Of the four military men who have ruled Egypt during the past sixty years, Sisi stands out for his lack of interest in formal politics. Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat were activists as young men, and both flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood before rejecting political Islam. As President, each worked to build a political organization, which under Sadat became known as the National Democratic Party, or N.D.P. Mubarak, Sadat’s chosen successor, used the N.D.P. to rule what was in effect a one-party state.
When you move to another country as an adult, the language flows around you like a river. Perhaps a child can immediately abandon himself to the current, but most older people will begin by picking out the words and phrases that seem to matter most, which is what I did after my family moved to Cairo, in October of 2011. It was the first fall after the Arab Spring; Hosni Mubarak, the former President, had been forced to resign the previous February. Every weekday, my wife, Leslie, and I met with a tutor for two hours at a language school called Kalimat, where we studied Egyptian Arabic. At the end of each session, we made a vocabulary list. In early December, following the first round of the nation’s parliamentary elections, which had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, my language notebook read:
On many mornings, Leslie and I were the only students at Kalimat. After the Arab Spring, there was a flurry of foreign interest in Arabic, and the school was busy for our first year. But then the Egyptian political climate worsened, and foreign-exchange programs were cancelled. By the spring of 2013, Rifaat was often upset. He had founded Kalimat with one of his siblings, and he loathed the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate, Mohamed Morsi, had won the first democratic Presidential election in Egyptian history. As a Nasserite, Rifaat blamed the rise of Islamism on Anwar Sadat, the President who had succeeded Nasser.
Brotherhood leaders trusted Sisi in part because he was a devout Muslim. And, at least initially, the military leaders seemed to hold up their end of the bargain. In June, 2012, when Egypt’s first democratic Presidential election was won by Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood, the Army didn’t interfere. Not long after taking office, Morsi forced the retirement of the Minister of Defense, along with the commanders of the Navy, the Air Defense, and the Air Force. This move was praised by young Egyptian revolutionaries, who saw it as a sign that Morsi was determined to reduce the Army’s influence. Many people were also encouraged by his choice of new Minister of Defense: Sisi. At the age of fifty-seven, Sisi replaced a seventy-six-year-old general, and the appointment seemed to reflect a transition to a younger, more enlightened officer corps.