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On April 9, suicide bombers attacked Coptic churches in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria, killing more than 40 people at Palm Sunday services. As devastating as the attack was, it should not have come as a surprise. The Islamic State (also called ISIS), which claimed responsibility, had previously vowed to increase its attacks on Egyptian Christians. And over the past several years, attacks on Christian churches, security forces, and tourists have been on the rise.
Sunday’s bombings came a few days after Egypt’s general-turned-president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, returned from his first visit to the White House to triumphant fanfare from the Egyptian media. Sisi has attempted to justify his harsh rule by presenting himself as a visionary strongman uniquely capable of bringing stability and prosperity back to Egypt following the turmoil of the Arab Spring. But the Palm Sunday attacks reveal both how hollow these promises are, as well the limits of Sisi as a U.S. ally.
Aside from questions about the morality of embracing the most repressive leader in Egypt’s modern history, Sisi is not the strongman-savior he presents himself to be. An extremely polarizing figure at home, the president relies on extreme repression and fantasies about economic miracles to stay in power. Meanwhile, Sisi uses the specter of terrorism as an excuse to marginalize opponents and potential critics of the cronyistic military regime he leads. Although Sisi may cooperate with the West to maintain the status quo in the short-term, he is not a reliable partner for bringing stability to Egypt or the region.
At home, Sisi has cast himself as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, a political powerhouse who can restore national pride and bring security and economic prosperity to Egypt. In attempting to promote Sisi’s first visit to the White House, pro-government Egyptian media outlets presented an alternate universe in which he was celebrated by a fawning Western media. The Egyptian paper al-Ahram lauded the U.S. media’s purported depiction of Sisi’s visit to the White House as a meeting between “kindred spirits.” And the privately owned al-Shorouk celebrated the “fact” that Sisi got everything he had been waiting for over the past four years in only six minutes at the White House: a renewed commitment to U.S. military and economic assistance and public pronouncements of unreserved confidence in Sisi as a leader and a partner.
In reality, major U.S. news outlets strongly criticized Sisi’s invitation to the White House, which whitewashed his repression of dissidents and crackdown on the media. Such criticism of the Donald Trump administration’s embrace of Sisi continued in the wake of the Palm Sunday bombings. It thus remains to be seen how much the Egyptian government will tangibly benefit from warmer ties with the Trump administration. After the Palm Sunday bombings, Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency and banned media that blamed the Egyptian government for not doing more to prevent the attacks.
The Egyptian press’s reaction to Sisi’s trip was only the latest in its balancing act between calling for renewed U.S.-Egyptian relations while also presenting the United States as a nefarious actor eager to undermine Egypt’s reputation. Previously, the Egyptian media was full of conspiracy theories about the Obama administration’s murky ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, even as the Egyptian government sought to ensure the continuing flow of U.S. aid. Now, the celebration of Sisi’s triumphal visit to the White House continues the narrative that puts the Egyptian government in control of its relationship with the United States. (The Egyptian media has even gone so far as to claim that Trump won the U.S. presidential election because of Sisi’s endorsement.)
The Egyptian government’s rhetoric reveals its weakness, not its strength. Especially in light of such tragedies as the Palm Sunday bombings, Sisi’s cult of personality can only be maintained by government-sponsored fantasies and outright lies, which rely on the brutal repression of dissident voices from across the ideological spectrum.
Abroad, Sisi has presented himself as a model Western-friendly Arab leader, a “beacon of moderate Islam,” who can fight extremism across the Muslim world. Under him, the Egyptian government has hired K Street lobbyists to market Egypt and maintain the flow of foreign aid after the 2013 military coup. Sisi’s visit to the White House was the culmination of the efforts to refocus the U.S.-Egyptian relationship on counterterrorism cooperation and away from criticism over human rights. Following the Palm Sunday bombings, the White House reiterated its trust in Sisi as a leader who can deal with security crises. Such international shows of confidence are important to the Egyptian government, particularly since the church bombings occurred a few weeks before Pope Francis is scheduled to travel to Egypt.
If Washington labels the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, Sisi will have a freer hand for repression at home and will perhaps enjoy increased U.S. cooperation. However, numerous Middle East experts, including critics of the Brotherhood, have said that such a designation would be imprudent because the Muslim Brotherhood is a loosely organized umbrella that encompasses many groups around the world. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, has the support of large swaths of society, and was in control of the government from 2012–13. The current Egyptian government’s invocations of the terrorist threat are part of Sisi’s attempts to brand himself as an internationally credible visionary and “moderate” Muslim leader.
Yet Sisi’s presentation of himself as a model of moderate Islam masks how controversial he is at home. According to Pew, Egyptians were divided over Sisi prior to the 2014 presidential elections that officially brought him to power. Since then, Sisi has simply jailed or silenced his critics, leaving him in no position to offer a political solution to conflict in Egypt, let alone in the broader region. Sisi uses what remains of the Egyptian media to present himself as a bulwark against the chaos of Libya and Syria. Sisi supports other regional strongmen who can control national militaries—Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
Although Sisi presents himself as a guardian against the threat of terrorism and chaos, his repressive tactics have worsened the problem. As Sunday’s church bombings show, Sisi has not solved Egypt’s domestic security predicament. From the beginning, his rule and popularity were enabled only by repression. Egypt’s tightly constrained media sphere leaves out dissenting voices, especially those who challenge Cairo’s preferred binary of either ISIS-style extremism or military dictatorship. Indeed, Sisi’s attempt to label his opponents as terrorists or agitators seeking Egypt’s destruction may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, since opposition is outlawed.
Meanwhile, Sisi’s other promises frequently rest on unrealistic or even magical “solutions.” Since 2013, the Egyptian government has promised to cure AIDS and Hepatitis C, launched economically dubious mega-projects to expand the Suez canal (partly financed by Egyptians’ purchases of special investment certificates), and planned to build an ultra-modern new capital to replace a worn-out Cairo. Against the background of severe economic hardship and austerity measures, Sisi has repeatedly called on ordinary Egyptians to personally bear the burden as part of their patriotic duty: “If only ten [million] of the ninety million mobile-phone owners in Egypt would donate one pound to Egypt every morning, then we would have ten million every day.”
In the West, embracing Sisi is likely to backfire on both the security and economic fronts. Endorsing Sisi means taking sides in a domestic political conflict that requires political compromise. Sisi will use enhanced international legitimacy to continue to repress his political opponents in the name of national security and entrench the military’s role in the economy.
Sisi is a highly polarizing figure without the credibility to broker the political compromises necessary to curb extremism or solve Egypt’s deep-seated economic problems, including working with political dissidents, curbing Egypt's police state, and ceding some of the military's tremendous political and economic power. Sisi has taken Egypt down the opposite path—toward a much less inclusive society than was possible under Mubarak. The United States may be stuck with Sisi for now, and it might even share some short-term interests with his government. However, backing aid-dependent dictators is not a recipe for long-term stability or prosperity.