It was no surprise last week when Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s de facto leader, announced his plans to run for president in the country’s next round of elections. Contrary to the hopes of White House officials, the balloting—now scheduled for May—is unlikely to be “free and fair,” because Sisi, by far the most popular Egyptian political figure since Gamal abd al-Nasser, is going to win no matter what. What’s much less certain is the fate of the country Sisi aspires to rule—and whether or not what happens to Egypt ultimately matters to anyone but Egyptians.
The fact that millions of Egyptians hail Sisi as a hero who saved democracy by toppling their first and only freely elected president—Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi—last July is an index of the country’s astonishing decline. In the aftermath of the January 2011 Tahrir Square uprising, Egyptians appear to be incapable of implementing even the most rudimentary concepts of government by consent. Street protests are not a referendum, even if 33 million people—the improbably high number claimed by some Sisi partisans—went out into the streets to demand Morsi’s ouster. Rather, they are advertisements of chaos and a sign that Egyptians are mistaking the rule of a capricious mob for democracy.
The paradox is that Egypt, with a rapidly growing population of 83 million, is actually shrinking in some vital ways. Its influence and significance on the world stage have dwindled to such an extent that not just the Israelis next door but even some European states fear that in the years to come Egypt’s most relevant export will simply be terrorism. What was thousands of years ago one of the cradles of civilization and in modern times the most influential of Arab states is significant now for only two reasons: the Suez Canal and the peace treaty with Israel.
The former remains important to the United States and other world powers, but it’s no longer vital. Maritime routes allowing ships to circumvent the Suez are costly and time-consuming, but the newly proposed Israeli land rail line connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea offers a very real challenge to the Suez—especially since rampant terrorist operations against ships crossing the canal are threatening to make the Egyptian waterway un-navigable and to render Egypt’s role in world commerce redundant. In February, Cairo sentenced 26 men to death for plotting attacks on the Suez; it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be the last.
Meanwhile, the peace treaty, signed 35 years ago last week, made Cairo one of the pillars of the Pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean. It remains a vital Israeli interest, but it’s no longer the only thing stopping other Arab armies from launching attacks on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; we are a long way from 1967, or 1973.
The Obama White House is clearly eager to divest itself of American commitments in the Middle East. Minimizing the American footprint in the Middle East and elsewhere makes sense since, it claims, we don’t have the resources to regulate the rest of the world. Americans are war-weary, the president repeatedly intones, and besides, American military force just tends to make things worse. But it’s not clear that any other global actors are willing to spend billions of dollars to prevent Egypt from further spinning out of control.
The White House and its surrogates in the press and intelligentsia speak of American decline, which even if it’s true is relative only to the status of a superpower weakened by a financial crisis. But when Washington policymakers talk about the decline of other states, it is a much more tangible thing because, as we see with Egypt, what it generally means is chaos. Egypt shows that things not only can but usually do go from bad to worse to mayhem with a minimum of American involvement. Whether the Obama White House likes it or not, Washington underwrites the international order, and when it withdraws—even from places that seem outside our immediate sphere of interest, from Egypt to Ukraine—things get worse for everyone.
It’s not an accident that an Egypt in decline gets a man like Sisi to step forward. Prideful and incompetent, Sisi nonetheless sees himself as part of a continuum of great Egyptian leaders, like Nasser as well as Anwar al-Sadat. Sisi told a journalist in an off-the record interview leaked to the media that he’s been dreaming about his own greatness for 35 years.
But the many choices Sisi made to get there show him to be dangerously over his head. First and foremost was his decision to topple Morsi. The fact that a popular vote put Morsi in the presidential palace is evidence that at least half of Egypt supported him. Consequently, to take sides against him and the brotherhood also meant nullifying the political will of millions of Egyptians who backed him, and on behalf of their opponents. By definition, Sisi created the conditions for a civil war, a conflict that he can win only at great cost to the country he now rules.
Worse yet is that he’s not winning the war, nor does he even seem capable of it. Last week an Egyptian court sentenced 529 people to death for an August attack on a police station in Minya province that left one policeman dead during the riots that followed Sisi’s coup. The court’s decision was criticized not only by international and domestic rights groups, but also by analysts hardly sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi’s extra-legal crackdown on Islamists, as Daniel Pipes recently wrote, “will likely backfire and help the Islamist cause by winning them broad sympathy.”
Other times, the Islamists have simply outmaneuvered Sisi. Consider, for instance, Israel’s interdiction of a ship smuggling Iranian arms in the Red Sea last month. The fact that naval commandos boarded the Klos C before it unloaded its cargo at Port Sudan destined for Gaza or Sinai suggests that the Israelis have taken an accurate measure of Sisi. Yes, Jerusalem is said to be pleased with the high level of coordination with Cairo on security and military issues, but what Israel says in public is different from what it believes, for it can’t afford to fool itself about allies, adversaries, and neighbors. The weapons seizure is evidence the Israelis know Sisi is incapable of preventing arms from traversing the entire length of his country, from the Sudanese border to the border with Gaza.
An even worse scenario than Iranian missiles in Gaza is the possibility of them raining down on Israeli cities from Sinai when the Netanyahu government is forced to choose between two bad options: If the Israelis give Egypt first shot at the terrorists, then Sisi’s adversaries will be able to paint him as a Zionist collaborator; if the Israelis simply do it themselves, then they’ll be violating the “honor” of the Egyptian army. Either puts Sisi, a man incapable of managing difficult situations, in an impossible one.
It’s true that Egypt has neither the will nor the materiel to make war on Israel right now, but the Egyptian army has arguably never chosen to make war on Israel. Rather, from the 1948 war until the last conflict with Israel in 1973, Egypt has been compelled to do so by a number of domestic, regional, and international forces. What we’re watching build is a perfect storm—an emboldened and energized Iranian regime smuggling weapons to Israel’s borders, Islamist militants in the Sinai, Hamas looking to rebuild its prestige in Gaza, a brotherhood-backed insurgency against Sisi building inside major Egyptian cities, and the stunning incompetence and arrogance of the man who would be president.
One argument here in Washington is that it’s precisely for this reason that the Obama Administration should be working closely with Sisi. Among other things, the White House should give him the Apache helicopters it’s withholding from the annual military assistance package in order to fight the insurgency in Sinai. And it’s true that Sisi is the only horse Washington has left to ride. The way the Egyptian masses responded to the coup against Morsi shows that democracy is a long way off, and huge infusions of Saudi cash rather than an economic liberalization program are the only rational option at present.
For now, Sisi is as good as it’s going to get for Egypt. This White House, and the next, should be planning for how to manage the decline of a civilization, a nation of more than 80 million people likely to implode. Even if the Israeli land rail makes it possible for shipping to avoid a Suez under threat of terrorist attack, the reality is that sooner or later Egypt’s problems are going to reach everyone’s shores.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).