This week ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi paid his inaugural visit to the United States as president of Egypt. The occasion was the annual meetings of the UN General Assembly. We asked some veteran Egypt watchers and MERIP authors for their reactions.
More significant than what ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi says before the UN this week is what his presence signifies. His first address to the “international community” caps a year-long effort to normalize his seizure of power on July 3, 2013 and banish the taint of putschism that clings to him like a noisome aroma. Sisi’s metamorphosis from plotting general to pontificating president has not been seamless, but neither has it encountered the widespread popular resistance one would have predicted in a country undergoing tectonic political shifts.
Sisi’s authorization of unbridled state violence against opposition in the first three months after his coup saw to it that most Egyptians were too cowed or too worn out to decry the state-orchestrated killings of their fellow citizens. Even relatively tiny enclaves of rhetorical dissidence were not ignored, but instead were steamrolled by a propaganda machine hailing “the return of state prestige.” Just as Tahrir is now a global byword for people power, so haybat al-dawla is the Egyptian contribution to the world’s stock lexicon of counter-revolutionary statism. Order, work and inequality are the three pillars: The state will reestablish order. The people should get back to work and overlook how inequitably the fruits of production are distributed.
Sisi and his fellow generals are not alone in recasting the Egyptian revolution as a regrettable episode of instability and chaos. A constellation of domestic and international actors is eagerly providing moral and material support for glossing over the military takeover of Egypt’s politics. Key here is the age-old tactic of changing the subject from politics to economics. Days before Sisi’s arrival in New York, the world’s economic mandarins lent him their seal of approval, lauding his fuel subsidy cuts and advertising his summit in February seeking foreign donors beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council states. With no irony, The Economist characterized Sisi’s assumption of the presidency as a “strong electoral win,” declaring that he has “brought hope to Egyptians wearied by years of political turmoil” while tastefully tsk-tsking his “reliance on heavy-handed police to silence dissent.”
There’s no surprise in the global embrace of the fiction that ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi is Egypt’s elected president, embarking on a promising path of economic recovery. And it’s tedious to rehearse the cynicism and hypocrisy of framing mass killings, arrests and death sentences as mere unfortunate occurrences. But one can still register wonderment at how swiftly the world fell into line with the military regime’s facts on the ground. It’s a sobering reminder that exterminating the Egyptian democratic experiment is an international affair.
To prepare for ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to the UN, the government of Egypt launched a public relations blitz paid for by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In Times Square, an electronic billboard proclaimed “the New Egypt” as the words “Peace, Prosperity and Growth” rotated underneath the red, white and black colors of the Egyptian flag. The glaring irony is that the actual new parts of Sisi’s Egypt, such as repositioning the armed forces as guardians of the prestige of the state (haybat al-dawla) and epic levels of state violence, aren’t being talked about.
Sisi said all the right things in his speech before the UN General Assembly. He supports the US government’s newest war against the so-called Islamic State and vows toughness in Egypt’s domestic anti-terror fight. He says that Egypt has suffered the scourge of terrorism since the 1920s — a direct reference to the Society of Muslim Brothers, which was founded in 1928. He wants to shore up the US-Egyptian relationship with more American-made military hardware delivered to Cairo. He claims to have found the silver bullets that will, at last, dispatch Egypt’s economic woes to memory. He wants a Palestinian state to be established on the June 5, 1967 borders. All this he called “the New Egypt,” the product of two revolutions in 2011 and 2013. And yet we’ve heard it all before. Every leader since Nasser has called for a Palestinian state, however faintly, cast political foes as terrorists and embraced some cockamamie scheme for development.
The hard truth, however, is that Sisi’s speech was a sideshow. The real purpose of the former field marshal’s visit was to secure recognition and encouragement from the US establishment for violent political engineering in “the New Egypt.” Sisi met with many world leaders but it is telling that he dined with former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. He spoke with former President Bill Clinton and probable presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He spent time with lawmakers from both parties and is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Thursday before returning to Cairo. While the US and its allies in the region never really masked their support for revanchist agents in Egypt, at this point Sisi’s visit looks like an international counter-revolutionary party.
It’s also worth pointing out that two years ago, when an Egyptian president with a slim electoral mandate, Muhammad Mursi, came to the UN, Obama declined to meet him. Rather, Obama took time out of his schedule to say that the US considered Egypt neither an ally nor an enemy, suggesting that the jury was out on Mursi and the Muslim Brothers. The verdict is in regarding Sisi, if any doubt remained, and US and Egyptian political elites are dancing the night away while everyone pretends that tomorrow won’t eventually come.
With President al-Sisi at the UN, Egyptian newspapers remained preoccupied with the gap they perceive between the national and regional support for the ouster of popularly elected president Muhammad Mursi and the international coolness toward that move. The Egyptian political class, as well as the state-owned and private media, is still stinging from denunciations of the excessive violence the Egyptian state used to deal with its opponents in August 2013.
Sisi backers represent the mass protests of June 30, 2013 as a second revolution in which the army, headed by the former field marshal, saved state institutions and the territorial integrity of Egypt from plans by the former president, his Muslim Brothers and regional (Qatar) and international (US) actors to give Sinai to Hamas or abandon it to jihadi elements, allow Sudan to take over Halayib in the south and split the rest of the country into two states.
At the Jidda meetings to line up regional support of the US-led war against the so-called Islamic State, Egypt’s foreign minister, Samih Shukri, tried to link the Brothers with this war, describing them as the “the source of all Islamist evil.” In the absence of plausible evidence, there is no international support for the declared goal of liquidating the Brothers. Sisi’s trip to New York and enlistment in the war against the Islamic State may only be small steps toward diminishing Western criticisms of Egypt.
In his speech before the UN General Assembly, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi devoted most of his time to the imperative of fighting terror and extremism across the Middle East. Invoking counter-terrorism has been his preferred tactic, not only for justifying his government’s domestic repression, unsurpassed in Egypt’s history, but also for seeking license — from the Egyptian public and regional and international powers — to continue on the same course of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and killing, as well as other draconian measures that restrict basic freedoms.
But Sisi’s fearmongering does not change the fact that, more than one year after the 2013 coup, he has failed to consolidate a new regime based on broad and sustainable political alliances. In fact, Sisi has shown little interest in reaching beyond the most entrenched institutions of the state — including the army, the police and security apparatus, the judiciary and the media — to build a wider coalition with civilian partners. He has not invested in any of the existing political parties, even those that support him staunchly, nor has he bothered to make the upcoming parliamentary elections timetable transparent. Politics seems an afterthought. Insisting on preserving the state (or the “state’s prestige,” as Egyptian conservatives like to repeat) over building a political system may be his regime’s greatest weakness — albeit one it can live with for the time being.
Since Sisi’s opponents are more fragile and fragmented than the regime, such failings do not pose a substantial threat to the old-new order. Nor is the climate inside Egypt likely to foster a serious democratic challenge to state elites in the near future. Over the last 15 months, the counter-revolution has systematically crushed the contentious political landscape that was brought into being by the 2011 uprising. The contours of Egyptian politics have been redrawn once again around a polarized conflict between military authoritarianism and political Islam. The suppression of that pluralistic space, which thrived for a year and a half after Mubarak’s ouster and accommodated a multitude of voices and visions, is perhaps the greatest loss for the revolution.