Donald Trump is Going to Love Egypt’s Dictator

Vladimir Putin Abdul Fatah Sisi
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014 (Kremlin)

Call a spade a spade: Abdul Fatah al-Sisi is as much a president, with its democratic connotations, as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Egypt now rates a dismal 26 from 100 on Freedom House’s Freedom Index, just behind Qatar and barely above dysfunctional Iraq.

Some may quibble that Sisi is more a “strongman” than a dictator; in terms of political outcomes, that’s the difference between holding rigged elections and having no elections at all.

And now al-Sisi is coming to kiss the Trump ring. Read more “Donald Trump is Going to Love Egypt’s Dictator”

Egyptians Suffer as Sisi Consolidates Power

Even autocrats can’t have it all. Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi has been president for nearly two years, but he is still in the process of consolidating power.

Caught up in the power struggles are ordinary Egyptians who are suffering what rights groups describe as the harshest crackdown on dissent since Sisi legitimized his putsch in 2014.

The European Parliament on Thursday expressed concern about what it said was a pattern of “torture, death in custody and enforced disappearances across Egypt in recent years.”

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook writes that the situation is the result of struggles among the major players in Egypt who are seeking to protect their interests and turf. Read more “Egyptians Suffer as Sisi Consolidates Power”

Sisi’s Big Buyoff: A New Egyptian Capital

Cairo, Egypt, January 6, 2012
Cairo, Egypt, January 6, 2012 (Ville Miettinen)

Plans for a new Egyptian capital east of Cairo represent President Abdul Fatah Sisi’s most ambitious attempt to date to placate a restive population that ousted his two predecessors in street protests.

Unveiled at an investor conference in Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday, the new city — yet unnamed — would effectively extend Cairo as far as the port city of Suez on the Red Sea and house five million residents. Egypt’s government departments would move there to relief congestion in what is currently the third most densely populated capital city in the world, after Delhi and Paris. The overcrowded Cairo houses eighteen million people.

The project would also boost employment. A promotional website promises 1.7 million new jobs.

Which are desperately needed. An estimated 75 percent of Egyptians is under the age of 25. Although they are among the most highly-educated youngsters in the Arab world, with some 30 percent of Egyptians attending university, often free of charge, 39 percent of them were out of work in 2013, according to the most recent figures from the International Labor Organization.

High joblessness, the absence of affordable and quality housing, the perceived inability to start a family and general lack of confidence in the future contributed to the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and posed the most serious threat to Egypt’s army regime in half a century.

Although the revolution was hijacked by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — which won the country’s first free elections since the military took power in 1952 — it were tech-savvy young Egyptians who wanted more from the future than the corrupt Mubarak government could offer them that started it.

Sisi knows he can contain the Muslim Brotherhood. As army chief, he overturned the elections, deposed its president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013 and banned the group — again. (It was outlawed under Mubarak as well.) Probably thousands of its members were arrested and many remain in jail without ever having seen the inside of a courtroom. Sisi was elected president with strong popular support. If Egypt’s secret state can do one thing, clearly it is suppress an organization that made itself unpopular while in power anyway.

The economically illiterate Islamists were even less capable than Mubarak at delivering high enough growth for what is the largest Arab nation. They raised wages for civil servants when the budget was already more than 10 percent in deficit and imposed capital and price controls that drove up inflation, forcing even more Egyptians to turn to the black market for affordable goods. Egypt’s trade deficit exploded while food and fuel supplies were running short

Sisi’s administration has been wiser. It reduced fuel subsidies, which took up a fifth of government spending, and raised electricity prices. It introduced a 10 percent tax on stock market gains and plans to roll out a sales tax later this year. The International Monetary Fund said in February the reforms were starting to produce a “turnaround.”

Billions of dollars in aid from Arab Gulf states have also helped. The monarchies rushed in with cheap loans after Sisi removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, an organization they despise. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates need Egypt — which has the world’s twelfth largest army — as an ally and bulwark against the rising tide of political Islam in the Middle East. They promised another $12 billion in investments and deposits on Friday to prop up Sisi’s regime. It is a company from Dubai that would develop the new Egyptian capital.

However, higher employment and growth will only go so far to meeting the aspirations of Egypt’s youth. A shiny new city in the desert could be a symbol of what Egypt can be, or at least the sort of country they want it to be: clean, modern, “wired,” Western.

But it is a tough promise to keep in a country that also has a quarter of its population living in poverty, where, according to a 2013 United Nations study, virtually all women suffer sexual harassment at some point in their lives, where 74 percent of Muslims think sharia law should be implemented and only 2 percent have favorable opinions of Jews. A new capital might be a nicer place to live; it won’t necessarily be a better one.

Sisi may buy his regime time, giving young Egyptians “sustainable” jobs in a “global city” where they can finally start a family. But once they start thinking about the Egypt they want their children to grow up in, will they still be content with a repressive government run by generals and crony capitalists?

