SPEAKING FREELY The Sisi his allies can't see
By Monte Palmer
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The world's press is rife with speculation about the impact of recently crowned Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the future course of Egypt and the Middle East.
Will he transform Egypt into a bastion of peace, stability, and democracy, or is he the latest in a long line of military tyrants and destined to plunge the Middle East into deeper despair? The answer to this question should be of vital interest to Sisi's staunch
supporters including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. If they guess wrong, it is they who will be the big losers in the long run.
The best way to answer the question it to simply examine Sisi's words and deeds since he became a key figure in Egyptian politics following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.
Sisi presents himself as a Moses-type father figure come to lead the Egyptian masses to a promised land of stability, prosperity, modernity, equality, freedom and religious moderation.
All of the ills of the past will be gone including corruption, police brutality, terror, religious extremism, sexual harassment, bureaucratic strangulation, and Egypt's humiliating role as an American puppet.
Gone, too, will be grinding poverty, massive unemployment, the hideous slums that are home to about a fifth of Egypt's population, and the collapsing buildings that threaten the lives of more than a third of its population.
Sisi's actions, by contrast, portray Egypt's new pharaoh as an exceptionally ambitious man who lusts for power, craves adulation, demands subservience, and inclines toward violence.
They also reveal an authoritarian leader who appoints all members of what passes for a civilian government and controls everything that they do and say. This is because Sisi is a fearful and suspicious individual who sees plots, conspiracies, and assassination attempts behind every pyramid.
Perhaps Sisi's paranoia is also a product of his own duplicity. He has, after all, turned against all those who supported his rise to power. The list begins with the elite generals who made him the head of military intelligence, the Muslim Brotherhood that appointed him Minister of Defense, the youth groups that spawned the January 2011 revolution, the liberal press who believed his promises of democracy, and the labor unions who dreamed of a return to socialism.
Now in the line of fire is the economic elite who supported Sisi in the belief that he would transform Egypt into a capitalist paradise free of government restrictions.
Much to their dismay, it is the military that is driving the Egyptian economy, not the private sector. He is also demanding payment of US$69 billion in delayed taxes for this year and $74 billion for last year. The military needs the money.
Whatever the case, opposition to Sisi and his policies is not tolerated. People and groups are either for him or against him. There is no middle ground or room for compromise. Opponents of Sisi's policies are branded traitors or terrorists and treated accordingly.
The Muslim Brotherhood that had swept to power with some 70% of the popular vote in Egypt's first and only democratic election has been targeted for annihilation.
Mohammed el-Baradi, former head of the UN Atomic Energy Agency and former presidential candidate, was declared both a traitor and a terrorist. His ostensible crimes were suggesting that Sisi's rule was less than democratic and warning that violence begets violence.
His real crime was having far more stellar dust than Sisi. Too powerful for Sisi to kill or control, he was forced into exile.
To make matters worse, Sisi is easily offended, cannot accept blame for his mistakes, and refuses to back down from his decisions or make conciliatory gestures that might be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
This is particularly dangerous because Sisi often makes contradictory decisions on the spur of the moment.
Sisi is also an elusive individual who wants complete freedom of action and doesn't like to be pinned down to specifics. Even the lapdog Egyptian press was puzzled by the absence of anything approaching a platform in his presidential campaign. But, then, why should he have bothered. He had the votes.
This combination of words and actions has resulted in a style of rule that relies primarily on force and fear. The military is the foundation of Sisi's power in Egypt and it is also the foundation of his aspirations to become the dominant power broker in the Middle East. As a result, the military gets most of what there is go get. The political-economic elite that organized the counter-revolution comes in second, and a rapacious bureaucracy sucks up what is left.
Sisi promises to help the poor, but his passion for strengthening what is already the 13th largest army in the world doesn't leave much left for anyone beyond the military.
Sisi's rule by force is supported by a cult of personality, a term originally used to characterize Joseph Stalin and later applied to Arab leaders who wore the cloak of infallibility.
It is Sisi and Sisi alone, according to the Egyptian press, who can rescue Egypt from the chaos that followed the January 2011 revolution and the even greater threat of Islamic rule. Sisi makes no claim to being a deity (Mahdi), but the leaders of Egypt's government controlled Islamic establishment have made support of his policies a religious obligation. How else could they justify his overthrow of a moderate Islamic president?
He has no ideology to speak of, and he has clearly stated that his legitimacy is based the emotional outpourings of mass emotions rather than elections. As Egypt's rightly guided savior, it is Sisi alone who is gifted with the power to read the will of the masses.
Having established himself as the head of the military and the savior of the country, Sisi uses the old Mubarak political apparatus to control his self-appointed civilian government in all areas except those of particular interest to the military. It was the Mubarak political apparatus that plotted the counter revolution, scripted Sisi's cult of personality, managed Sisi's election, and that is now assuring that Sisi will have an overwhelming majority in the resurrected faux parliament if and when Sisi proclaims that it can be elected.
