General Sisi: An enigma without a dogma

August 19, 2013

CAIRO — The man who presently rules Egypt, General Abdel Fattah Said al-Sisi, is an enigma. He’s even more inscrutable because he is not — to misquote Churchill — an enigma wrapped in a dogma. He’s too slippery to be filed under any kind of label. Depending on where you sit, that’s either alarming or reassuring.

A devout Muslim, he deposed a devoutly Muslim president. The boss of a military that slaughtered some 1,000 Egyptians in the past few days, he gave a speech on Sunday in which he said there was “room for everyone” in Egypt. Having smashed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, he appeals in the same speech for its supporters to “help rebuild democracy.” He isn’t even officially the ruler of Egypt — he retains his old post as defense minister, and is “only” first deputy prime minister. But the president, Adly Mansour, is “acting,” and the prime minister, Hazem al-Beblawi, is “interim.” Sisi put them there, sustains them there and as head of the armed forces, he’s as close as you can get to permanence. He’s the government Egypt has. 

The short thesis he wrote while at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2006, called “Democracy in the Middle East,” has been much commented on for its view that democracy can only be developed in the Middle East using a Muslim model. He makes clear, though, that it would be a “moderate” kind of Islamic government, requiring support from the West, with the mission both to sharply raise educational standards and to liberalize the economy. He thinks that properly elected governments, even of extremists, should be allowed to govern — a savage irony in light of his recent actions. In another ironic observation, he wrote that the media should be free to publish diverse points of view. Does he still hold to any of this?

He has stunned the Egyptian capital into a temporary stasis — what we journalists call an “uneasy calm.” The curfew, beginning at 7 p.m., has been largely observed. The squares from which the Islamists were cleared are now littered with wreckage, stained with blood and largely deserted — except by the army. So, too, is Tahrir Square, where the anti-Mursi oppositionists rallied; the nearby metro station is closed, the tanks are in place. The big rallies on Sunday — a working day in a Muslim country — were outside Cairo, as were the most recent slaughters. Thirty-six arrested militants likely (accounts varied) choked to death when police threw tear gas into the prison van, perhaps after a riot. Elsewhere, 25 police officers were executed by militants in Sinai as they were going off duty.

Because we in the West, and especially in Europe, see political evil though our own experiences, we tend to label regimes like Sisi’s “fascist” — a label the New Republic tried at length to make stick.

Some years ago, the famed Egyptian novelist, Alaa al-Aswany, wrote a column warning against the twin ”fascisms” facing Egypt — the religious and the military (it was written during the reign of President Hosni Mubarak, whom he put in the second camp). Aswany now believes that the deposed Mursi was in the first camp, seeing him as the leader of a religiously inspired fascism. But, as with many intellectuals and secularists, Aswany does not believe that the army coup, and the army-appointed government, is anything like fascism. On the contrary, he told Italy’s Corriere della Sera on Sunday, “if the army had not intervened, the Islamists would have destroyed the country…it’s the people that want the skin of the Brotherhood.”

In the same article, his fellow novelist, the Islamic scholar Youssef Ziedan agreed, saying, “The army is doing its duty in protecting the country from barbarism; had they not been stopped, the Muslim Brothers would have wiped out the whole country and its thousands-of-years old culture.” This isn’t the view of a few out-of-touch writers: it’s common, even after the massacres.

Fascism isn’t a word to be thrown around: it can’t just be a synonym for nasty. Those who led the fascist movements in the first half of 20th century Europe did have a dogma. It was composed of extreme nationalism, imperial conquest and (more in Adolf Hitler’s case) racial purity — with these ends justifying all means. Their speeches and writings were clear on their views and on their likely policies. Neither had much time for religion; they saw their job as remaking their peoples into new men and women, inspired by nationalism, by conquest and, of course, by their supreme leaders.

Mursi was an incompetent politician who also had a dogma — that of a caliphate inspired by Allah’s teachings and laws, uniting all Muslims, or at least Muslim Arabs. But neither he nor the Brotherhood had any notion of how to achieve it. Left in power, he would have continued to try to Islamize the state, but his inability to reform the economy and its continued collapse would have stimulated a revolt from below. The Brotherhood was, to be sure, a hierarchical organization contemptuous of moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But the Nazi Party it wasn’t.

Sisi acts brutally but talks sweetly. His “room for everyone” quote sends, hopefully, a message to the embattled Christian Copts that the burning of dozens of their churches and the killing of as yet uncounted numbers will not be protected in the future. In the meantime his remark “we (the army) are cautious about every drop of Egyptian blood” is nauseating. There is too much evidence of the contrary. Security forces have at times abandoned any attempt to contain the protests without violence. He may yet, in the future, have to be arraigned for his stewardship of the military at its time of murderous shame.

But for now? Which Sisi — the brutal or the sweet — is the future Sisi? Has the brutality been a sign of more to come, and of a military dictatorship at least as repressive as that of Mubarak? Or will Sisi still be impelled by the ideals he laid out seven years ago while at war college? Back then he claimed, “It is important that these [Arab] democracies demonstrate a better way of life through representative government.”

Everything that comes next depends on whether he still believes that — now that he has the power to see it through.