Sisi better design his new capital without a Tahrir Square of its own.

Don’t Admire the Big Man

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi of Egypt tour the Russian missile cruiser Moskva in Sochi, August 12, 2014 (Kremlin)

Surprisingly many Westerners admire the authoritarian leaders of other nations.

They should be careful what they wish for.

Accepting dictators as a necessary evil in the absence of an immediate alternative is one thing. Respecting them for what they are is quite another.

Comedian Jon Stewart ridiculed American rightwingers’ obsession with international strongmen on his The Daily Show Tuesday night, contrasting their fawning praise of Jordan’s king, Abdullah, Egypt’s Abdul Fatah Sisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin with their indignation whenever their own president, Barack Obama, oversteps the constitutional restraints on his office.

But there is more at play here than hypocrisy. It’s not just that those demanding “strong leadership” would — rightly — complain when it is exerted at home; their protestations reveal an unhealthy desire to be led and a misjudgment of what makes a political system sound.

A psychologist might have more to say about the former, but the fact that it is evidently still widespread in Western societies is worrisome. If only because those very societies have made the most progress in empowering the individual.

Who needs strong leaders?

A society with citizens who are informed and willing to take responsibility for their own lives doesn’t need “strong leadership.” It needs a leadership that respects personal autonomy and privacy.

Strongmen never do. They impose their values on others, mistrust citizens (and businesses) to make wise decisions and snoop into people’s private lives to see if they aren’t secretly insubordinate.

It may be unfair to put King Abdullah in this category, but Sisi and Putin clearly belong here.

It’s clear from when Sisi told Germany’s Der Spiegel this week that without him, Egypt would have slid into civil war and “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would have died.”

It’s clear from when Putin warned in 2012 that ethnic tensions would have torn Russia apart if it weren’t for him.

These men believe they’re the only ones who can save their an helpless people — a delusion that befalls dictators everywhere.

The delusion of one-man rule

If a country’s stability does hinge on the ability of one man, it has a big problem.

That’s the second thing Sisi’s and Putin’s admirers in the West fail to recognize.

One-man rule may offer the mirage of stability, but it is always structurally rotten.

What Egypt and Russia need is not stronger leadership, but a strong citizenry. They need a civil society that nurtures critical and informed citizens. They need bureaucrats who are competent and politicians who are accountable. They need a political system that channels grievances and settles disputes peacefully. And they could do with more entrepreneurs who create jobs independently of the state.

This doesn’t have to look like liberal democracy in the West. But if Egypt and Russia and countries like it are to escape from corruption, economic malaise, personal oppression and political ineptitude, they can’t continue to rely on “big men” who have so often failed them in the past.

Lesser of evils

What makes even less sense is for Westerners — who have all the things so many other countries need — to reject their traditions of representative democracy and rule of law and call in the man on horseback instead.

Sure, Western leaders can be feeble. But then does it make sense to them the power to act on their every whim?

Yes, Western leaders can be incompetent. But at least we can vote them out.

Given the choice between the spectacle of compromising, fudging and trepidation that we call politics in the West and the jailing — or worse — of dissidents, the expropriation of private property and the invasion of other countries supposedly “strong” leaders in Egypt and Russia are responsible for, I know which I’d prefer.

Egypt’s Sisi Sees Regional Islamist Threat, Promises to Support Iraq

President Abdul Fatah Sisi promised Egypt’s full support for Iraq’s embattled government on Tuesday, his office said, days after warning that the Middle East was being “destroyed” by radical Islamists.

While the extent of Egypt’s support for Iraq, which is struggling to put down an uprising by Sunni militants, is unclear, Sisi’s promise marks a complete reversal from the policy of his predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, whom he deposed as army leader last year. Read more “Egypt’s Sisi Sees Regional Islamist Threat, Promises to Support Iraq”

Egypt Elects Former Army Chief Sisi President

Egypt’s former army chief Abdul Fatah Sisi won a resounding victory in the Arab nation’s presidential election on Wednesday, seemingly turning back the block to before the “Arab Spring” uprising that forced the former air force commander Hosni Mubarak out of office.

The outcome was never really in doubt. Among his supporters, the retired field marshal and former defense minister is seen as the strongman who can restore calm to Egypt after more than three years of political unrest. Even many liberal and secular Egyptians who demonstrated against Mubarak voted to effectively hand control of the country back to the military.

Sisi’s only challenger, the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, got just 3 percent support, provisional results released early Thursday showed. Read more “Egypt Elects Former Army Chief Sisi President”

Egyptian Army Chief Sisi Declares Presidential Candidacy

Egyptian army chief Abdul Fatah Sisi on Wednesday declared his candidacy for a presidential election he is expected to win easily.

“I am here before you humbly stating my intention to run for the presidency of the Arab Republic of Egypt,” Sisi said in a televised address.

