ABDEL FATTAH AL SISI, THE NEW KINGMAKER OF THE MIDDLE EAST
In Egypt, the Arab Spring begins on January 25, 2011 with protests and local rallies that spread across the country. Cairo, Alexandria, Suez: the more people went on the streets, the greater the violence. On January 27 the ruling National Democratic Party's offices are attacked. What some Western analysts hastily labeled as a fight for freedom and democracy is instead driven by widespread poverty, little or no expectations for a better future and the hatred against a corrupt military elite that has enriched itself while the rest of the country dies of hunger. Egypt has a population of 80 million people and an average pro capita income of 3 thousand dollars that is unequally distributed. Inequality is such that 30% of Egyptians, for instance, are illiterate.
A “reliable” man
The military regime that has been ruling over the country for almost 60 years crushes the rebellion then, in a desperate attempt to survive, opens a negotiation. The deposition of Hosni Mubarak and the charges brought against him are just an attempt to find a scapegoat. But the protests continue, Tahrir square in Cairo becomes a symbol of the rebellion and is constantly filled with demonstrators. The Muslim Brothers that until then had not taken part in the rallies, suddenly appear on the scene. They take the lead of the protests, provide them with a political program and put their solid, deep rooted and structured organization and their decades of know how in dealing with the government from the opposition to good use. Their time has come. They marginalize the military elite and its system of power. Mubarak and his sons are put on trial. The Brotherhood takes over Egypt after a large electoral victory.
Mohamed Morsi becomes president in June 2012. A new general, Abdel Fattah al Sisi, is appointed Minister of Defense and Army Chief of Staffs in August 2012. The Muslim Brothers consider him to be “reliable”. His wife wears the veil, and so does his daughter. One of Al Sisi's cousins, Khaled Lufti, had been killed during the clearing out of a mosque in Nasr City. The general pretends his ideals are close to those of the Brotherhood. His CV is also pretty remarkable: he has lead military intelligence, has attended military academies and courses in the United States and in the UK (a detail of great importance when both London and Washington support the new Egyptian leadership), he comes from a family of merchants (and thus represents “the people”). The Muslim Brothers view Al Sisi as the right man to rid themselves of Mubarak and, together with him, of General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, until then Army Chief of Staffs and which Morsi places into retirement.
The new Egyptian president is so sure of himself and of the loyalty of the Armed Forces that he begins dedicating all of his efforts to the islamization of Egyptian society. He has no second thoughts and is not interested in dialogue. This is the beginning of his decline as the secularists perceive Morsi's actions as the final blow to the nascent democracy several Egyptians aspired for. The Christians, 10% of the population, oppose the Brotherhood. The economy does not improve and the people's expectations for a better future are progressively frustrated. Corruption is neither fought nor eradicated. There is simply a change in the names of the beneficiaries while the population is still marginalized.
Riding a growing popular discontent, the “reliable” Al Sisi carries out a coup d'état on July 3, 2013. Those who believed in a radical change in Egypt's political landscape, on a one-way ticket to democracy, will have to think twice.
A “new” beginning
Suddenly, after two years, the Egyptian Arab Spring is back to square one. The military has regained the reins of power that they held since 1952 and that they had temporarily been forced to let go to their long time enemies: the Muslim Brothers. The leadership of the Brotherhood is immediately arrested, their organization banned, several Islamist militants are sentenced to death. Mubarak is let loose. On August 14, 2013, a month after the coup, the regime crushes the opposition, the use of force is not restrained.
International protests stigmatize the systematic violations of human rights, the abuses of power. But Al Sisi goes ahead defiantly, obtaining the financial support and the backing of Saudi Arabia. The United States also protest. They had inopportunely expressed their support for the Muslim Brothers and are embarrassed by the new regime change. They have probably realized they had made a mistake.
On January 14, 2014 Mohamed Morsi is imprisoned and a new ad interim president is named to replace him, the president of the Constitutional Court Adly Mansour. A new Constitution is written and a referendum is set to approve it. The presidential elections in June 2014, despite their low attendance (44% of registered voters turn up), offer Al Sisi the legitimacy he was looking for (he obtains 93% of votes).
The abuses and the crimes committed by the Egyptian military are soon set aside as new crisis spring in the region: the conflict between Hamas and Israel, the civil war in Syria, ISIS' advance in Iraq, Libya's collapse... The ongoing conflicts redefine the scenarios and the alliances in the Middle East. Apart from Saudi support, Cairo gets closer to Tel Aviv. This results in a breaking of the ties with Hamas, the destruction of the tunnels leading to the Gaza Strip and the closing of the Rafah border pass. On the other hand, Turkey and Qatar continue to support the Muslim Brotherhood despite their fall into disgrace.
Western diplomats and public opinion are impressed by the way the Egyptian military has restored order. Al Sisi is ensuring the stability in one of the most populous countries of the Middle East. He's doing so without respecting human rights and abusing his power? Who cares. The casualties of the restoration – over one thousand victims during the days of the coup – the thousands of extrajudicial arrests, the tortures and the abuses perpetrated by the special forces and the mock military trials are all soon forgotten. The reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are thrown in the bin.
Al Sisi turns into a man for all seasons: negotiator, interventionist, guarantor of Western interests.
From pariah to kingmaker
There are several arrows in the Egyptian bow. The first one is the fight against Islamic terrorism. The Egyptians are on the “right” side of the war against the nascent caliphates in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and Mali. Egypt has even granted, for the first time, Israel the possibility of using its drones to attack Islamist groups in the Sinai.
The second one is his role as negotiator during the 2014 summer war between Hamas and Israel. Cairo is left to replace the ailing United States, whose influence on the matter has almost vanished. Egypt has a strong leverage over Hamas, which depends on the Egyptians goodwill for its survival. This could allow for Cairo to play a central role in future negotiations: both to de-militarize the Gaza Strip and to find a compromise between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority.
Egypt is also playing a role in Libyan affairs. The country is on the verge of disintegration and the Cyrenaica, a region bordering with Egypt, is ruled by Islamic militias and Ansar al Sharia; both groups are supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. On the night of August 18, 2014 unidentified fighter jets carry out an attack against Islamist targets in Tripoli. The same happens a few days later. Libyan General Khalifa Haftar does not have airplanes capable of carrying out night attacks. Without affecting its neighbor's sovereignty and despite the official denials, Egyptian fighters have intervened in Libya. The attacks took the United States by surprise, as they had not been warned beforehand and regardless of their open support to Haftar and the secular militias opposing the Islamists. Haftar ruling over Libya with Al Sisi's support could form an important axis in the struggle against terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabic Peninsula.
Abdel Fattah al Sisi has by now become one of the most revered and important kingmakers in the Middle East. He was capable of staying in the shadows while the power of the military was in decline, he went along with the Muslim Brothers during their rise pretending to be one of them, gained their trust and struck them while they felt invincible. The only person that had fully understood the personality of Al Sisi was Hosni Mubarak who labeled him as “cunning as a snake”. And just like the reptile, the General waited in the shadows for the right time to bite his prey.