Later this month, Egyptians will go to the polls to vote for a replacement for deposed President Mohamed Morsi, but there is little mystery about the result. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former head of the Egyptian military that toppled Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government last summer after tens of millions of his countrymen took to the streets to call for a change, and the head of the interim authority that succeeded him, is certain to win the vote. With the party that won the elections that took place after the Mubarak dictatorship was overthrown in 2011 now banned, there is little doubt Sisi’s governing faction will prevail.
Sisi’s victory and the brutal suppression of the Brotherhood, which was highlighted by the handing out of more than 1,200 death sentences to its members in recent months, will be rightly seen as putting an end to any hope that the Arab Spring protests that ended Mubarak’s authoritarian rule would lead to anything better. Sisi’s government is in many respects a rerun of the old regime with the military firmly in control and any semblance of democracy an afterthought at best. All this will be seen as justification for a further downgrading of U.S. relations with the Egyptian government and more cuts in the more than $1 billion in aid that still flows to it. But though no one in the West should be cheering Sisi’s installation as the new rais neither should sensible observers be in mourning about his ascension. That is not because Sisi is someone who can be counted on to eventually encourage progress toward Egyptian democracy or that he is any more likely to do much of what is necessary to revive its crumbling economy. Sisi’s only virtue in the eyes of the West is the same one that recommends him as the better of all the available evils to most Egyptians: his vow to “finish” the Brotherhood if he is elected. Though, to this day, many Westerners still they think have a third choice in Egypt between a military dictatorship and an Islamist tyranny, that is a myth.
Sisi’s election campaign has done nothing to alter his image as a slightly less refined but perhaps slightly less corrupt version of Mubarak. Just as Mubarak pandered to the virulent anti-Semitism that rages in Egypt while still preserving the peace treaty with Israel, Sisi is playing the same game by promising to revise the pact and doing nothing to improve relations with the Jewish state. If anything, by the time he is done, Sisi may make many Egyptians long for the more easygoing tyranny of the man who succeeded Anwar Sadat as he has taken his “mandate” from the anti-Brotherhood street demonstrations as an excuse for the kind of brutal rule that makes his government one of the most repressive in a region where dictatorships are a dime a dozen.
What is also missing from the Sisi regime is even the occasional lip service about freedom that Mubarak would utter as part of his efforts to maintain good relations with his American patrons. President Obama’s decision to back Mubarak’s ouster and his subsequent efforts to maintain good relations with the Brotherhood government undermined any good will even with the Egyptian military that has thrived on U.S. aid. Sisi’s statement last week that the U.S. had sought at the last minute to keep Morsi in power or to at least delay the coup—a request that Sisi contemptuously refused—signaled just how little the Egyptian leader thought of Obama and that he believes that most of his countrymen share his opinion. U.S. influence in Egypt is at a low point despite the leverage that the aid ought to provide.
But despite all this, Americans should resist the temptation to damn Sisi and cut him off without a U.S. penny. For all of his bluster, Sisi still probably prefers a relationship with the U.S. to any of the alternatives, none of which will match Washington’s cash contributions to Cairo. Though Obama has seemed more interested in offending allies in the Middle East than helping them, Egypt remains the most populous Arab country and a linchpin of any U.S. strategy for influence in the region. More to the point, as much as Sisi’s methods may be distasteful, his promise that the Brotherhood will never get a chance at power is one that Americans as well as Egyptians should hope he fulfills.
Though many Americans still labor under the delusion that the Brotherhood might have been moderating its Islamist stance rather than seeking to create a theocracy, Egyptians know better. The Brotherhood’s year in power was a wake-up call for a country that had voted the Islamists into power because they were the only organized opposition to Mubarak. The fact that more Egyptians demonstrated to oust Morsi—a man who had actually won his office in an election—than Mubarak should have tipped Obama off to the error he made by embracing the Brotherhood.
Last year many feared that driving the Brotherhood underground would make it even more dangerous, but the evidence of the last several months shows that though it is by no means finished yet, its lack of support among the Egyptian people makes any attempt at an Islamist insurgency a doubtful prospect. Sisi’s genius lies in his understanding of this fact. His decision to use this opportunity to wipe out the Islamists—a difficult task but one toward which he has been making progress—shows a genuine strategic vision that the Americans who are chiding him for brutality lack.
In a war against Islamists, Sisi understands there are only two options: victory or defeat. How he wins that victory will win him no friends. But the consequences of the fulfillment of his vow will help isolate the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies in Gaza, solidify the treaty with Israel, and ensure that Islamists will never be able to seize control of Cairo and with it the region. That’s good news for the United States and its friends, even though few in Washington will be honest or wise enough to admit it.