Author and Weekly Standard senior editor Lee Smith set a high standard that few others have met with his seminal book The Strong Horse, about the political culture of the Arab world. So when Smith writes about the current conflict in Egypt to bitterly criticize military government leader General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, we should all pay attention. But while I think his evaluation of Sisi as “rash and dangerous” in a piece published in Time might be true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the general presents a threat to his country’s peace with Israel or that he is taking Egypt down a path to destruction. As much as the coup government needs to be watched closely, his clear disagreement with those of us who have been urging Washington to recognize that the choice in Egypt is between the military and the Brotherhood seems to be off the point.
Last month, in the days before the military toppled Mohamed Morsi, Smith predicted in Tablet that sooner or later Egypt would launch a new war against Israel to distract its people from their domestic problems. His article in the Weekly Standard today cautioning supporters of Israel to worry more about Sisi than the Brotherhood seems to be an attempt to resurrect that thesis. But there is even less reason to believe him on that point today than there was then.
In the weeks since that Tablet article, Sisi has made it very clear he intends to wage war on the Muslim Brotherhood, not Israel. Though there is good reason to worry about Egypt’s future as the conflict with the Islamists heats up and its economic and societal woes only get worse, the idea that Sisi will strike Israel in order to avoid a civil war makes very little sense. Though anti-Semitism runs deep in Egyptian society, if there is one thing the Egyptian army has shown us in the 34 years since Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty, it is that it has no intention of risking a certain military defeat against Israel that could have catastrophic consequences for its hold on the government in Cairo.
Smith is right to urge us to pay more attention to Sisi. Senator Lindsey Graham told the New York Times that the apparent caudillo of the post-coup government struck him as being “a little bit intoxicated by power.” Whether that shows that he wishes to emulate fellow military ruler Hosni Mubarak and play pharaoh or go further and try for the role of charismatic popular dictator in the mold of Gamal Abdul Nasser remains to be seen. But I think it’s reasonable to believe that this graduate of the U.S. Army War College is sufficiently educated in modern history to understand that military dictatorships rarely survive military defeats, especially when there is a viable opponent like the Brotherhood waiting for them to demonstrate their impotence.
The one guiding principle of the Egyptian military since it avoided another debacle in the 1973 Yom Kippur War only by the grace of Soviet threats and Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy was to never again risk a whipping at the hands of Israel. Sadat switched sides in the Cold War to escape from the trap Russian antagonism toward the U.S. and Israel had forced his country into. In exchange for embracing America and making peace with Israel, Egypt got a hefty annual bribe in the form of U.S. aid that went mostly toward propping up the military. The shiny toys it purchased from the U.S. helped solidify its rule. There has never been even a hint that any of the military owners of those planes and tanks have even dreamed of risking them by employing them in a confrontation with Israel that everyone knows would end in utter defeat for Egypt. That’s even truer today now that the military is finally being called upon to fire some weapons in anger, albeit against domestic Islamist foes rather than the traditional Zionist enemy.
While Smith attempts to argue in the Standard that there is a split between American friends of Israel who have urged Washington to back the military and an Israeli government that has kept to a wise official silence on the question, I see no evidence that there is any disagreement here. In fact, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, although it is rightly issuing no statements, Israel is actually making a major diplomatic push to persuade both the U.S. and Europe not to abandon Sisi in a fit of righteous anger about the violence in Cairo.
While, as Smith pointed out in his book, dictators of failed states like Egypt have always sought to export the violence brewing inside their countries, maintaining one’s status as the “strong horse” also involves knowing which fights to pick. In this case, only a suicidal madman would contemplate engaging an untested and generally lightly regarded fighting force like the Egyptian Army in a war with the region’s best military. Nasser may have survived his defeats in 1956 (courtesy of Dwight Eisenhower) and 1967 (by blaming the fiasco on the myth of U.S. involvement in the Six-Day War), but surely Sisi understands that he wouldn’t be as lucky. Nor would many of his fellow generals, who form his main constituency of the moment, agree to such folly. The evidence of close cooperation between the Egyptian military and Israel in repressing outbreaks of terror in the Sinai in the last month and its hostility to the Gaza enclave run by the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies further debunks the notion that Sisi would attack the Jewish state.
Being the “strong horse” in Egypt right now means controlling the streets of Cairo and beating the Brotherhood into submission. Can he succeed? Doubts on that score are reasonable. But the widespread assumption of Sisi’s critics that we are in for an Egyptian rerun of the bloody Algerian civil war of the 1990s may not be right. Egypt is a very different place than Algeria. When the Algerian military ousted an Islamist party from government launching a civil war, that was a country that had gone through a terrorist insurgency only 30 years earlier during the struggle for independence against France. Egypt has never undergone such a war and there is no indication that most Egyptians (the vast majority of whom seem to have approved of the coup) would tolerate one. As Smith points out, the Brotherhood has survived more than 80 years of repression, but it is unprepared for war. By taking the Machiavellian tactic of crushing opponents, Sisi may have undertaken the sort of pre-emptive strike that will make an Algerian-style conflict unlikely.
Smith may consider support for the coup to be morally repugnant, but it is hard to find any sensible person who actually thinks the Brotherhood government was an expression of genuine democracy. Right now there isn’t much doubt that Sisi is preferable to the Brotherhood.