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Insight: In small American town, a window into Egyptian general's past

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seen during a news conference in Cairo on the release of seven members of the Egyptian security forces kidnapped by
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seen during a news conference in Cairo on the release of seven members of the Egyptian security forces kidnapped by

By Phil Stewart

CARLISLE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Unlike today's ubiquitous images of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in crisp uniform decorated with medals, the U.S. Army War College yearbook shows the officer who would one day seize power in Egypt smiling at a party in a small Pennsylvania town, looking relaxed in a yellow polo shirt.

There is a picture of Sisi visiting a U.S. Civil War battleground and another of his family taken at a Halloween party they attended, with his wife and daughter grinning next to a woman dressed like the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra.

The yearbook from the Class of 2006 is tucked away in the War College library in Carlisle. Its images offer a reminder that not that long ago, the army chief who now effectively rules Egypt spent an academic year on a military fellowship in the more peaceful surroundings of small-town America.

In Carlisle, Sisi made an impression at the local mosque and at the college itself as a serious student whose writings reflected an awareness that ensuring democracy in the Middle East might be fraught with difficulties.

Since the July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Mursi, discussion of limited American influence on Egypt's military has focused on the $1.3 billion in military aid that the United States pours into the country.

But advocates of international fellowship programs say that cultural ties forged in places like Carlisle are perhaps more important in building lasting relations between the United States and Egypt.

Despite conflict with the Obama administration over his crackdown on supporters of Mursi, Sisi keeps in regular contact with Washington. He has held an astonishing 16 calls with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel since Mursi was toppled last month.

"I'll bet this total immersion in the West that he had for the better part of a year ... is contributing to the fact that communications lines are open," said Major General Anthony Cucolo, the War College's commandant.

Sisi ignored warnings from Hagel and others before Mursi's ouster and, again rebuffing calls for restraint, sent in security forces on August 14 to smash protest camps set up by Mursi's supporters.

At least 900 people, including 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in the past week in the crackdown on Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood, the bloodiest civil unrest in Egypt's modern history.

"Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited," Hagel acknowledged on Monday. "All nations are limited in their influence in another nation's internal issues."

RISKS OF DEMOCRACY

On a dry-erase board in a War College seminar room, instructions like "No Rank" and "Keep an Open Mind" are scribbled in blue ink - part of an effort to promote open, informal dialogue among U.S. officers and those from other countries.

The college hosts nearly 80 international fellows each year, a number that has doubled since Sisi studied there. They come from nations like Pakistan and India, as well as from traditional allies like Canada and Britain, to study with officers from across America's armed forces and civilians from the State Department and other U.S. agencies.

This year, Egypt sent one officer to the United States for language training before Mursi's ouster. But the number of Egyptian military personnel participating in all U.S. exchanges through the International Military Education and Training Program fell sharply to 22 from 53 from 2011 to 2012, according to State Department data.

In 2006, Sisi appeared more reserved than many other fellows in class discussions, perhaps cautious by nature - or wary that his comments might come back to haunt him.

"(It wasn't) because he didn't know what he thought. I think he was aware that everything you can say can be repeated," said Sherifa Zuhur, a former professor of Sisi's, who led a class on the Middle East.

Faculty adviser Steve Gerras described him as "serious and quiet" - even at outside events, like when he attended a gathering to watch the Super Bowl at Gerras' home.

Those who knew Sisi during his U.S. fellowship describe someone who, at the height of Iraq's post-invasion civil war, deeply questioned perceived U.S. assumptions about how democracy would unfold there.

In comments foreshadowing the current crisis gripping Egypt, Sisi, in his research project, wrote that emerging democracies would likely have a stronger religious cast than in the West.

"History has shown that in the first ten years of a new democracy, conflict is likely to occur either externally or internally as the new democracy matures," he wrote.

"Simply changing the political systems from autocratic rule to democratic rule will not be enough to build a new democracy," he wrote.

Some of Sisi's writings seem ironic today, given that he led the overthrow of an avowedly Islamist, but popularly elected, leader. Critics of Mursi's leadership say he failed to build an inclusive government and did not govern democratically.

In his research, Sisi pointed to the 2006 Palestinian election victory of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and advocated that "legitimately elected parties be given the opportunity to govern."

"The world cannot demand democracy in the Middle East, yet denounce what it looks like because a less than pro-Western party legitimately assumes office," he wrote.

Sisi had requested that his research project not be publicly disclosed. But it has circulated widely, something that Cucolo, the college commandant, said he regretted.

WEDDING RING

Sisi lived on a picturesque street in Carlisle's historic center with American flags draped from front porches.

His former home, which has a porch swing and a hanging basket of flowers, is a short walk from a local college that Sisi's son attended, and a short drive from the mosque often frequented by Muslim fellows at the War College and their families.

Sisi is warmly remembered there as a devout man who sometimes led prayers.

"He used to pray with us. Now he is a big guy," said worshipper Abdul Majid Ayud.

Carlisle wasn't Sisi's first experience in the United States. In 1981, he took an infantry basic training course at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Frank Phillips, a retired U.S. Army officer who befriended Sisi there, says Sisi served as an imam for the Muslim students on the course.

"He was religious, but not fanatical," said Phillips, describing him as a "strong patriot."

One day, Sisi accompanied the American to look for an engagement ring in Columbus, Georgia. When Phillips put the ring on layaway - a practice not generally known in Egypt - Sisi offered to help him pay for it so he could take it home right away.

Phillips gently declined, but deeply appreciated the offer. "He's a solid guy," Phillips said.

People who knew Sisi during his time in the United States generally declined to take a position on Egypt's political turmoil. But Phillips says he takes comfort in believing that Sisi will do what is right for Egypt, and likely weigh U.S. views because of his experiences in America.

"Is he more predisposed now to consider the U.S. view of things? I'd say yes," Phillips said.

HALL OF FAME?

Sisi's name is inscribed along with others from the Class of 2006 on a bronze-colored plaque that dominates a wall of Root Hall, the War College's main building.

But the college's top honor still awaits him. Inside is a "Hall of Fame" with portraits of fellowship graduates who, like Sisi, went on to lead their respective militaries.

General Tibor Benko, who became chief of the general staff of Hungary's armed forces, is the most recent inductee and, as such, his portrait is larger, positioned at the center of dozens of others hailing from Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

Although the ultimate decision on whether to include Sisi is up to the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and senior Army officials, Cucolo said the slow process toward Sisi's induction would begin to advance.

"He meets the criteria and I will be moving forward with the process at some point here," Cucolo said. "What's going on right now isn't affecting my opinion about that."

(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa. Editing by Warren Strobel and David Storey)

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