Ahmed Seif remembers meeting Egypt’s next president before most people had even heard of him. It was Feb. 5, 2011, in the middle of a chaotic uprising against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and less than a week before his resignation.
Seif, a leading human rights lawyer, had been arrested two days earlier in a last-gasp attempt to restore order.
He spent the next 48 hours being interrogated by middle-ranking officers in military intelligence, and by Saturday it was the turn of their boss: Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, then head of military intelligence and now the all-bets-off favorite to win the presidential elections today.
The encounter happened by chance. Al-Sisi was passing the lawyer and a group of other prisoners, and he asked his officers who they were.
“And they told him,” Seif said. “And [al]-Sisi started to speak [about] to what extent we should respect Hosni Mubarak and the military leadership, and how we must return to our homes and leave Tahrir Square.”
To al-Sisi’s fury, Seif answered back, telling him Mubarak was corrupt.
And then, by Seif’s account, al-Sisi “became angry, his face became red... He acted as if every citizen would accept his point and no one would reject it in public. When he was rejected in public, he lost it.”
It is not a side of al-Sisi many would recognize.
The 59-year-old emerged from the shadows of the military in 2012, after his appointment as Egyptian minister of defense by the person he would eventually oust from office, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Ever since, al-Sisi has cultivated the restrained persona of someone who speaks only when he has to.
When he announced Morsi’s removal, in a televised speech on July 3 last year, it was the first time many had heard him talk.
Until March 26, when he finally declared he was running for president, al-Sisi was defined more by what he had not yet said than what he had.
And in the campaign period since, his face — which now adorns most main roads in Cairo — has defined the landscape, but his words have not.
Apart from a handful of prerecorded interviews, he has made no public appearances, leaving aides to helm his press conferences, rallies, and even televised debates.
People who know al-Sisi say his public persona — all calmness and piety with a mixture of austerity and warmth — has been shaped by circumstances that defined him from a young age.
Al-Sisi was born in 1954, the second of eight siblings (his father later had another six children with a second wife).
He grew up in Gamaleya, the heart of old Islamic Cairo, a few dozen meters from the al-Azhar mosque, the oldest in the Egyptian capital, and closer still to Khan el-Khalili, the sprawling bazaar that most tourists visit after the pyramids.
Al-Sisi’s family worked in the bazaar.
For generations, they made and sold arabesque furnishings, seemingly to great acclaim.
His grandfather’s work is cited in a doctorate from the 1940s about ornamental style, and in the 1970s the Egytpian culture ministry presented the family with a certificate that called them the best arabesque artisans in Egypt.
Today, the family own three of the best plots in the bazaar, and al-Sisi’s cousin Ali Hamama — who has inherited the family business — likes to claim it is the only Egyptian firm that still makes arabesque in the traditional manner.