Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

Egypt’s Life and Death Struggle

Few could have been surprised when an Egyptian court sentenced Mohammed Morsi, the country’s former president, to death on Saturday. But the announcement generated condemnations from most of the West including a pointed denunciation from the State Department on Monday. The U.S. said the verdict was “unjust and undermines confidence in the rule of law.” Given the arbitrary nature of both the trial and the sentence, it’s hard to argue with that statement. The announcement was merely the culmination of a prosecution that bore little resemblance to a search for justice. But those who seek to use the sentence as a reason to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt are equally wrong. However harsh the government’s methods, it seems to understand something that many of its foreign critics as well as Obama administration often forgets: It is locked in a life and death struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood in which there can only be two outcomes: allowing the Islamists another shot at transforming Egypt into an Islamist tyranny or the continuation of military rule. The latter is clearly the lesser of two evils even if the military’s methods are deplorable.

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Few could have been surprised when an Egyptian court sentenced Mohammed Morsi, the country’s former president, to death on Saturday. But the announcement generated condemnations from most of the West including a pointed denunciation from the State Department on Monday. The U.S. said the verdict was “unjust and undermines confidence in the rule of law.” Given the arbitrary nature of both the trial and the sentence, it’s hard to argue with that statement. The announcement was merely the culmination of a prosecution that bore little resemblance to a search for justice. But those who seek to use the sentence as a reason to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt are equally wrong. However harsh the government’s methods, it seems to understand something that many of its foreign critics as well as Obama administration often forgets: It is locked in a life and death struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood in which there can only be two outcomes: allowing the Islamists another shot at transforming Egypt into an Islamist tyranny or the continuation of military rule. The latter is clearly the lesser of two evils even if the military’s methods are deplorable.

The death sentence is just the latest sign that the military government led by former General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi is determined to wipe out every vestige of resistance from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood regime Morsi led. Morsi is just one of many who have been railroaded in trials whose outcome was predetermined. These verdicts won’t win Sisi many friends abroad. Nor will they conciliate radical Muslims to accept his rule since killing Morsi will just give them another martyr. But as much as his death won’t do Cairo much good, Sisi isn’t interested in half measures with the Brotherhood or its Hamas allies in Gaza. In a real-life Game of Thrones scenario, the former general seems to think letting Morsi live would be to ultimately prolong a bloody struggle.

Though the trial was a parody of justice, what was interesting was the fact that among those condemned for the prison break that sprung Morsi from prison in 2011 during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak were 70 Palestinians. These were apparently members of Hamas who came into Egypt from Gaza via smuggling tunnels determined to help their Brotherhood cousins seize power. They succeeded in toppling Mubarak and then helping elect Morsi in what was at least superficially a democratic election. These details illustrate both how closely tied the Brotherhood (which tried during its bid for power to deceive the West about its alleged moderation) is with fellow Islamist terrorists and why the military has been so adamant about isolating Gaza since then.

What followed was a nightmarish year in which the Brotherhood sought to consolidate power and to forestall any effort to replace them by democratic means. This led to a mass uprising that sent tens of millions of Egyptians into the streets against Morsi triggering the military coup that brought Sisi to power. Critics of Sisi are right when they call him an autocrat and his government repressive. But he also seems to have the acquiescence of most Egyptians if not their support because they realize the only alternative to the military would not be liberal democracy, but another round of Islamist tyranny.

If President Obama had not forfeited the trust of most Egyptians, he might be in a position to save Morsi. But after torpedoing Mubarak and then supporting the Brotherhood government and condemning the coup and threatening aid cuts, few in Egypt, let alone Sisi, are interested in his opinion. If Egyptians aren’t listening to Americans talking about human rights violations it is because they see such advocates as hypocrites, since they were perfectly willing to let Morsi hold onto power and thereby plunge Egypt into the darkness of an Islamist regime.

Though refraining from transforming Morsi into a martyr would be smart, those who advocate for isolating the Sisi government in order to force clemency aren’t helping Egypt or the cause of human rights. The only hope for ultimate liberalizing Egyptian society is for the Brotherhood to be so utterly crushed that there is no chance of it trying again for power. Until then, the military will persist in its draconian tactics and probably have more the majority of Egyptians on their side.

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U.S. Objective Should Be to Disarm Hamas

The United States has been a largely helpless spectator as the fighting between Israel and Hamas has continued this week. But rather than merely calling for restraint or trying to cajole Egypt into resuming its traditional role as broker between the two parties, Washington should be attempting to get at the heart of the problem: forcing the terrorists in Gaza to disarm.

