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.