The Danger of General Al-Sisi

Following the 1805 Cairo uprising against the Ottoman governor Khurshid Ahmad Pasha, Ottoman army commander Muhammad Ali was confirmed as ‘the people’s choice of governor’ of Egypt, one of many military leaders who have assumed control of the country. The most recent is Abdel Fattah al Sisi, a man who, at times, appears absurd, with a ruthless and intolerant outlook on opponents and many democratic freedoms, befitting of a Middle Eastern strongman. On occasion, the former Field Marshal would not seem out of place in a Richard Curtis comedy, recounting improbable, ludicrous anecdotes and conjuring cunning ‘Baldrick-would-be-proud’ ruses to secure his date with destiny. In December of last year he described a dream of a discussion with the former President Anwar Sadat, where Al-Sisi prophesises his ascent to the presidency ‘of the Republic,’ and another where he wields a sword with ‘there is no God but God’ embossed in red on the blade; he is a former Field Marshal who has never been to war; and despite blatant attempts to fix the election (the ‘authorities’ threatening $70 fines for those who didn’t vote and an official holiday called, which dovetailed nicely with the extensive backing of the media and the suppression of many democratic freedoms), turnout only registered 44.4%, a lower turnout than for the 2012 election which brought the now outlawed (at his behest one might add) Muslim Brotherhood to power. Evidently, he is not a humorous prospect, given the near-genocide attempted against his Muslim Brotherhood opponents, in the form of well-documented mass death sentences handed down against supporters and members and the massacring of hundreds of civilians during pro-Morsi demonstrations last August while he was still head of the army. The West has condemned Assad’s recent elections, who like Al-Sisi does enjoy a significant degree of public support, and attacked various referendums in the Ukraine; so, given their latest pronouncements, why are the US and the UK looking forward to working with Egypt’s new president?

On adopting this policy, or at least attitude, towards Al-Sisi, I wonder if the UK and US have given much consideration as to how this plays out in the long term and if the invasion of Iraq has taught them many lessons. In Iraq, the lack of forethought by the allies has not secured democracy and human rights for the Iraqi people, and has contributed towards, in one way or another, the existing crisis and the rise of extremist Sunni Islamist militants, the very type of group they aimed to defeat as part of their ‘War on Terror.’ Although it is not a Shia majority state like Iraq, there are parallels between Egypt and Iraq; Sunni Islam, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has been marginalised by the government and, from the Sinai desert, Egypt has been on the receiving end of Sunni extremist violence, just like Iraq. It marks one of the many areas in the world where Sunnis, moderates and conservatives, are being pushed to the periphery alongside the quashing of democratic freedoms, leaving them to see violence as their only viable option. While some may view Egypt’s policy towards Sinai militants as effective, the approach inevitably radicalises many and will continue to. While all this happens, the Salafists, who often believed the previous President Mohammed Morsi was not conservative enough, have not received the attention afforded to the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood, thanks to Saudi financial support towards Egyptian debt. Salafism is an austere form of Sunni Islam, often followed by Jihadists and fundamentalist groups like the ones currently routing Iraq.

Groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have gained strength from the marginalisation and violent repression of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, are rising in confidence and, probably as important as any factor, have an ever increasing supply of funds. They have played on the fears of many in this volatile region, which has helped them garner genuine support from some, albeit as a ‘least-worst’ option compared to Bashar Al-Assad and Nouri Al-Maliki respectively, hijacking the initially political revolution in Syria and contributing significantly to its descent in to sectarian strife. Given all this, is it really impossible to think that ISIL or an ISIL-splinter group would attempt something similar in Egypt in the near-ish future, taking into account the recent Egyptian tendency to revolt against its overly hardline leaders? This fairly real possibility should be a point of consideration for Western leaders. It is difficult to imagine that Al-Sisi would peacefully stand aside in the midst of another uprising, which would probably be led by Islamist factions, leaving the fruits of almost half a billion dollars of US aid to be deployed against some of his own people, only this time, with ISIL close by, the stakes would be at an all-time high.

When Muhammad ‘Ali came to power, one of his first moves was to rid himself of serious opposition, targeting the Mamluks; his soldiers tore through Cairo, grabbed anybody they believed to be a Mamluk and executed them. Quickly, the perceived Mamuluk threat was no more, exterminated, never to return. Sound familiar? Imagining another uprising, Al-Sisi of course reverts to his default setting of brutal repression. But now imagine the perceived threat disappearing like the Mamluks. This is rather more difficult to see, with ISIL on the march. Let us hope that the West is starting to learn some lessons in Middle East history.