He is a savvy operator, people who have worked with him say, a career military officer who methodically campaigned a year ago to become Egypt`s defence minister under its first democratically elected president.
Now Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sissi is faced with a society even more bitterly divided than it was a year ago, when Mohamed Morsi took office as president.
Islamist supporters of Morsi, who was ousted by the military last month, warned on Wednesday that authorities risk provoking `civil war` if they go ahead with plans to break up protest camps, as officials have threatened to do after the collapse of international mediation efforts.
To those Islamists, al Sissi is intent on wiping their faction off the nation`s political map in a quest for absolute power. But a substantially larger share of Egyptians appears to ardently support the general, and many tout his name above all others in the search for a new leader.
Al Sissi, viewed as a pious Muslim, was supposed to be the Muslim Brotherhood`s man running the military. Now his sunglass-clad face is venerated in Cairo`s streets and his pictures pasted on the windows of minibuses and storefronts and clutched by men and women who wave Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square. For the most popular man in Egypt, the question is: Does he want to be the country`s next president? Al Sissi, 58, has been coy about his plans, saying in an interview with The Washington Post last week that he did not aspire to a higher office but declining to rule out a presidential bid. `When the people love you, he said, `this is the most important thing for me.
Egyptian officials say that al Sissi`s commitment to returning the country to civilian-led democracy is genuine and that they do not think that he will run in elections, expected to be held next year.
But in a country where the only leader in six decades not to have amilitary background was just deposed in a coup, many say they would not be surprised if the charismatic al Sissi decided to throw his high-brimmed officer`s hat into the ring. Some supporters are hailing him as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the revered general who led the 1952 coup that overthrew Egypt`s monarchy.
`I think it`s hugely tempting for anyone,` said a high-ranking Western official, referring to the possibility that al Sissi might take his popularity to the polls. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
The clamour to bring al Sissi into the presidential palace is ironic, critics here say, given that many of his advocates were bitter foes of the military-backed rule of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander. Public support also quickly soured for the armedforces council that temporarily ruled after Mubarak was toppled in the 2011 revolution. After Morsi`s inauguration in June 2012, al Sissi was seen as a man who would be willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood despite decades in which the military had persecuted the organisation. Al Sissi, considered by acquaintances who have talked faith with him to be deeply religious without being dogmatic, was considered a natural ally for Morsi, who was struggling to assert civilian control over the army.Al Sissi was then a fast-rising officer who had taken over as head of military intelligence and was assigned to serve as the armed forces` liaison to the Brotherhood after the 2011 revolution.
His most prominent turn in the news during the year that Egyptian generals ran the country came when he defended the military after security forces were accused of administering `virginity tests` to female protesters. Rights groups said the practice amounted to state-sanctioned sexual assault.
US and Egyptian observers say al Sissi was quietly positioning himselfas a successor to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, a man about two decades al Sissi`s senior who was then leading the military.`I personally was not surprised at all that he would be picked` as defence minister, said Sameh Seif el-Yazel, a former Egyptian intelligence officer with close ties to the military who said he had spoken frequently to al Sissi since the 2011 revolution. `He`s a man who is straightforward, black and white. There is no gray area in dealing with strategic issues.
Even before the revolution, al Sissi was among a group of rising leaders in Egypt`s army, participating in a prestigious international programme at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in the mid-2000s. There he wrote a paper titled `Democracy in the Middle East` and studied civilian-military relations, according to his adviser, Stephen Gerras. The focus was on the war then raging in Iraq, not on Egypt.
`He said this isn`t going to go the way you think,` Gerras said.
`The culture, the influence of religion, the poor quality of education, the impact of state-run media all of those things make it very difficult to bring a Western form of democracy in the Mideast. And he would say, `You guys were kind of naive in Iraq.`` Another professor, Sherifa Zuhur, said the general was reserved but very intelligent.
`He distinguished himself with this quiet and reflective character.
But then when he spoke, you could hear his experience,` she said. `Thewhole discussion of what happens when you suppress democracy was very much part of the discourse.
Zuhur said al Sissi`s wife wore the nigab, or a face covering.
That piety led many to think that Morsi`s August 2012 appointment of al Sissi as defence minister meant a new era in relations between the military and the civilian Islamist leadership.
But by al Sissi`s own account, their relationship quickly became strained. Even before he became defence minister, he said in The Post interview, he was concerned about Morsi`s attempts to rein in the judiciary, which was packed with appointees from the Mubarak era.
At October celebrations to commemorate the 1973 war with Israel, al Sissi was miffed to have to sit in the stands near Tarek el-Zomor, who was convicted of being complicit in the plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, according to a fellow Egyptian officer who spoke to Sissi about the incident.
When Morsi granted himself vastly expanded powers in late November, al Sissi unilaterally called for a meeting of the country`s political leaders-an unusual step for a defence minister in a civilian-led government.
Morsi overruled him, before dialing back his broad assertion of power. By spring, tensions were even higher, as the economy continued to plummet and lines started building up at gas stations.
Former Morsi advisers accuse al Sissi of meeting with opposition leaders behind Morsi`s back. Al Sissi has said that he warned Morsi and US officials that Egypt`s problems were worsening. `Months ago, I told [US officials] there was a very big problem in Egypt. I asked them for their support, for their consultation, for their advice, as they are our strategic partner and allies, he said.
By Michael Birnbaum: By arrangement with The Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service: http://epaper.dawn.com/~epaper/DetailImage.php?StoryImage=09_08_2013_012_002