Person of the year in regional affairs: Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

In 2013, Sisi stood up to domestic and international opposition to wrestle power over Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
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.
There 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 as well.
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.
Sisi 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 ruler.
“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 countries.”
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.
“Is 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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