President abdel Fattah Al Sisi is back in the news again after some time of relative quiet, at least in the Western press. The one most commented on is the national referendum coming up in which Egyptians will vote on a referendum which if passed with keep Al Sisi in power until 2032, at least. And of course it will pass. There is no doubt about that. To ensure that happens the Sate Security thugs are going around demanding shop keepers put up signs announcing their wholehearted support of the referendum. To add a bit of comic touch the shopkeepers have to pay the security thugs for the signs and putting them up. In Egypt one could say it is business as usual.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of General Al Sisi is being commented on in most of the Western press, and of course in some of the Middle East media, especially the Muslim Brotherhood news sources such as al Jazeera and tweets from ex- pat headquarters of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, now stationed in Turkey. Al Sisi has also seemingly made a turn toward the Russians again, with weapons, port rights and other warm and fuzzy deals. But who is this General Al Sisi anyway? And who are his enemies? After all the previous presidents of Egypt have not done well. Nasser died of a heart attack brought on by his massive failures in Yemen and the 1967 war, Sadat was assassinated, Mubarak went to prison, ( out now) and his successor Al Morsi has taken his place in prison. .
President al Sisi still seems to be a mystery to Western observers as to his basic motivations and beliefs. For instance one American periodical( The Middle East Quarterly) had dual articles, one proclaiming him to be an ultra Islamist in sheep’s clothing https://www.meforum.org/57907/egypt-sisi-reformer. and the other claiming him as a secular reformer.(https://www.meforum.org/57907/egypt-sisi-reformer
To be sure he has fooled a lot of people including the hapless ex President Mohammed Morsi who, believing him to be the model of a devout conservative Muslim, brought him in to serve as his top military commander, ousting the previous commander The Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, an old and ineffective commander as well as an ineffective politician…. a dual hat that all top generals in the Egyptian army must be in order to survive the frequent purges and fratricide inside the top echelon of the Egyptian army.
Indeed when he came into that position many Western observers, based on a paper he wrote at the US Army War College, branded him some sort of Islamic radical. I read it and would classify it as the same pedestrian boilerplate one reads every day in the Arab world. His wife and daughter were also observed wearing the Hijab, (the hair covering) which seemed to cinch the description of Al Sisi as a closet Islamist. His 17 page thesis on democracy in the Middle East opined that one of the main obstacles to democracy in the Middle East is the existence of Israel, the reasoning being that since Israel is a Western type nation and all Arabs resent Israel, the Arabs do not want anything like Israel,,,,or something along those lines. of course one wonders did he really write it?Doubtful but no matter.
Al Sisi emerged from the SCAF ( the Supreme Council of Armed Forces), a body designed to rule the country after President Al Morsi’s removal, to the top slot despite being relative junior to many of the other twenty plus generals and officials on the SCAF. He was described as energetic, and somewhat charismatic, as opposed to the ex president Hosni Mubarak (who spawned a thousand unflattering jokes) and the bumbling Muslim brotherhood front man Ex President Mohammed Al Morsi, a graduate of Southern California University. He could could not put a coherent sentence together in English. ((perhaps a telling comment on California universities?). He was once caught on national television scratching his testicles while conferring with a foreign dignitary.
As President, Al Sisi has demonstrated he knows how to rule Egypt, with a combination of Islamic exhortations and public piety., along with a continuing crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood and opponents whom the ubiquitous security agencies deem dangerous, which could be almost anyone with a public voice who evidences displeasure with al Sisi.
The previous President, Al Morsi, was a proponent of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB ) and was its point man, The MB is the most dangerous opponent of al Sisi’s rule, something the security agencies fully understand. It has been driven underground and its leadership is now residing in the warm embrace of the MB’s newest big daddy, Erdogan’s Turkey.
AL Sisi’s most dangerous threat
The Muslim brotherhood ( MB) has one very powerful attribute. It represents the beliefs and political orientation of many Egyptians, especially those of the middle or lower classes. It also, by tradition, has had a very tight organization with a cellular structure enabling it to survive the vicissitudes or various anti- MB regimes. A second very critical advantage is that is has a certain wide Islamic world appeal, supplemented by some quarters in the West viewing it as being a benign form of Islamism open to a sort of democracy. (A dangerous but politically correct form of ignorance.) This has enabled the MB to draw funding and support from across the globe. The Islamist doctrine has had many studies done in the West, most drawing a politically correct distinction between those of the Salafist Jihadis orientation and the MB. Despite the rather harsh and intolerant doctrine espoused by the founder, Hassan al Banna , drawing on the hysterically anti-western diatribes of Sayyid Qutb. Nevertheless the three piece suits of its Western proponents apparently are reason enough for its apologists to extoll its virtues. Its violent history records a number of attempted and accomplished assassinations of Government officials. The MB draws its main strength from the people with whom its has deep roots but these roots have not translated into coherent political action nor a unified direction of the party. One of its main attractions to the poorer segments of society was its charities and relief organizations that were far more efficient that government services. For instance when buildings collapse, which is a common occurrence in Cairo, given the non existent building standards, their emergency crews arrive at the scene long before the government services and are more sympathetic to the travails of the people.
