My column today looks at a paradox: how a general, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who overthrew an elected Egyptian president in July, became a hero to young Tahrir Square revolutionaries who helped over throw the military-backed government of Hosni Mubarak.
Many Egyptians expect Sisi to become their next president, on the model of the 1960s hero Gamal Abdel Nasser.
So it was interesting to read an English transcript of a video, posted by the mostly defunct Freedom & Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (which Sisi ousted from power). It’s supposedly a leaked (and unused) portion of an interview previously conducted with Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah El Sisi that shows reveals his interest in visions – and in running for president.
Sitting in the popular Ramy café in the dense Cairo working class district of Imbaba, a group of eight engineers have gathered for a night out smoking sheesha (flavored tobacco) through long-stemmed water pipes.
Sipping sweet tea or thick Arab coffee, and eating syrupy white pudding flavored with raisins and nuts, the group is discussing why they all supported the army’s July ouster of elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. (Only one of them had voted for Morsi- because he thought a religious man would make a more honest leader).
The engineers refuse to call the ouster a coup. “I thought they [leaders from the Brotherhood] would follow good rules of Islam,” says Mohamed Nagy, “but I found out they weren’t to be trusted.” He, like most of the men, got frustrated by the clannishness of the Brotherhood politicians, who sought to control every lever of power, along with their failure to fix the economy. And like all the other older engineers, he was eager to see General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the army commander, now turned defense minister, who led the (non) coup, run for president. Were he to do so, Sisi is expected to get voted in in a landslide.
One year ago, when I visited Cairo, there were thousands of bearded Islamist salifis gathering (peacefully) in Tahrir Square and a Muslim Brother, Mohamed Morsi, held the presidency after winning a fair election. Posters of Morsi were visible everywhere I went.
What a difference a year makes. This year there are no Islamists to be seen in the square, and the hawkers of tourist googaws are selling tee shirts bearing the face of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army commander who oversaw the ouster of Morsi. His face adorns posters, and chocolates – and in a photo-shopped pic making the internet rounds- has even been juxtaposed on a pair of men’s briefs.
It’s strange seeing the Sisi tee shirts hanging alongside others adorned with the faces of youths killed in the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising. Those youths died in an effort to oust a previous military-backed regime, that of President Hosni Mubarak, and bring in democratic elections. I’m certain those youths could never have imagined that a general would be hailed as the new national hero, praised for deposing the country’s first elected president. (I’ll write more about why this happened in future blogs and columns).
It’s not surprising that Egypt has deteriorated into violence since the military ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi last week.
The huge anti-Morsi demonstrations that preceded the military coup were an indicator of one of the region’s most critical fault lines, between Arabs who accept, and those who oppose any Islamist government whose ultimate goal is the imposition of religious law.
Westerners often don’t recognize the polarization over this issue in the region. Rule by religious law is rejected not just by the small percentage of Arab liberals, but also by religious minorities, including Arab Christians, and by many Arabs who may be devout but don’t want to be ruled by hardline Islamists.
Here’s the tragic truth about the Egyptian military’s apparent takeover in Cairo. While millions of Egyptians may cheer, the fall of President Morsi won't help Egypt's democracy or economy to revive.
President Mohammed Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which he belongs, made big mistakes, acting as if his 50.7 per cent election victory entitled him to ignore the wishes of the other half of the country.
But his political opposition is hardly more democratic. Sharply divided between liberals (a small minority), leftists, remnants of the Mubarak regime, and a disaffected plurality dissatisfied with Morsi’s failure to revive the economy, the opposition has never produced clear leaders or a coherent economic or political program.
Edward Snowden’s escape route traces an international path of global hypocrisy when it comes to freedom of the press or protection against government surveillance.
Snowden claimed to be protesting against such surveillance and defending freedom of information. Yet he took refuge in Hong Kong, which is technically part of China, whose regime controls the country’s internet portals, blocks content, and monitors individual access. Snowden wouldn’t have been permitted to leave Hong Kong without a green light from Beijing.
The Chinese censor all other media and have “the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world,” according to Amnesty International. As for broader surveillance world-wide, Chinese government hackers have conducted massive commercial and military espionage in the United States (and presumably elsewhere) and even breached Google’s computers.
The photos of a frail Nelson Mandela hospitalized again remind me of the many times, in many countries, I’ve heard people say, “If only we had a Mandela.”
Mandela’s genius was his ability to forgive, and a charisma that let him convince his black countrymen to do likewise, and convinced his white countrymen that he meant what he said. Not all South Africans believed him, but – at least in his lifetime - they accepted his approach.
This combination – charisma and a strategic willingness to forgive one’s ethnic oppressors – is so rarely found among leaders of other troubled countries as to be almost unique to Mandela. To grasp the full significance of this man you only need to look at states that desperately need a Mandela but aren’t lucky enough to have one – especially, but not only, in the Middle East.
The column I wrote for last Thursday, entitled The Real Benghazi Scandal, has run in newspapers around the country and unleashed a storm of email, much of it angry, even venemous.
My point: that hearings on Benghazi held by Cong. Darrel Issa (R.CA), and other efforts to brand Benghazi as Watergate II, ignore the real issues raised by the tragedy in favor of promoting conspiracy theories about administration “lies” and “cover-ups.” Such charges, as I laid out, are not based on facts.
Clearly State Dept. security officials made serious errors (some heads have rolled), and the Pentagon must review the issue of military readiness, or willingness – to protect diplomats. Instead, the scandal-mongers are focused on bureaucratic “talking points” that had nothing to do with the inadequate security in Benghazi, the failed rescue, or improving security in the future.