Among his supporters, the field marshal, who is due to step down from his military posts in order to contest the election, is wildly popular. Most Egyptian media have for months lionized him as the only man capable of restoring order after more than two years of political unrest. But his victory would turn back the clock to before Egypt’s 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising that forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander, to resign. Read more “Egyptian Army Chief Sisi Declares Presidential Candidacy”

Egyptian Army Chief Sisi to Announce Presidential Candidacy

Egyptian army chief Abdul Fatah Sisi has decided to stand in a presidential election that is due to be called within two months, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah reported on Wednesday. If he wins, it could turn back the clock to before Egypt’s 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising that forced the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force commander, to resign.

The report, which has yet to be corroborated by official sources, follows months of propaganda in the Egyptian media that has presented Sisi as the only man capable of restoring order after more than two years of political unrest. He is unlikely to face a serious challenger. Read more “Egyptian Army Chief Sisi to Announce Presidential Candidacy”

Egypt’s Army Deposes Morsi, Installs Transitional Government

A soldier in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Egypt, February 6, 2011
A soldier in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Egypt, February 6, 2011 (Wikimedia Commons/Sherif9282)

Egypt’s defense chief Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi announced on Wednesday night that the army had installed the nation’s chief justice Adli Mansour as interim head of state until elections can be held, deposing the elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

Sitting behind Sisi were Coptic Pope Pope Tawadros II and Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading Christian and Muslim clerics, as well as liberal opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief. Sisi said a roadmap had been agreed by a range of political groups and promised the formation of a national reconciliation committee that would include representatives of youth movements. The second largest Islamist party Al-Nour signaled its support for the process.

ElBaradei said the coup would “rectify the course of the revolution” that started more than two years ago with the removal of longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

The army chief of staff, who also serves as defense minister, said the Constitution, which was written by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhod and approved in a referendum last year, had been suspended. Many secular Egyptians opposed the law which they argued didn’t adequately protect the rights of minorities, including Christians and women.

Army troops and personnel were deployed in Egypt’s major cities on Wednesday after a deadline set by the military leadership for political reforms had passed without concessions from Morsi’s government. The president’s national security advisor accused the army of staging a coup while the vice president of his Islamist party said that “remnants of the former regime” were “trying to abort our glorious revolution and reinstate themselves.”

The army had issued Morsi an ultimatum on Monday, giving him 48 hours to meet the “people’s demands.” It was made a day after mass demonstrations swept Alexandria, Cairo and other cities and four non-Islamist cabinet ministers had resigned.

While the army insisted that it would “not be a party to the circle of politics or rule,” it vowed to present a “roadmap” of its own if Morsi failed to comply.

Despite the military’s call on all parties to “shoulder the responsibilities for the historical moment which the nation is going through,” opposition groups on Wednesday refused to meet with representatives of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood who, in turn, refused to speak to the military. Senior members of the armed forces did meet with opposition groups earlier in the day, they said.

In a televised speech Tuesday night, Morsi had rejected the army’s demands. “If the price of preserving the legitimacy is my blood, then I am ready to pay that willingly for the sake of this homeland and its stability,” he said.

A 51.7 percent majority of Egyptians elected Morsi in presidential elections last year but dissatisfaction with his Muslim Brotherhood’s economic mismanagement and attempts at desecularization brought millions of Egyptians to the streets again last week, two years after a similar uprising prompted the army to force Mubarak out of office.

The transitional government will face the very economic and fiscal challenges Morsi failed to cope with.

Ashraf Khalil writes for Foreign Affairs magazine that Qatar was one of the main backers of the Muslim Brotherhood government. “If Morsi is indeed ousted, that supply of vital Qatari largesse might just dry up,” he suggests, “leaving the transitional government scrambling for emergency relief.”

Egypt got $5 billion in aid from Libya and Qatar as recently as April, the same it owed oil companies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which abhor the Muslim Brotherhood and were among the first countries to send congratulations to the interim government, might help plug the hole. But while Egypt is running a $32 billion annualized trade deficit, support from other Arab nations can give it no more than a few months of breathing room.

The United States suspended $1 billion in aid after violent protests took place outside their embassy in Cairo last year.

Army Chief Warns Egypt on the Brink of Collapse

Egyptians demonstrate in Cairo, January 25, 2012
Egyptians demonstrate in Cairo, January 25, 2012 (Lilian Wagdy)

Egypt’s army chief warned on Tuesday that political unrest in the country is pushing it to the brink of collapse.

Colonel General Abdul Fatah Khalil Al-Sisi, who succeeded Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as commander-in-chief of the Egyptian armed forces last year and also serves as defense minister, wrote on an official army Facebook page, “The continuation of the struggle of the different political forces […] could lead to the collapse of the state.” Read more “Army Chief Warns Egypt on the Brink of Collapse”