. At times it has cooperated with the authorities to crush communists and leftist organizations ,and is therefore mistrusted by the liberals, left wing and many intellectuals as being untrustworthy and archaic.. While it a tightly organized group it never speaks with one voice, confusing its supporters, providing ammunition for its enemies who can select the voice they choose to highlight. It does not however confuse the intelligence apparatus of Egypt, that despite some high visibility failures, are pretty well integrated into the MB networks. The MB’s vacillating political directions, unclear Islamic doctrine, especially on minority rights, women’s rights, diffuse its potential power and give it an aura of a dinosaur in a modern world. Although patterned in structure in some respects like their arch enemy, the communists, they have never enjoyed the party discipline and have frequent personality splits which tend to degrade to overall effectiveness of the organization.Although the MB has a great record of being able to regenerate itself each crackdown, each crackdown removes dedicated members and requires an underground red building effort, which takes years.
The second most dangerous opponent of the Al Sisi regime is the various Jihadi organizations
.The basic strength of the Jihadi movement is the combination of dedicated religious beliefs, transcending love of life and at times a fanatical devotion to the cause. This supplemented by a leadership, that has been tried and tested and risen to the top by strength of personality, character and abilities. They have also the benefit of a sizable group of supporters and admirers throughout the Islamic world. There needs to be some distinction however in describing the Jihadis of the type that killed Sadat and those operating in the Sinai. A very good book to understand the origins of Al Qaeda and those Egyptians who established it is by Johannes .G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins, who killed Sadat not because of a peace pact with Israel as many Western experts would aver, but because Sadat had demonstrated that he was an apostate.The text which explained the assassin’ s doctrine called Al _Faridah al – Gha’ibah ( The neglected duty) is exhaustively analyzed by the author. The assassins of Sadat were urban, lower middle class, with some higher education. On the other hand, the Jihadis of the Sinai are mostly tribal villagers, with some of the older Al Qaeda ans ISIS leadership, conducting a hybrid war of terror and guerrilla warfare. As Jansen makes clear the Muslim brotherhood is a gateway to the Islamist extreme violence.
Their main weaknesses of the Jihadis are their relatively small numbers and division into competitive organizations. The Wilayat Sinai, formerly the Ansar Bayt al Maqdis , which has since morphed into an affiliate of the ISIS, has become the foremost terrorist insurgent group in the Sinai. Competing with them is the Sinai affiliate of the Al Qaeda organization which has always had a strong Egyptian component including the present leader Ayman al- Zawahiri. Added to these organizations are several smaller Islamist organizations, sometimes cooperating with each other, sometimes rivaling. . There is no doubt that the Al Qaeda and Wilayat Sinai organizations are perfectly capable of tactical cooperation at the local level, but their cooperation at a strategic level is doubtful. The tribal culture which predominates in the Sinai also impedes strong unity among the Jihadi groups as they have a tradition of shifting loyalties. Moreover Egyptian military attacks that entail civilian casualties have intensified Sinai villagers antipathy to the Egyptian military have also proven counter-productive to the objectives of Jihadist groups. . Moreover, Jihadi attacks on the military, which to a degree is a peoples army ( at least among enlisted soldiers who are all draftees) is not immensely popular either.
The unusually quick actions of the Army in meeting the threat and the penetration of the terror groups (and confronting terrorism with State terrorism) by the intelligence apparatus has been a critical factor in the limited ability of the terror groups to widen their conflict to Western Egypt. (Read Hazem Kandils’ excvellent book, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen. The military was able to seal off the conflict in the Sinai and by systematic destruction of tunnel systems to limit volunteers from the Gaza strip reaching the beleaguered Jihadis in th Sinai. The massive numbers of Egyptian troops making wide sweeps through the Sinai, inefficiently, but nevertheless effectively enough have kept the Jihadis off balance. The initial hope of the Jihadis that reinforcements might reach them via the western desert with Libya has proven to be unrealistic. Traversing one of the most forbidding deserts in the world is only possible with the assistance of local tribal Bedouin, who in the past have worked for the highest bidder, and cannot be relied upon. Overall the radical Islamists are somewhat disappointed by the lack of a massive public reaction against the re-institution of military rule. The radical Islamists have a tendency to over-inflate the popularity of their cause among the Egyptian people. Western and Arab media antipathy toward the Al Sisi regime have contributed to this
The greatest strength and perhaps threat, also , is the Military and security apparatus,
. The principal strength of Al Sisi’s regime is simply that it controls an immense, if sometimes ponderously cumbersome military force, with a near monopoly on weaponry. As the central nerve system of an institution which still maintains a high reputation and prestige among the Egyptian people. ( Read The Egyptian Military in Popular Culture by Dalia Said Mostafa. It maintains a centralized command and control system and at least outwardly presents a unified face to the public. While there may be differences of opinion within the military and security apparatus . they all share a commonality in self –preservation and a nationalist ideology that complements their conservative Islamic beliefs. Its prestige, which suffered after the 1967 war, was restored by the canal crossing in the 1973 war. Its ability to coalesce rapidly and overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohammed Morsi also enhanced its reputation, particularly among the middle and upper classes and many in the higher circles of business as well. President Mubarak somewhat took the military for granted, and did not lavish attention and funding on them as the leadership expected. As a consequence when the anti Mubarak turmoil began the army sat back and waited for developments. When pressed the Army spokesmen also anwsered “we are with the People.
The weaknesses of the Egyptian military are many, none fatal, but critical nonetheless. n The Suez crossing in 1973 was accomplished by a determined and relatively well trained army, embued with religious zealotry. After that the proficiency declined as the officer corps once again became infected with the traditional culture of wasta and bakhsish.. Corruption and lack of transparency are deeply entrenched features of the Egyptian political environment and a military government always becomes infected sooner or later.
In a military vein the Egyptian army, as the main arbiter of power within the overall military institutions, is a powerful and pervasive organization. It is a cumbersome, inflexible instrument with a history of over-centralization, uneven military performance, and complex command environment meant to prevent coups rather than fight external wars. Thanassis Cambanis, in his book Once Upon a Revolution ,described it as a …”mediocre, military at best,bad at basics, such as training and organizing battalions and worse at everything else.” Domestically, it until the events following the ouster of Mubarak, avoided domestic disturbances such as the low –intensity conflict against Islamist rebels in the early 1990’s. In that conflict most of the fighting was done by the Central Security Forces (CSF) and police. The CSF generally accept the lower quality of the incoming recruits and are not useful for much more that confronting protesting college students. In fact the CSF should also be viewed as a counter weight to the regular army. This is a common feature of Arab military establishments, in which separate ground forces are created as counter weights to forestall coups.
The Egyptian forces are trained and doctrinally disposed to fight large massive conventional wars and not counter-insurgency. They have anti-terrorist units but their performance has been poor as evidenced by the aborted hostage rescue operation on Cyprus in 1978. Over the years there has been some improvement but they still have an inadequate level of proficiency. The operations in the Sinai have been very poorly executed, as detailed by Mohannad Sabry in his book, Sinai. Quoting an Egyptian Colonel Khaled Okasha, commenting on the Egyptian operations in the Sinai, he said, “the lack of training and development of the security and military institutions was more destructive than corruption.” The usual Egyptian army operation in the Sinai consists of wide sweeping search and destroy missions which basically come up empty handed…… despite glowing communiques. One of the basic problems is that the East of Suez urban Egyptians view of the Sinai Bedouin as ignorant nomads.
The intelligence and Security apparatus is ubiquitous and omnipresent and despite some glaring failures, such as the assassination of Sadat, they have a massive network of informers and have been mostly successful in maintaining the power of the “deep State.”
As mentioned, the security apparatus is a strength, but paradoxically also a weakness in that its brutality and practice of swatting flies with a hammer have created a feeling of public loathing toward the intelligence and security agencies. To read how a decent Egyptian young man becomes Islamized read The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany and follow the story of Taha. The brutality of the security and intelligence apparatus has long been a feature of the successive Egyptian regimes. One only needs to read Naguib Mahfouz’s books in which he often referred to the State security agencies as “gangsters.” A very detailed history of the notorious Egyptian intellignce and security apparatus is found in the pages of
Under Nasser for a brief time, Egypt was the leader of the Arab world. The famous circles of Nasser, the Arab, the Islamic and the Africa were to intersect in A Cairo. Cairo was the Hollywood of the Arab world, the Nashville of popular music. It was also the literary capitol of the Arab world. Today, most of the more popular Ramadan series are produced in Turkey and as Fouad Ajami observed in his n book In this Arab Time, Egypt only published 375 books while Israel published 4000. This decline has come about partly party because Nasser over- reached himself in Yemen and against Israel. Also contributing to the decline, was Nasser’s institution of socialism with “an Arab face,” and the Islamic revival which has stagnated efforts to modernize. The crass edifices of glittering pseudo modernism is only a facade, and Cairo is but a shadow of its former self.
Peter Mansfield in his masterful biography of Nasser ( Nasser’s Egypt) concluded that if Egypt “emerges from social and economic backwardness the status of a developed nation.” then the 1952 revolution would be the seminal event of the 20th Century and if not Nasserism will leave as little impression as Italian Fascism.”
At this point it is manifestly obvious that, unfortunately, Nasserism contributed to the decline of Egypt not its development, and as result the Egyptians and President al Sisi must simply live within this inheritance. Al Sisi has his work cut out for him