Aircraft over the pyramids during Bright Star ‘83 (wikimedia)

Sisi’s Egypt (1)

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, just conducted an “election without voters” that, as much as any such event possibly could, defines Egypt today. Egypt has had no parliament since June 2012. In the 2011–12 election, long queues of enthusiastic young people had lined up at the polls following the overthrow of autocratic Hosni Mubarak.

With a huge percentage of the voting population young, no more than 20 percent of the voting population showed up at the polls in the recent election for Egypt’s parliament, highlighting growing disillusionment with the Sisi regime since the army seized power in 2013 from Egypt’s first freely-elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi. That was followed by the fiercest crackdown on dissenters and activists in Egypt’s modern history, jailing thousands of Mursi’s supporters.

President al-Sisi, the sixth president of Egypt since June 2014, came to power as a strongman who promised stability and security at a time when most Egyptians had grown exhausted from the uncertainties of the Arab Spring. Whereas Sisi described the recent 2015 election as a milestone on the road to democracy in Egypt, the low turnout undermined then-army chief Sisi’s promise in 2013 of a “road map to democracy.” Egyptians wanted Sisi’s promised transition back to democracy, improvement of the economy and security. After four years of political turmoil, Egyptians above all wanted security. Sisi has delivered repressive security and restrictions on civil liberties. The recent anti-terrorism law in Egypt, for example, supposedly aimed at fighting jihadist insurgency, has been used to crack down on political opponents, dissidents and journalists, for “promoting false news.”

President Obama has seemed quite unfazed by Egypt’s lack of progress in democratic reforms, domestic policies on human and civil rights and freedom of expression. The United States has delivered to Egypt 12 Lockheed Martin F-16s Block 52 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics. Washington also has delivered two navy vessels, doubling Cairo’s total fleet of Fast Missile Craft to four. In other words Egypt, Washington’s close security ally in the Middle East, also is a very good customer for the U.S. defense industry. The U.S. and Egypt also will resume “Bright Star,” the joint military exercise suspended after the military coup of July 3, 2013.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently told Egyptian officials that they would not be able to defeat terrorism at home unless they showed greater respect for human rights and build trust with the public, but made it clear that the U.S. would not let their concerns with human rights stand in the way of increased security cooperation with Egypt, including assistance to better police the border with Libya. While defending the jailing of journalists accused of terrorist activity, Egypt’s foreign minister responded that Egyptian authorities were trying to “strike a better balance between maintaining security and protecting human rights.”

Egypt has used American-made F-16s and Apaches to destroy many targets in the Sinai’s towns where militants were suspected of hiding, and occasionally leaving total villages in ruins. No apologies have been made by Egyptian officials for killing large numbers of innocent civilians and none were requested by Kerry. Some members of Congress, however, including Marco Rubio and John McCain, had urged Kerry to make human rights a centerpiece of his visit to Egypt. Kerry did reference the risk to Egypt of young protesters who have been jailed becoming radicalized while in prison, an indirect and muted reference to thousands of imprisoned secular and Muslim Brotherhood protesters.

Egypt is barely mentioned in NexGen COIN except, for example, in discussing revolution and upheaval in Libya, and then only briefly (See Chap. 15: Lessons Learned in Libya). Egypt presents an extremely complicated foreign policy story in relation to Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Israel and Gaza, and the rest of the Middle East. Libya was the easier part of the story of Egypt’s relationships to other states in the region because it reflects former army-general Sisi’s commitment to protect Egypt’s security.

Libya and Egypt share a porous 745-mile-long border. Since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011, Libyan weapons have flooded into Egypt. Sisi and Egyptian security officials understandably have been extremely unhappy about this and other outcomes of the disintegration of Libya, its breakdown of law and order, and the emergence of militant Islamist groups that are thriving in lawless Libya, and even operating training camps in the desert of Derna on the Egypt-Libya border. Muslim Brotherhood members have been seeking refuge from Egyptian security forces in Libya.

It might have been reasonable to expect Egyptian military intervention into Libya. That hasn’t happened for a number of reasons including the preoccupation of Egypt’s military forces with its own domestic jihadist threats in the Sinai and terrorism elsewhere in the Egyptian mainland. Egypt also has been concerned about the safety and status of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian expatriates residing and working in Libya. Furthermore Libya’s ongoing civil war and chaotic political affairs are really messy and unpredictable. More than that, the total focus of Egypt’s security establishment, whether it involves Libyaor Gaza (on its border) or Syria, has been on protecting its borders and domestic stability.

When the car of Egypt’s state prosecutor, General Hisham Barakat, was blown up in Cairo, his assassination intensified existing fears and foreboding in Egypt about a new phase of violence which were reinforced when the Islamic State-affiliated Wilayat Sinai, or “Province of Sinai,” killed dozens of soldiers and policemen in a raid on the town of Sheikh Zuweid the following day. Terrorists in the Province declared allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2014. A special forces operation killed nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood the same day of the Sheikh Zuweid attack. The Brotherhood called on Egyptians to rise up against President al-Sisi to avenge these deaths, further feeding fears of a spiral of violence.

Sisi’s raison d’être of security and stability is quite understandable. The question is whether it is being undermined by forces beyond Sisi’s control and by his approach to enforcing security, for example in the Sinai, where violent military repression feeds rather defeats insurgency. Thus far, looking forward, the U.S.’s close security ally in the Middle East has not proven itself to be a reliable counterterrorism partner.

Nor has Egypt proven to be a reliable mediator between Israel and the Palestinians (Egypt borders both Israel and Gaza), especially because of its deep antipathy towards Hamas. Egypt does have credibility with Israel and shares its security concerns and commitments. But Egypt’s concerns about Islamism, terrorism and the looming dark forces of instability feed its hostility towards Hamas. But this is another story for another blog post.