PHOTO: Palestinians burn a poster of Egypt’s army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a rally in support of Egypt’s deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi and in protest of the recent violence in Egypt, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip August 17, 2013. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa


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He says there is room for everyone, and the Muslim Brotherhood says there is room for no one except their followers.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I can see that this article is biased like many articles in the western media.As many people live far away from the scene, they may not have seen the full picture. What some western media consider a political Crisis in Egypt is considered by most of the Egyptians as the right step for the good of Egypt. Most of Egyptians have little sympathy for Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood or their supporters. That’s why Egyptians feel bitter from the twisted coverage of the events by most of the western media.
You have accused General Al Sisi with committing brutal actions, which means that you didn’t see the criminal acts agains churches, mosques, museums, soldiers on duty, raising the flag of Al Qaida and firing on innocent people. That’s why, every action taken by the Egyptian army towards eliminating terrorism, people heap praise on Egypt’s military. We Egyptians are very proud of our army. It is not like any other military force in the world. Through history the Egyptian army proved to be standing by the side of the people and siding with its will. We are very confident in our army and we sleep in peace while they risk their lives to protect our nation.
The military would never hurt Egyptians for no reason. General Al Sisi is not ruling Egypt as you claimed. he is the man in charge of national security and he is doing his duty like any other man in his position in any other country in the world. What is introduced to the world as a civil war or clashes between different political parties in Egypt is absolutely wrong. It is a country fighting terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t leave any third option. Its eather to rule the country or to burn it. I advise you to see the Egyptian local media to understand what’s really going on.Perhaps you have heard about shooting 25 soldiers this morning after tying their hands behind their backs. The Muslim Brotherhood’s brutal actions are not new. and It is not a shocking response to us. The Brotherhood refused to leave the streets, seeing this as a fight for its survival. Armed members of muslim brotherhood are roaming neighborhoods and attacking people. The military and police are doing what is expected out of them to protect the society from terrorist acts. Their leaders threatened for fourty eight days to burn Egypt if their Morsi wasn’t released and reinstituted as president..The Egyptians ousted Morsi because he violated human rights during his rule. He filled the state with his own supporters and excluded others.This is not a coup it is our great army saving Egypt from terrorism. And Generla Al Sisi is a man who is saving Egypt. If you want people to believe you do some more effort trying to know the whole truth.

Posted by gargawi | Report as abusive

Muslim brotherhood are the Islam version of the Nazis. Islam generally in full operation is the most religious Nazis of all other religions and ideologies.
“Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way.
Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!”
It is worst than Nazis for the facts that no Nazi really wants to die for their cause.

Posted by all4all | Report as abusive

Mr. Lloyd, Sissi is a dictator. He killed 1000 people.

When the clerics in Iran killed 90 people, everybody cried wolf. This guy kills thousands, and you say he could be the “sweet Sissi that promotes democracy”.

Mr. Lloyd you truely are an American/Isreali apologist!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Actually al-Sisi’s label is “continued power for the Egyptian military.” Period. That’s all. If fighting Israel is the way to do it, then they fight Israel. If fighting the Muslim Brotherhood is the way to do it, they fight them. The so-called liberals will get their turn when they realize what they’re dealing with—that Mahmoud Badr little kid will be crying out from his cell but won’t be no one left to save him. To bad so sad. Yes, life goes on in Egypt and the military stays in power and reaps the benefits for its members—and there are plenty of scrumptious benefits believe you me.

Posted by mustafaspeaks | Report as abusive

The tradgedy is a direct consequence of Obama’s interference by sending bombs in America’s name to topple Egypt and Libya.for his beloved Muslim Brotherhood. It seems the only promise Obama has kept is to Radicle Muslims when he wrote “I will stand with them (Muslims) should the political winds shift in an ugly direction”. this is what the Administration called the “Arab Spring”, and that which it has assisted, nurtured and supported.We have seen next to nothing about the persecution of Christians in the mainstream media or press. The seeming embrace by the Left of Islamism. Obama brought the Muslim Brotherhood into our White House; no one but Obama did this. He brought George Soros into our White House, an anti-Semite who aided the Nazi’s and a financial terrorist who is making billions off the economic misery Obama has purposely caused in our country. Many Americans fail to understand this while the media hides the truth. From corrupt dictators (e.g. inviting President Ali Bongo of Gabon to the White House) to domestic terrorists (e.g. Bill Ayers) to self-proclaimed Communist/Marxist (e.g. Van Jones), these, and many more like them, are the people Obama brings into our White House… these are his friends and associates.
Do you know people like this? Do you work with people like this? Would you appoint three Muslim Brotherhood members to the White House if you were President?

Posted by jude2007 | Report as abusive

Mr Morsi is in prison. You may not have liked him, but he was not a criminal.

Mr Mubarak is to be free. He was a criminal.

That tells you all you need to know about Mr Sisi.

The Egyptian elite hate the Brotherhood because they are the representatives of the great unwashed.

Mr Sisi is prepared to invoke nationalism to justify his seizure of power and his murderous campaign against the Brotherhood. I wager he will also be able to use the Coptic minority as scapegoats for his unavoidable economic failure.

I am not so sure fascist is an inappropriate label.

In short, the brothers has one ear to sort Egypt out, after the military had over 50 years of failure. Is it then fair to call them incompetent? How much better will Mr Sisi have done after 1 year in power?

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

Can’t agree more Dafydd. Egypt was under Mubarak for 30 years – I wouldn’t say it oppression since I was not there to experience it – but real political reform was when Egypt held the first free election for a government. There are a lot to be fixed, 30 years worth of administrative mess and Egyptians (opposition) were expecting things to be sorted out in a year?? What is the point of having 4-5 years term for election, you should have set it one year election term!

Posted by tonex | Report as abusive

The author clearly does not understand Egypt. At all.

Posted by JayfSoCal | Report as abusive