Report

Sisi's Year Abroad

What Egypt's most powerful man learned from the U.S. military.

In 2006, Professor Stephen Gerras hosted a Super Bowl party at his house for the foreign military officers who were taking his courses at the U.S. Army War College. As the Pittsburgh Steelers clobbered the Seattle Seahawks, Gerras kept one eye on a partygoer who wasn't paying much attention to the game -- Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, currently the most powerful man in Egypt.

"My mother had come to help with the food, and she's this almost 80-year-old Italian mother," Gerras said. "And he grabs her and gives her a tour of all the things in our house that are written in Arabic, and the religious significance of it. Nobody else that I've ever had has ever felt the need to do that."

Some officers use their year at the War College to relax a bit -- they have been plucked out of their military hierarchy, after all, and the senior generals who determine their professional advancement are absent. Gerras, who served as Sisi's faculty advisor and was his professor in three courses at the War College, said his former pupil was nothing like that. And it went far beyond one Super Bowl party: "He was smart, his English was very good, and he was very serious," said Gerras. "He would be the most serious [military fellow] that I've had."

Sisi, who trained at the U.S. Army War College from 2005 to 2006, is the first Egyptian military chief to be trained by the United States rather than Russia. During his year in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he took classes in strategic thinking, theory of war and strategy, national policy formulation, and -- in an ironic twist, given the position in which he now finds himself -- an elective on civil-military relations. However, there's little evidence that Sisi's studies have given Washington any influence over the Egyptian general: Though Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel repeatedly warned him against launching a coup and subsequently called on him to build an inclusive political system, Sisi not only deposed President Mohamed Morsy -- he went on to imprison top Muslim Brotherhood officials, while Egypt's security forces have opened fire on pro-Morsy demonstrators.

In an odd turn, Sisi has unleashed some of the harshest anti-U.S. rhetoric in decades from an Egyptian army chief. In an interview with the Washington Post published this weekend, he blasted the United States for not more fully supporting the July 3 military takeover: "You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians and they won't forget that," he said. "Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?"

Despite such rhetorical broadsides, however, U.S. officials insist their communications channel through Sisi remains strong. According to one U.S. official with knowledge of the dialogue between President Barack Obama's administration and Sisi, the message they reiterate "is that we believe in a strong relationship, a strong Egypt."

However, the official added, the United States realizes how the situation on the ground could damage that relationship. "If things get out of hand [in Cairo], it's going to be very difficult for us."

Sisi told the Washington Post that he speaks with Hagel almost every day, and the U.S. official characterized the dialogue as blunt from both directions. "These conversations are all very direct, there is no dancing around the topic," the official said. "They listen, they really value the relationship, they want to engage us."

U.S. officials may have scored a minor victory by helping to convince Sisi to moderate his approach toward the large Islamist sit-ins near Cairo's Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque and in front of Cairo University. While Egypt's government authorized the police to take "all necessary measures" to break up the sit-ins and the security forces dropped leaflets on the sites claiming that protesters had been "brainwashed" by the Muslim Brotherhood, both Hagel and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, who is in Cairo, have warned against the violence that breaking up the protests would surely bring. Sisi's angry comments about the United States came in the context of a question that reminded him U.S. officials were "very concerned" about his treatment of the sit-ins.

Even if Americans did not gain any influence over Sisi during his year at the War College, some believed they caught a glimpse of an Islamist ideology that informed his political views. Professor Robert Springborg penned an article for Foreign Affairs arguing that a paper Sisi wrote that year "reads like a tract produced by the Muslim Brotherhood," emphasizing the centrality of religion to Middle Eastern politics and calling for the reestablishment of the caliphate. The New York Times, which also got its hands on the paper, was more cautious, saying that it was "more searching than dogmatic," though certainly critical of U.S. attempts to impose democracy in the region.

Gerras remembers his student as a devout Muslim, with a deep knowledge of his faith and its symbols. Gerras's house is decorated with Ottoman-era trinkets picked up when he was living in Turkey -- he recalled that Sisi once excitedly stopped him after coming across a cheap brass imprint by his bathroom. "He said 'Steve, of course you know what this is. This is the door to the main mosque in Mecca," Gerras remembered. "Al-Sisi knew instantly, it was kind of like walking pass Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper.'"

But though Sisi is unquestionably devout, there is so far little evidence that he is an Islamist. In his Washington Post interview, there was no suggestion he harbors sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood: He blasted the movement, saying its culture "is to work secretly underground" and that Morsy "picked fights with almost all the state institutions" and paved the way for jihadists from Afghanistan to take their fight to the Sinai Peninsula.

The U.S. official suggested that one of the goals of American diplomacy was to convince the Egyptian military to reintegrate Islamists back into the political game. The official warned that the situation on the ground is "a tinder box," but that the Muslim Brotherhood remains "willing to assess overtures by the interim government" if its grievances are addressed.

Whether Sisi is willing to diverge from the Egyptian military's traditional approach of repressing Islamist movements, however, remains to be seen. Gerras remembered asking his student how the Egyptian military quashed a wave of Islamist terrorism in the late 1990s: "[His answer] was along the lines of 'We took care of it,'" Gerras said.  "And I think what it meant was: We put people in prison."

In 2006 and 2007, however, it wasn't Egyptian domestic politics that dominated conversations at the War College, but the ongoing U.S. war effort in Iraq. Gerras remembered long conversations with Sisi about what the U.S. military should do differently in Iraq, and how it could better understand foreign cultures.

"He'd say 'democracy is the right thing for the Middle East, but it's not going to look anything like what you guys think," Gerras said. "‘And I don't think you guys understand that.'"

Jim Watson - Pool/Getty Images

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