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The United States has been a largely helpless spectator as the fighting between Israel and Hamas has continued this week. But rather than merely calling for restraint or trying to cajole Egypt into resuming its traditional role as broker between the two parties, Washington should be attempting to get at the heart of the problem: forcing the terrorists in Gaza to disarm.

Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly on his way to Cairo to persuade the military government there to play a more active role in diplomacy. However, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi takes almost as dim a view of the Obama administration as he does of Hamas, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood that he has been suppressing.

Sisi’s cooperation is crucial to ending the fighting quickly since in addition to demanding the release of terrorists by Israel, the Islamists want the border crossings from Gaza into Egypt opened. They also would like the Egyptians to facilitate the transfer of cash from Qatar and other foreign backers of Hamas. If Kerry’s message to Egypt is for Cairo to bend to Hamas’s wishes, it’s not clear whether Sisi will listen. But as much as Sisi accommodating Hamas in some way may seem the easy way out, it is doubtful that the Egyptian is so foolish as to think a rapprochement with Hamas will do his country or the cause of regional stability much good in the long run. Nor should Kerry be advocating such a policy.

The problem here is not whether Kerry helps construct another temporary fix that will merely set the region up for another round of rocket terrorism from Hamas the next time it wants to extract concessions from Israel or Egypt. Rather, the most constructive position that the U.S. could take would be for it to offer extensive help for Gaza but only if Hamas gets out of the terror business.

Just as the U.S. sought, with European and ultimately Russian assistance, for the Assad regime in Syria to be forced to give up its chemical weapons, so, too, now Washington should be working hard to force Hamas to give up its rocket arsenal.

To be sure, that may be something of a pipe dream. Hamas is at its very core a terrorist organization committed to violence and to use any tactics to achieve its goal of destroying Israel. But it must be understood that as much as the current conflict is driven by Hamas’s intransigent refusal to end the war on the Jewish state, its ability to go on fighting that war has been enabled by past decisions by the U.S. and Egypt to tolerate its hold on Gaza and to allow a status quo in which the Islamist group was allowed to not only stay in power but also to amass the arms with which it could seek to threaten the peace of the region.

Though Hamas is routinely depicted as being under terrible economic and military pressure, as Avi Isacharoff writes in the Times of Israel, it is quite content with its current position. Hamas’s leaders and their weapons stockpile are safe and sound in their bunkers and tunnels deep under Gaza’s civilian population centers. Their firing of rockets at Israel has boosted their popularity among a Palestinian people that is still fixated on their hatred of Jews and Zionism. And the rising toll of Palestinian civilians killed as the result of Israeli efforts to suppress the rocket fire has led to more sympathy for Hamas. Nor are they particularly daunted by the prospect of an Israeli ground operation in Gaza since they think it is unlikely to capture their key strongholds and bunkers and will only make Israel’s international position even more untenable and cause casualties on both sides to spike.

Thus, Hamas may feel like it can go on shooting at Israel indefinitely until Egypt or Israel gives up and makes a concession that will enable Hamas to declare victory, something that would also give it more leverage over their erstwhile Fatah partners in the Palestinian government. So while a cease-fire would be the best thing for civilians on both sides, it would be a catastrophe were the U.S. to be working toward a deal that would grant Hamas such a triumph.

As historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren wrote yesterday on CNN.com, the U.S. objective should be a deal that will call for Israel to lift its maritime blockade of Gaza and a massive infusion of foreign aid in exchange for the surrender of all of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and the return of control of the strip to the Palestinian Authority.

Without the demilitarization of Gaza and the end of its status as an independent Palestinian state in all but name—but one ruled by Islamist tyrants—there is no chance for peace for Gaza or the West Bank in the foreseeable future. Kerry, who devoted much of the last year to a futile and actually counter-productive round of peace talks that set in motion the series of events that led to the current fighting, must try and see beyond the immediate problems and realize that if the parties are not to be doomed to endless repetitions of this drama, the status quo in Gaza must be upended. If, instead, he signs on to yet another cease-fire proposal that will leave Hamas and its rockets in place, it will mean more than a guarantee of more fighting in the future. It will also ensure that any future peace efforts will be just as pointless as the ones Kerry just conducted. Rather than pressuring Egypt to help Hamas, Kerry should be marshaling international opinion behind a solution that will disarm the terrorists and give peace a chance.

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