In 2013, Egypt’s military chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, stood up to domestic
and international opposition in order to take absolute power of the country from
the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following wide-scale public protests, Sisi led a
military coup that ousted president Mohamed Morsi in what has become one of the
major events leading to a backlash against the “Arab Spring,” returning the
region toward the status quo ante.
The rise of Islamists on the back of
popular protests had its regional momentum drastically cut by the mismanagement
and dictatorial manner of Morsi. For example, in Tunisia, the Gaza Strip and
Turkey, Islamist-led governments have been faltering, and in Syria and Jordan,
strong rulers have been boosted against opposing Islamist forces.
is intense media speculation in Egypt that Sisi might run for president in the
upcoming elections and continue the tradition of military leaders, which began
in 1952 with Gamal Abdel Nasser. A strong nationalist leader of the Free
Officers Movement, Nasser overthrew King Farouk and moved to abolish the
constitutional monarchy, leading to a series of dictators who came from the army
Unlike Arab states that lack a well-established historical
identity, Egypt has long been the bellwether of the Arab and Islamic world, and
observing where it goes from here could provide a possible framework for where
things could go elsewhere.
Nasser’s pan-Arabism mesmerized the Arab
masses, and Egypt’s union with Syria, forming the United Arab Republic from 1958
until 1961, was a result of such forces. Pan-Arabists argued that the mandate
system imposed by Britain and France after World War I had divided the Arab
nation, and they demanded that it be rejoined.
However, as Fouad Ajami
wrote in his famous “The End of Pan-Arabism,” it took the dramatic loss to
Israel in the 1967 Six Day War to bring about its dissolution. The ideology had
crumbled under the weight of reality, where military men, religious ideologues,
tribes and ethnic factions jockeyed for power in the security state.
seemed to recognize this in a 2006 paper titled “Democracy in the Middle East,”
which he wrote while studying at the US Army War College.
In it he argues
that “existing conflict and tension needs to be resolved before democracy can be
more fully accepted by the people of the area.” He goes on to note that the
challenge today is similar to that faced at the beginning of Islam: uniting
“these tribal and ethnic factions.”
“On the surface, many of the
autocratic leaders claim that they are in favor of democratic ideals and forms
of government, but they are leery of relinquishing control to the voting public
of their regimes,” writes Sisi, echoing perhaps his own thoughts and his
reluctance to cede power.
He then justifies a strong dictatorial
“There are some valid reasons for this. First, many countries are
not organized in a manner to support a democratic form of government. More
importantly, there are security concerns both internal and external to the
He also refers to Iraq as a “benchmark for testing democracy
in the Middle East.”
Going into 2014, it is overwhelmingly clear to many
observers, and to Sisi himself, that democratic state-building by the US failed
in Iraq as sectarian tensions proved too difficult to bridge. If he is following
his own advice, the Egyptian ruler likely sees the Iraqi example as a good
reason for resistance to American pressure, a strong crackdown on the Muslim
Brotherhood and establishment of a secure military-backed regime.
transitioning to democracy in the best interest of [the] United states, or is it
in the interest of the Middle Eastern countries?” he writes in the paper, adding
that the emergence of democracy is not likely if it “is perceived as a move by
the United States to further her own self-interest.”
Hence, Sisi is
likely to continue charting an independent path in 2014 – ignoring some
criticism he is likely to receive from the US and Europe, but trying to maintain
strong relations with them at the same time. And, just in case, he probably will
continue seeking alliances with other powers, such as Russia and China.
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