Enormously popular, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected in 2014 and has largely managed to maintain wide support both domestically and abroad. This is surprising, given the context of his election and the tumultuous nature of Egyptian politics in recent years. These make the position of a Egyptian president precarious at best. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Egyptian President al-Sisi.
Sources: BBC.com, TIME.com, Alarabiya.net, HuffingtonPost.com, JCPA.org
Born and raised in Gamaleya, a quarter of old Cairo, al-Sisi’s neighborhood was extremely religiously diverse, housing Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Later on, he would recall hearing church bells while watching Jews walk to synagogue, all in the shadow of the al-Azhar Mosque.
While studying at a local Army-run secondary school, al-Sisi began a relationship with his maternal cousin, Entissar Amer. They were married after he graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy in 1977. They now have three sons and one daughter. He is extremely protective of his family’s personal life.
Though his faith hardly enters his political rhetoric – and he has in fact been seen as an opponent to an Islamic Egyptian state – al-Sisi is in fact a devout Muslim, and begins each day with morning prayer. His wife, Entissar, wears the hijab in public. Al-Sisi has made clear, however, that his faith does not guide his politics, and that he is committed to national unity, declaring that “religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people.”
During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Sisi served as the director of military intelligence and reconnaissance for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – the body that governed Egypt after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. At 57, he was the youngest member of the council at the time. He was later promoted to commander-in-chief and Minister of Defense and Military Production in August 2012, chosen to replace Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Though he has been involved in military affairs most of his life, Al-Sisi has little experience in actual combat. He received his commission as a military officer in 1977, serving in the mechanized infantry, and specialized in anti-tank warfare and mortar warfare. His focus since then has been largely in military intelligence, not combat.
Al-Sisi made controversial statements in April 2012 while serving on the Supreme Council, admitting that the military subjected detained female demonstrators (17 women who had been detained in anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square in March 2011) to forced virginity tests. He defended the practice. He said, “the virginity-test procedure was done to protect the girls from rape as well as to protect the soldiers and officers from rape accusations.” He later promised to abolish such tests.
Based on TIME Magazine’s annual reader poll, Al-Sisi was named TIME Person of the Year in December 2013, following the overwhelming rise in his popularity after Morsi’s overthrow. The article read, “Sisi’s success reflected the genuine popularity of a man who led what was essentially a military coup in July against the democratically elected government of then-President Mohammed Morsi.”
Nine months after he played an integral role in helping overthrow President Mohamed Morsi, Al-Sisi heeded calls to run for president and resigned from the military. This made him eligible to run in the election. In February 2014, the Supreme Council gave Al-Sisi the go-ahead to run for president due to popular demand. He was promoted from general to field marshal by interim President Adly Mansour. The following month, Al-Sisi resigned his post, and assumed the presidency in June 2014.
Running on an election slogan, “Long Live Egypt,” Al-Sisi promised voters a higher standard of living through extensive reforms of agriculture, housing, and education, plus hard work by him and Egyptians alike. He made promises to tackle poverty by ensuring businesses saw lower profit margins and more resources were available to a larger sector of the citizenship. Despite his somewhat anti-business rhetoric, Al-Sisi still enjoyed a better-funded campaign than rival candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, thanks to contributions from prominent businessmen.
In his first street appearance following the swearing-in of his cabinet, Al-Sisi participated in a 20-kilometer bike marathon alongside members of the cabinet, military, police force, and various celebrities. The marathon was geared at encouraging Egyptians to use alternative forms of transportation to help cut down on fuel consumption.
After taking office, Sisi attempted to demonstrate his commitment to rebuilding the Egyptian economy by donating half of his salary and personal assets to Egypt – and encouraging other senior officials to do the same. The Egyptian Armed Forces followed suit, donating $140 million USD to the economy. Al-Sisi has pushed for maximum wage limits to go into effect.
On Christmas Day, 2014, Al-Sisi became the first president in Egyptian history to attend Christmas mass — an important step for national unity in a country wracked by religious tension for decades. In January 2015, he followed up by speaking at a Coptic Orthodox Christmas service in Cairo, wishing Christians a merry Christmas and calling for unity throughout Egypt.