CAIRO (Reuters) – When Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced he was standing for Egypt’s highest office four years ago he said it would be his last day in uniform, a pledge which symbolized his transition from military chief to president.
But last month, with another election approaching, Sisi was back in army fatigues when he visited a military base towards the end of a first presidential term that rights groups say has been marred by an unprecedented crackdown on dissent.
Sisi was opening an anti-terrorism center in the Sinai peninsula, where he has told the army to use “all brute force necessary” to defeat an Islamic State insurgency which threatens the stability he promised to deliver.
The rare appearance in uniform, which Sisi has worn a handful of times since taking office, was a reminder not just of his military background but also the central role of the army and security forces under his leadership.
“I’m ready to put on military uniform and go out and fight side by side (with you),” he told a conference in Cairo this month commemorating soldiers killed in conflict.
To his critics, the 63-year-old former intelligence general has led Egypt deeper into authoritarianism than even former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011 after ruling for three decades under a state of emergency.
Rights groups say Sisi has muzzled political opponents, activists and critical media, while courts have passed death sentences on hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood since he deposed the Brotherhood’s president, Mohammed Mursi, after mass protests in 2013.
Tough economic reforms, backed by the IMF, have halved the value of the pound and hit millions of poor Egyptians.
Sisi’s supporters say the measures are needed to keep the country stable as it recovers from political chaos and tackles grave economic challenges and the Islamist insurgency.
Ahead of the March 26-28 election, in which no credible challenger has been able to stand, Sisi warned last month that anyone who threatened Egypt’s stability would be dealt with harshly.
“I will die before anyone messes with its security,” he said, adding that the 2011 uprising, when the army stood by while Mubarak was forced out, would not be repeated.
“Be warned. What happened seven or eight years ago will not happen again in Egypt,” Sisi told an audience that included his own defense minister. “It seems you don’t know me well enough.”
“I’m not a politician who just talks”.
Sisi is the latest in a line of Egyptian rulers drawn from the military that was only briefly broken by Mursi, who lasted a year before Sisi overthrew him.
Promising to work for “security, stability and development” after three years of turmoil, Sisi sought to project a new dynamism when he took office – holding cabinet meetings at 7 a.m. and joining a cycle race on his first weekend as president.
The message was clear. The sclerotic, 30-year rule of former president Mubarak and the turbulence of Mursi’s brief presidency were over. The new president would get things done.
In another break with the Mubarak presidency, Sisi has kept his wife and four children out of the spotlight to avoid suggestions he may have ambitions to build a political dynasty.
He has promised to abide by a two-term constitutional limit for serving presidents, a pledge which if honored would be a first in Egypt’s modern history. His five predecessors were either pushed out, died in office or were assassinated.
“Building the state takes 16 to 20 years, I am trying to finish it in eight years, God willing,” Sisi said in November.
Born on Nov. 19, 1954, Sisi showed signs of unusual discipline as a young boy, people in his old neighborhood of Cairo said. While other boys played football or smoked, Sisi and his friends lifted weights made of metal pipes and rocks.
“Abdel Fattah always seemed to have a goal. He had willpower,” said Atif al-Zaabalawi, a dye worker who used to see Sisi in the capital’s Gamaliya district.
Neighbors say he came from a tightly knit religious family. A cousin, Fathi al-Sisi, who runs a handicraft shop, said the future field marshal had memorized the Koran. His father encouraged him to work in his shop every day after school.
He lived in a small apartment on the rooftop of a run-down building owned by his extended family. Although it was a relatively well-off family, Sisi has sought to emphasize his connection with the struggles of ordinary Egyptians.
“I lived for 10 years with nothing in the fridge except water … and I am from a wealthy family,” he told a youth conference in Sharm el-Sheikh two years ago.
That remark was one of several which Sisi’s critics have mocked. His call for people to donate one pound a day to a development fund via their mobile phones, or a suggestion that banks divert “loose change” from transactions to the fund, were widely ridiculed.
Sisi kept a low profile as Mubarak’s head of military intelligence, and became the youngest member of the military council that ruled Egypt for 18 months after Mubarak resigned in February, 2011.
Mursi appointed him army chief and defense minister in August 2012, mistakenly calculating that the military would let the Brotherhood pursue its Islamist agenda as long as its own entrenched privileges were kept safe.
Sisi captured little international attention until he appeared on television on July 3, 2013, to announce the removal of Mursi after vast crowds demanded he resign, and to promise a new election which Sisi won by a landslide the following year.
Lacking the flamboyance or rhetorical skills of former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Sisi projects a calm and softly spoken persona and speaks only occasionally in public.
But pictures of Sisi are ubiquitous across Egypt and he has not publicly sought to limit the torrents of praise for him in state media.
In an unpublished segment of an interview with al Masry al-Youm daily that was leaked in an audio online ahead of his first term, he spoke of a vision that suggested he was destined to be a great leader.
“In a dream I had 35 years ago, I was raising a sword with the phrase ‘There is no God but God’ written on it in red,” he said. In another dream he met Sadat and told him: “I know that I will be president”.