I believe in God. I am a good Muslim like most Egyptians are good conservative Muslims, but we are nationalists. For us Egypt comes first."

Werman: Finally, Christopher, there are reports that US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, called al-Sisi the other day after President Obama's comments on Egypt to say the military aid package was secure for the time being, but to stop shooting civilians. What does Sisi think of the United States?

Dickey: I think there are a couple of things to understand about al-Sisi and just generally about US relations with people like al-Sisi. First of all, we always have the idea that we understand these people because we bring them to America and we give them some training. The truth is in most cases these officers who are brought to America for training at places like the US Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania where Sisi went come away understanding the Americans much better than the Americans understand them and that doesn't mean that they like them. In al-Sisi's case, he had a lot of run-ins with people at the US Army War College in 2006 when he was there because there were a lot of officers, American officers, who'd come out of Iraq who were angry with the Arabs, angry at Iraq, who thought the culture was negligible, had nothing good to say about any Arab, and I think that al-Sisi has his anger provoked, although he was very cool, he was very calm, he was very quiet, as is his want, and came away from that experience without a very positive view of the United States and without any sense that he needed to listen to America.

Werman: Are you saying that the US won't be able to count on al-Sisi in the future?

Dickey: I don't think the US can count on al-Sisi in the future. I think it's going to have to come to a new understanding with al-Sisi and with Egypt. They'll want an understanding which basically ends the Americans' ability to pretend to dictate policy to Egypt and I think he wants to make that very clear to the Americans and he wants to make it very clear to the Egyptian people. And moving forward it's gonna be a real problem for the Obama administration. The one area I don't think he's going to take any risks is in the relationship with Israel, but in terms of the way he handles domestic order in Egypt, I don't think he's going to listen to the United States for two seconds.

Werman: Christopher Dickey, the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Fascinating stuff. Thanks so much.

Dickey: Thank you.