By Herbert London
The journalistic gunslingers have been out in full force targeting General el-Sisi and the new Egyptian constitution. This criticism, by the way, is bipartisan; it comes from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. What it comes down to is persistent doubt that the government’s pledge to steer Egypt toward a new era of freedom and democracy after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood is genuine.
While it is too early to make any firm judgments, and democracy anywhere in the Middle East other than Israel is a fiction, the press corps has already made its point of view clear. However, several facts are in order.
Tabulations indicated more than 95 percent voted “yes” for the new constitution with a turnout of 39 percent of the electorate. When Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood ran on their constitution 68 percent of the electorate supported them and 33 percent of the eligible voters participated.
It would be irresponsible to describe this military leadership as a group of Jeffersonians. After all, they have jailed camera crews, even targeted benign NGO’s, such as Freedom House, and confined journalists who challenged the military government. At the same time, they have set aside 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament for women in almost direct defiance of shariah. More significantly, they recognize by name the rights of Copts – Christians who were routinely persecuted and murdered by Muslim fanatics. There is even a reference to the protection of Jews in Egypt, albeit there are virtually no Jews in the country.
El Sisi also made it clear it wants to reinforce the peace treaty with Israel. He is committed to destroying the terrorist bases in the Sinai, arguably the most heavily armed area in the world. And he has shut down the traffic of military material between Egypt and Gaza which was the supply line for Hamas.
Although there are somewhere between 800,000 and 900,000 Muslim Brotherhood members representing a formidable insurgency force, the government is committed to national order and will do what is necessary to preserve the peace. That means some very unpleasant conditions and the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an illegal, terrorist group. It means the prosecution of many dissenters as the government relies on the new Egyptian penal code. From the standards in the West these steps are decidedly uninviting.
Yet it should be pointed out that Morsi intended to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. He met with Al-Qaeda leader Zawarhari in Pakistan. He travelled to Iran for discussions about making the Sinai into a separate Iranian supported state. He averted his gaze to the destruction of Christian churches built a thousand years before Mohammed existed.
Morsi’s overreaching was so obvious that in a national referendum held eight months into his tenure somewhere between 22 and 30 million Egyptians contended he should be removed from office. The problem was that the parliament, according to the previous constitution, hadn’t any provision for impeachment or recall. Remarkably none of the articles written about the military government make reference to this fact.
General El Sisi has maintained that in Egypt today the struggle is not between Muslims and Christians, it is a battle between Egyptians and the Muslim Brotherhood. Unfortunately there are those in our State Department and in the White House who believe the Muslim Brotherhood has elements that are moderate and can be rational actors for regional stability. One Republican leader told me El Sisi was “Muburak on steroids” and he would prefer the Muslim Brotherhood as a negotiating partner. As a consequence, foreign aid to Egypt has been frozen and the six Apache helicopters promised to Egypt remain on U.S. soil.
Clearly this new Egyptian government faces risks. Unemployment has reached desperate levels. General Sisi enjoys cult-like status at the moment, but that can shift if the economy continues to slide and Egyptians face the prospect of food scarcity, power cuts and queues for bread.
From the American point of view, it is imperative to drive the new government towards reconciliation with non-Muslim Brotherhood forces skeptical about this regime. At the same time, the U.S. should be gratified by the pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the belief that moderate elements exist in this quasi religious and political grouping, there is sufficient evidence it is the brains and financial support system behind Al Qaeda. We should not be supporting the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and sacrificing blood and treasure to defeat it on the other.
In the final analysis el-Sisi is not Morsi. He is the immediate future and despite intemperate actions, he is the strong horse who might be the answer to many Middle East problems the U.S. is now facing.