There will be a parliament of some sort or other, because Sisi insists that everything that he does be justified by the rule of law. Just what that parliament will look like is still being determined and in the final analysis, will be dictated by Sisi.
As things currently stand, Egypt's anti-terror laws and subservient judiciary give Sisi the legal right to use force against anyone or anything that he choses. All he has to do is call them terrorists. Over anxious judges condemn hundreds to death within a few minutes and scant representation. Sisi remains aloof in the name of supporting an independent judiciary.
Sisi is also most adept at utilizing the propaganda value of laws that he has no intention of enforcing or lacks the capacity to enforce. Sexual harassment laws cast him in guise of a humanist but can't be solved by a simple piece of legislation because sexual harassment is so deeply embedded in Egyptian culture that the police ignore it.
The police are also part of the problem. Imagine Sisi's embarrassment when his supporters were filmed harassing females during his inauguration as president. It's the same with highly publicized anti-corruption laws. Nothing gets done without baksheesh (petty bribes) and the Mubarak establishment, now part of the Sisi team, had earlier been convicted of massive corruption.
Alas, past sins have been forgiven and the pillars of the Mubarak regime have been cleared to run for parliament. Slum clearance laws portray Sisi as a man of the people intent on doing away with the squalid slums.
Where are these people to go? Even people with money can't find adequate housing in the urban areas of Egypt. One might also ask, who is getting the cleared land? The answer is simple. First the military, and second the old Mubarak economic elite. The evicted poor will merely build new slums. They won't get the promised new housing projects that remain below the level of population growth because they lack wasta (influence.)
Topping things off, Sisi keeps potential opponents off guard by playing group against group, issuing contradictory decisions, turning on supporters, and making his had picked civilian cabinet grovel by accepting the blame for his mistakes.
He also humiliates the Islamic clergy by forcing them to preach a single sermon approved by the Minister of Islamic Endowment, a throwback to the darkest days of the Mubarak regime.
The clergy had dreamed of independence from government control, but no more. The story in the judiciary has been even more devastating, as any semblance of legal justice has been destroyed by massive show trials in which hundreds are condemned to death with a wave of the hand.
Sisi is also vague on the timing of the parliamentary elections, warning Egyptians that terrorists will attempt to use the elections to destroy the state and transform Egypt into a jihadist caliphate. Given Egypt's vague anti-terrorist laws, Sisi has already provided himself with a pretext for his nullifying the elections if the outcome is not to his liking.
Sisi's perpetual circus does keep his opponents off guard because no one really knows where Sisi is going next. The press is full of predictions, but they are invariably wrong. Perhaps Sisi, himself, isn't sure of where he is going and is merely playing everything by ear. On the other hand, the chaos created by Sisi's circus may be a calculated strategy to intensify mass demands for a savior and military rule. Why else does he repeatedly proclaim that Egypt is in a state of civil war?
Whatever the case, Sisi's style of rule has resulted in weak political institutions totally dominated by the whim of a single individual. In the process, the Egyptian population has become fragmented and intensely polarized. To make matters worse, any hope for the peaceful reconciliation of conflict has been eliminated.
Violence and submission are the only choices that remain. As a result, violence is soaring while submission has intensified a sycophant political culture in which the only way to survive is superficial subservience. Pretense does not lead to hard work, loyalty, or anti-terrorism.
Is Sisi's behavior rational? It might be for a man intent on becoming the strongman of the Arab world. If this is not the case, Sisi is simply a befuddled amateur who is making things up as he goes along.
Either way, I fail to see how Sisi is going to transform Egypt into a bastion of peace and stability in the Middle East. Democracy is not even on the cards. Neither, for that matter, are dreams that Sisi will become a compliant puppet of the US and Saudi Arabia. Far more likely is the probability that American, Saudi, and Israeli support for Sisi will spawn yet another Saddam Hussein.
This being the case, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel may be wise to ponder how they will cope with a Sisi's based upon his behavior rather than his words. Sisi has vowed to protect Saudi Arabia from terrorist attacks, but will he go home when he has finished? Just think of what Sisi could do with all that Saudi oil.
I also wonder about the Israelis who seem to find solace in Sisi's hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas offshoot. Do they really want a massive military machine headed by Sisi on their border? He has crossed all of his other allies. What will stop him from turning against Israel?
The US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel might also consider how they will regroup if the Sisi regime should collapse. The slavishly loyal Egyptian press is now hinting at this possibility. There have even been articles about grumbling within the military over Sisi's appointment of relatives and cronies to key positions.
It is not a rush, but Egyptians constantly scrutinize their leaders for signs of weakness. They also know how to read between the lines. Perhaps the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel could learn from them. Whether Sisi survives or fails, they will be the big losers.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Monte Palmer is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University, a former Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut, and a senior fellow at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. His recent books include The Arab Psyche and American Frustrations, The Politics of the Middle East, Islamic Extremism (with Princess Palmer), Political Development: Dilemmas and Challenges, and Egypt and the Game of Terror (a novel). His email is [email protected] and his blog is arabpsyche.wordpress.com