Is Sisi the solution?

It is doubtful whether the anticipated election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president will end the turmoil in Egypt.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Morsi370 (photo credit: Reuters)
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Morsi370
(photo credit: Reuters)
THE DOMESTIC power struggles in Egypt over the past three years can be likened to a series of gigantic waves, each one reshaping the country anew.
The first wave came in the form of a civil rebellion in January 2011, which culminated in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 18 days later. The second was driven by widespread opposition to the subsequent takeover by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The third saw the free election of the Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi as president in June 2012, and his overthrow within the space of just over a year.
The direct intervention of the army and the security agencies in the conduct of the nation’s affairs and the presidential bid by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now a civilian, marks the beginning of the fourth wave. Given this volatility, the possibility of yet another wave washing over the country cannot be ruled out.
The historical starting point for an understanding of the current struggle is the Free Officers’ Revolution of July 1952. After they overthrew the monarchy, the officers laid the foundations for an authoritarian regime based on the military and the long arm of the internal security agencies. It consolidated its hold on power under presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
In January 2011, two slogans reverberated across Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The first, that “the people want the fall of the president,” was achieved in a heroic 18-day struggle by civil society in which about 800 protesters lost their lives. The second, that “the people want the fall of the regime” has yet to be achieved.
This resounding failure led to deep disillusionment over the chances of achieving significant change in Egypt. It was largely the result of the residual predominance of the military and the security agencies, and the moves on political power made by their leaders. But it is not simply more of the same.
The uprising instilled in tens of millions of Egyptians a new political consciousness, the essence of which is profound resistance to a return to the old-style authoritarian regime.
Few in Egypt had heard of General al-Sisi before then-president Morsi appointed him defense minister and chief of the armed forces. The change in the upper echelons of the military was meant to strengthen Morsi’s hand and that of his main support base, the Islamist Muslim Brothers. It was backed up by dozens of appointments of Morsi cronies to senior positions, the transfer of sweeping powers to the president and crude presidential intervention in the drafting of a new constitution.
These moves triggered widespread opposition to Morsi and the Muslim Brothers, primarily from civil society groups, the security agencies and the army.
MILLIONS OF Egyptians joined the campaign for new presidential elections. There was an atmosphere of impending confrontation, threatening to spill over into violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the president. At this critical juncture, Sisi made his move, forcing the elected president out of office and publishing a controversial road map for solving the crisis.
This dramatic move marked the beginning of the fourth wave of the revolution that began in January 2011. The 59-year-old Sisi, who in the meantime had been promoted to field marshal, emerged as a leader who does not flinch from taking harsh measures against his opponents.
A mass demonstration of supporters of the overthrown president near the Rabia al- Adawiya Mosque in Cairo was brutally dispersed, with around 1,000 civilians killed, and many more injured and/or imprisoned; the Muslim Brothers was declared a terrorist organization; thousands of its activists were arrested and its leaders put on trial on serious charges, including treason; over 500 were sentenced to death, pending appeal; the Brothers’ assets were impounded; a nationwide campaign of delegitimization was launched; a night curfew was imposed in the main cities; and a tough new demonstration law decreed, designed to curb further Islamist protest.
Sisi’s iron-fist policy won wide support from the “liberal” camp and among groups identified with the Mubarak regime. However, civil society activists identified with the January Revolution against Mubarak sounded loud warnings against the return of the police state. But their attempts to rekindle a significant protest movement were aggressively crushed. Hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands arrested in clashes with the armed forces. Testimonies on human-rights violations and widespread use of torture appeared on a daily basis.
There was also a serious breakdown in internal security. The escalating confrontation between the security forces and militant Islamist groups in the Sinai spilled over into the major cities, including Cairo. Attacks were aimed mainly at the armed forces and around 300 men in uniform were killed, deepening the sense of insecurity among the civilian population as a whole. The regime accused the Muslim Brothers of responsibility for the wave of terror, without submitting any evidence to back its claims. Nevertheless, public opinion polls pointed to growing support for the army, especially for Sisi, now perceived as a man ruthless enough to crush the terror and restore stability.
THE FOURTH wave has also seen significant changes in Egypt’s foreign relations and national security policy. Most dramatically, Sisi made a 180 degree turnaround in Egyptian policy towards Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brothers. Whereas Morsi had been strongly supportive of the Gaza-based sister organization, the new military regime accused Hamas of interference in Egypt’s internal affairs and of aiding and abetting terrorist groups in Sinai. The Egyptian army sealed hundreds of smuggling tunnels on the border with Gaza and movement from Gaza into Egypt across the Rafah crossing point was drastically curtailed.
The uncompromising campaign against the Muslim Brothers and Hamas created a severe crisis in relations with Qatar, which had generously bankrolled the Morsi government.
The influential Qatar-based Al- Jazeera TV covered the Muslim Brothers protests sympathetically, while sharply criticizing the “army coup.” Similar censure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked tension between Cairo and Ankara.
On the other hand, Egypt’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates grew significantly closer. Over the past few months, the oil-rich Gulf States transferred about $12 billion to the depleted Egyptian exchequer and a new axis in inter-Arab politics began to take shape.
There were also extremely significant shifts in Egypt’s relations with the US and with Israel. The Obama Administration did not hide its displeasure at the way Morsi was removed from office, but stopped short of calling it a military coup. Washington took measured steps against the new Egyptian regime and was careful not to cause a rupture that might be difficult to mend. For example, it ordered the freezing of about $250 million of the annual $1.3 billion in foreign aid to Egypt and withheld the transfer of four F-16 fighter planes.
Cairo, however, rejected the American reservations out of hand, and, in an act meant to send the Obama Administration a strong message, Sisi went to Moscow to discuss the possibility of Russian arms supplies.
Bitter anger at the US was reflected in Egyptian public discourse. The 35-year-old strategic partnership between Washington and Cairo sank to its lowest ebb – and if the trend continues, it could have a regional impact well beyond the relationship between the two countries.
On the other hand, there has been a marked upturn in Egyptian-Israeli ties.
Despite the fact that Morsi’s Egypt kept its commitments under the 1979 Peace Treaty, Israel was deeply concerned at the prospect of the Muslim Brothers consolidating its position in Egypt and looked on anxiously at the growing cooperation between Cairo and Hamas in Gaza.
Morsi’s overthrow and the return of the generals was received with open joy in Jerusalem.
Israel was naturally delighted at the change in Egypt’s position on Hamas and the resolute action of its armed forces against militant groups in Sinai. The Israeli-Egyptian security dialogue was significantly upgraded, and Israel agreed to an appreciable increase in the size of Egyptian forces in areas of Sinai that under the peace treaty are supposed to be demilitarized.
Moreover, Israeli officials worked through diplomatic and PR channels to mitigate international criticism of the radical steps taken by the new Egyptian leadership.
In current circumstances, a Sisi victory in the forthcoming presidential election will not come as a big surprise. His supporters hope to curb the vicious cycle of violence and instability. The wide-ranging powers the new constitution confers on the president and the security forces could help the field marshal-cum-president impose law and order.
But civilian support for Sisi and the army’s continued involvement in the affairs of state is tenuous and could prove fleeting. The January Revolution created a significant change in political consciousness, especially among the young. Many oppose restoration of the authoritarian regime and see in Sisi a new potentially dictatorial pharaoh.
Sisi’s entry into the presidential palace will be a significant milestone. But it is doubtful whether it will be the January Revolution’s last wave.
Prof. Yoram Meital is Chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev