QassamRocket (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Tyrus W. Cobb
With the hopes of a democratic Egypt emerging after the overthrow of the Mubarak government fading, the country remains with a failing economy, an authoritarian government, and a polity marked by continuing and violent protests. The United States, somewhat reluctantly, has supported the “transitional” government headed by General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi as the only viable alternative to a theocratic regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
But there is tension. The U.S. feels that el-Sisi and the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have done little to promote internal stability, economic progress, or democracy, and likely sees the regime as the current but less competent manifestation of the Hosni Mubarak military dominated government. The SCAF and el-Sisi, in turn, feel that America and the West have given insufficient support to the military regime and failed to back measures Cairo has taken to defeat not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but to suppress other groups with, they believe, Islamic fundamentalist objectives.
A vast majority of Egyptians supported the military coup that deposed democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi last June. Although Morsi won the Presidency through the electoral process, fears grew quickly that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood were taking steps to transform Egypt into a theocracy governed under Sharia Law. During Morsi’s year in power, Islamists implemented new dictates that sought to exercise almost total control over Egyptians’ personal lives and destroy any vestiges of a “decadent Western life style”. The war was not just on Christianity and the West–Morsi’s Sunni followers also sought to root out and destroy any vestiges of Shia Islamists.
The United States and the West were hesitant initially to support the SCAF and el-Sisi, as were many members of Congress and leading experts on the Mideast and global affairs. Still, most came to the conclusion quickly that while the new military government was unlikely to lead the country into becoming a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon, it was vastly preferable to the only viable alternative—the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration withheld some economic aid and transfers of military equipment, but for the most part continued the defense equipment commitments and monetary transfers.
Egypt spirals into turmoil, protests continue, and the economy sags
The United States could probably swallow its reservations and support the el-Sisi government if it demonstrated competency and brought domestic stability. Instead, the Egyptian economy is in dire straits, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to remain a major thorn, even underground, protests have become widespread, new radical groups have emerged, and the military regime’s popularity has waned.
Protest movements are growing nationwide. Not all the current demonstrations against the government are driven by Islamist organizations. A third position, taken by young revolutionaries who played a key role in ending the Brotherhood rule, are now terrified at the prospect of the return of a Mubarak-style police state. These protesters believe that increasing authoritarianism is the result of laws promulgated by an unelected government with no legislative authority, and that the regime refuses to permit even peaceful assemblies. They charge, correctly, that the police and security apparatus are employing indiscriminate repression against these protestors.
The regime has closed the offices of human rights organizations and jailed some secular activists, many of whom were pivotal in the overthrow of both Mubarak and Morsi. Criticism of the government is not permitted, television outlets are now instruments of conveying the regime’s messages, and the media is actively promoting the image of el-Sisi, as a heroic, sexy figure in a manner reminiscent of the shirtless photos we see so often of Vladimir Putin!
The Sisi regime and the SCAF face growing Islamic insurgents
The government still faces great difficulty in suppressing the remnants of the Brotherhood, despite draconian measures. No surprise there—the Brotherhood has roots deep in Egyptian society, especially in the rural areas. After 80 years of growing influence, the organization and its followers cannot easily be intimidated, jailed or suppressed. The war against the Brotherhood will be long and protracted, and the Muslim group may even gain strength if the military regime is unable to restore order and provide a better standard of living for its citizens.
The Sisi regime faces more and stronger opposition from Islamist groups in the future, ranging from the relatively moderate Sufi organizations to the more militant fundamentalist groups emerging across the country, especially in the Sinai. The Salafist Watan party, which has participated in the post-Morsi transition and has apparently won the military’s acceptance as a legitimate political force, seem to be breaking away from Sisi and the SCAF. The Nour party will continue to work with the government, but stresses that it cannot control its increasingly restive younger and more active members.
Other Islamist organizations are more threatening. They did lose substantial backing during the Morsi interregnum, but they remain well organized and have very motivated and ideologically oriented bases. Recently Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in Egypt, and its membership is growing. It began in the Sinai in 2011, operating primarily against Israeli interests. However, following the 2013 removal of Morsi and the Brotherhood, like many other Salafist groups in the country, it began to target and lash out against Egyptian security forces. The group’s membership, rhetoric and tradecraft suggest it has ties to Al-Qaeda.
There are many other groups of Sinai militants and radicalized Islamists also taking up the fight against Egypt’s security forces. With a healthy flow of weapons from Libya, and an abundance of Jihadists bearing grievances against the military government, it doesn’t look like el-Sisi and the SCAF can eliminate these groups. They will be bolstered in the future by many Jihadists returning from the fight in Syria, where they have learned valuable tactics and weaponry competence.
Still, most Egyptians give tacit if increasingly unenthusiastic support to the el-Sisi regime in its fight against domestic terrorism, and turn a blind eye to the excesses committed by the security apparatus. At least for now. Most Egyptians long for the reimposition of order, if not law, praying for internal stability and an improvement in the economy. That support is not as strong and widespread as it was just two months ago, particularly as the economy stagnates.
Economic conditions continue to worsen. The standard of living in Egypt three years after the revolution has deteriorated to the point that it is worse now than it was under GEN Mubarak. The latest data shows Egyptian cash reserves at under $19 billion, and that despite massive transfers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (over $7 billion with more pledged). Those transfers have done little, unfortunately, but bolster state employees’ salaries. The populace as a whole suffers from a lack of food, fuel and health care. The government has struggled to demonstrate that infrastructure investments will help the common man, it has not been able to control food prices, and gas and electricity shortages are staples citizens face every day.
The current economic trends do not bode well for the future. Egypt cannot continue to expect Gulf States’ generosity to continue indefinitely. The cliff is on the near horizon because the current level of spending is unsustainable, without which the economy faces collapse.
The Military Regime Brings Badly Needed Stability to the Region
The usurpation of power by the Egyptian military was welcomed by the Israeli government and caused great consternation in the Palestinian areas. If a Muslim Brotherhood government were still in power, Israel and the West would likely be confronted with difficult challenges in the Sinai, with respect to Suez Canal, and the ability for Palestinian activists to cause problems.
As one observer notes, NSF member Jeff Saperstein, “Israel is committed to Egypt’s security, along with Jordan’s as a vital interest. While no one in Egypt is singing Hatikva, the Egyptian military and intelligence services have a close relationship with their counterparts in Jordan, and likely Israel as well.” Together they have a common interest in keeping Al Qaeda and Jihadists out of Egypt, particularly out of the Sinai.
NSF participant Larry Martines comments that the Egyptian military is very hostile to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, unlike the previous Brotherhood government. Under Morsi, numerous smuggling tunnels from the Egyptian Sinai to the Gaza strip were opened. Previously, Mubark had stopped the flow of weapons by filling the tunnels. El-Sisi seems to be doing the same. Egypt is aggressively weakening Hamas in Gaza and clamping down on the import and export of weapons from that region.
Achieving order in the Sinai is a common objective for both Egypt and Israel, as Martines adds, “rather than restoring democracy to a population that has few civil institutions in place to support a transition to a democratic regime.” “The bottom line,” Martines continues, “democracy is our priority, but not that the majority of Egyptians today.”
Martines and Saperstein guess that after El-Sisi is elected, (98% is the usual margin for an Egyptian military dictator!) he will go after Hamas along with continued oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. They feel the US should be focused on women’s and minority (Christian and Coptic) rights while encouraging our allies to do more to strengthen Egypt’s economy.
The regime of General el-Sisi has a strong grip on the country’s media, at least outside of the social networking world. This control has largely insured that negative assessments of the regime are not heard. Interestingly, the state controlled media focuses blame for all its woes on two disparate entities—the radical Islamic organizations and lately, the United States and the West! The orchestrated campaign in the media charges that Western intelligence agencies have joined hands with the underground Brotherhood in an attempt to weaken the military’s rule. This is a transparent attempt to shift the blame for the weakening economy onto “foreign agents”, as well as a way of rationalizing state sponsored repression.
In spite of the regime’s control over the media, the popular overthrow of Morsi, which reached its peak in the mass demonstrations in June, 2013, seems to be reigniting, but this time against the military government. The hope of Tahir Square three years ago, and the brief glimmer of unity and progress that came in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow, have both given way to cynicism and despair. At present the battle between the Islamists and the restoration of the “old state” has been won by the military regime. However, the political struggle is far from over, with the regime facing increasing protests from the populace at large as well as from militant Islamist groups. Intense polarization, escalating violence, and growing repressive measures have replaced the never serious attempt to establish any semblance of democracy.
Back some six months ago, as the el-Sisi regime deposed the Brotherhood, I asked several experts for their views on what stance the U.S. should take with respect to the military coup and the new regime. Almost to a person, none exhibited much enthusiasm for Sisi nor much confidence in the regime’s capabilities. However, to a person, not one advocated supporting the Brotherhood and Morsi, even though they had been elected through a democratic process. It was, for many, a distasteful choice, but all felt that President Obama and the U.S. had little alternative but to back the new regime. Most also felt that America should continue to pressure the regime to initiate steps designed to return the country to a democratic process, while still acknowledging that the goal would have to be a distant one. Stability, the suppression of radical Islamists, and restoring economic vitality had to be the primary goals. I, like them, reluctantly agreed.
Many other experts agreed, for example Les Gelb at the Council on Foreign Relations. So did Israel and its supporters, like AIPAC. A retired 2-star who commanded a division in Afghanistan observed that instead of the instigators of the Arab Spring assuming leadership roles, it appears that those “who favor central control and an iron hand” will eventually emerge on top. He adds, “though I am not advocating it, there are things worse than order imposed by strong (usually military) central governments, especially in places where there is no tradition or experience with democracy”. The atrocities committed by the current government pale in comparison with that done by Islamism regimes elsewhere.
An experienced civilian with considerable time spent in Israel, warns that Egypt is indeed fighting a civil war. “There are two irreconcilable views now where the country is going”, and there must be no compromise with the radical Islamist parties. This not the Seattle or Vancouver, he warns—this IS the Middle East! He also advises us to take the criticism of the U.S. now prevalent with a grain of salt, because “blaming outside powers instead of fixing internal dysfunction is always the easiest course”.
From a regional stability standpoint, there can be no doubt that the El-Sisi regime is far more preferable to any alternative. Egypt, Jordan, and Israel appear to be cooperating behind the scenes with the common objective of eliminating Islamic radicals in the Sinai as well as in the Palestinian Territories. The vital Suez Canal remains open – it is doubtful that it would under a Brotherhood Regime.
It would seem, by way of conclusion, that the United States has few options here. There are really no centrist, secular, democratically oriented groups to support that have any chance to assume positions of power. The Islamist parties, be they Nour or Brotherhood or those now aligned with AQ, are all based on an inflexible opposition to the West and our values, and seek our destruction. The best we can do, it appears, is to provide soon to be President el-Sisi and the military regime with sufficient military and economic aid to be able to bring stability to the country. At the same time, to the extent possible, we should press the government to lay the ground for an evolution to democracy.
Tyrus W. CobbReno, February 14, 2014