Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Obama Drops the Ball in Egypt

It must be hard for President Obama to keep up with the cascade of crises that have erupted on the world stage, especially when there are more pressing issues such as a discussion with American Indian youth in North Dakota, a trip for which Obama could find no room on Air Force One for his national security advisor.

It seems like ancient history now, but before the current crisis in Iraq, and before the Russian invasion of Crimea, and before China began threatening its maritime neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam, Egypt was at the eye of the storm. In the weeks and months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups established themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s abbreviated tenure, the Muslim Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the worsening security situation in the Sinai and, indeed, may even have encouraged it.

After the Egyptian people rose up against Morsi, an event followed in short succession by the Egyptian military’s putsch, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to restore security. He sought American assistance, but received only lackluster commitment. Finally, however, the Obama administration came around and approved the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Cairo in order to assist the Egyptian fight against terrorism. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin have testified that the Apaches were a central part of Egypt’s fight against terror. Egyptians celebrated the administration’s decision to lift the ban on sending the Apaches to Egypt as a sign that, despite disputes regarding Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the democratic process, Washington was ready to re-engage with Cairo and move on.

Enter Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): Upset with Morsi’s fate, Leahy put a hold on $650 million in security assistance to Egypt, although he has now approved $572 million. What he continues to put his foot down upon is the transfer of the Apaches, currently warehoused in Fort Hood. The longer the Apaches sit in Texas, the more potent the threat in the Sinai becomes. If there’s one lesson the administration and Congress should have learned, it is that allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to sink roots in any territory spreads instability.

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It must be hard for President Obama to keep up with the cascade of crises that have erupted on the world stage, especially when there are more pressing issues such as a discussion with American Indian youth in North Dakota, a trip for which Obama could find no room on Air Force One for his national security advisor.

It seems like ancient history now, but before the current crisis in Iraq, and before the Russian invasion of Crimea, and before China began threatening its maritime neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam, Egypt was at the eye of the storm. In the weeks and months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups established themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s abbreviated tenure, the Muslim Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the worsening security situation in the Sinai and, indeed, may even have encouraged it.

After the Egyptian people rose up against Morsi, an event followed in short succession by the Egyptian military’s putsch, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to restore security. He sought American assistance, but received only lackluster commitment. Finally, however, the Obama administration came around and approved the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Cairo in order to assist the Egyptian fight against terrorism. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin have testified that the Apaches were a central part of Egypt’s fight against terror. Egyptians celebrated the administration’s decision to lift the ban on sending the Apaches to Egypt as a sign that, despite disputes regarding Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the democratic process, Washington was ready to re-engage with Cairo and move on.

Enter Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): Upset with Morsi’s fate, Leahy put a hold on $650 million in security assistance to Egypt, although he has now approved $572 million. What he continues to put his foot down upon is the transfer of the Apaches, currently warehoused in Fort Hood. The longer the Apaches sit in Texas, the more potent the threat in the Sinai becomes. If there’s one lesson the administration and Congress should have learned, it is that allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to sink roots in any territory spreads instability.

It would be wrong for Obama to simply blame Leahy for the failure of the United States to uphold its commitments. The White House actually has various tools at its disposal to legally maneuver around Leahy’s hold. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The Pentagon does have some budgetary discretion and flexibility, although it needs direction from the White House and Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Some more familiar with procedures on Capitol Hill than I am point out that the Apaches were procured and transfer funding was included in the FY 2009 funding package, and so OMB has some flexibility to reprogram that funding. If the question is merely funding for the transfer and Leahy won’t budge, perhaps it is worthwhile to see whether a third party could provide that resource: After all, many countries have a joint interest in denying safe-haven for al-Qaeda, even if the good senator from Vermont does not.

It does not seem, however, that Leahy is intractable. The administration has yet to actually fight Leahy. Given the chaos in Iraq and Syria, the necessity for Egypt to protect itself against terrorists based in the Sinai is clear. Unfortunately, once again, it seems the White House is letting the ball drop.

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Sisi’s Brotherhood Vow and the U.S.

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.

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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.

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U.S. Should Support Egypt’s New Constitution

Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

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Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

That said, President Mohamed Morsi had ceased to be a democrat pretty much the second he took office. He had dispensed with any notion of a broad-based constitution, and moved to undermine separation of powers. A year ago November, be sought to effectively seize dictatorial powers for himself, placing the presidency above the judicial decisions (much like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is doing now). It is important to recognize that the choice confronting advocates of democracy moving forward isn’t between democracy and el-Sisi, but rather between two imperfect scenarios.

The question then becomes, which provides a better path toward democracy? The Muslim Brotherhood does not. It uses democracy as a means to an end, but that end is not democratic. And while many American academics and journalists cringe at the Egyptian designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, one look at the group’s ideology, its cell structure, and its past and present actions suggest that the designation may very well be warranted. Just because a terrorist group has survived eight decades does not somehow launder its ideology or tactics.

The new constitution may not be perfect, but it is a real step forward over the constitution the Muslim Brotherhood sought to impose on the Egyptian public. Here is a fact sheet produced by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington on the document.

The danger with Sisi is that he will seek to replicate the worst tendencies of the Mubarak era. The Egyptian public, however, have shown that they have little tolerance with leaders who believe themselves above the people and not accountable to them. That was a lesson Hosni Mubarak learned the hard way, and it was a lesson that Morsi learned to his detriment.

The best path forward, therefore, is to support the interim process and new constitution and maintain the expectation that any new president, Sisi or otherwise, will respect a system of checks and balances, and continue to enable an open press and free and fair elections in order to remain accountable to the people as Egypt undertakes the economic reforms which are both overdue and necessary.

To undercut the new president at this point in time is nihilistic: It will not bring democracy; at best it would result in the empowerment of hardcore Islamist radicals, increase Russian influence, and could ultimately result in state failure.

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