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Egypt’s Nightmare

Sisi’s Dangerous War on Terror

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
November/December 2016
Foreign Affairs

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On January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, demanding an end to the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Eighteen days later, Mubarak stepped down. In Tahrir Square, the crowds cried, “Lift your head high, you’re an Egyptian.” “We can breathe fresh air, we can feel our freedom,” Gamal Heshmat, a former member of parliament, told The New York Times. “After 30 years of absence from the world, Egypt is back.”

Today, such pride and hope are a distant memory. Once again, a former military official turned dictator rules the country. But President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has established an even more harshly authoritarian regime than the one Mubarak oversaw. By almost every measure, conditions in Egypt are worse now than prior to the revolution. Economic growth remains stagnant. Egypt’s reserves of foreign currency have dwindled to perilous levels: in July they dropped beneath $16 billion, their lowest level in almost a year and a half and barely enough to cover three months of imports. The Egyptian pound has collapsed, and the government has begun rationing dollars.

Egypt’s tourism industry, a vital source of hard currency and investment, has also withered. In 2010, more than one million tourists, on average, visited Egypt every month; in May 2016 (the last month for which statistics are available), fewer than half that number did so. Egypt’s infrastructure is crumbling, and its education and public health systems are deteriorating. And more than a quarter of all Egyptians—about 22.5 million people—live in poverty, while youth unemployment exceeds 40 percent.

Yet Egypt’s rulers have done little to revive the economy. Instead, they continue to focus on the one thing they do well: repressing their citizens. Since Sisi seized power in July 2013, his security forces have arrested more than 40,000 people, killed more than 3,000 (including between 800 and 1,000 on a single day in August 2013), “disappeared” hundreds more, placed thousands in continuously renewable pretrial detention, and injured countless others. More than three years after Sisi ousted President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup, the Egyptian state has reduced itself to a single function: destroying the organization to which Morsi belonged, the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s leaders have paid little heed to the consequences for ordinary Egyptians of their obsessive quest. Yet Egyptians are suffering mightily. And not only them: Gazans, Syrians, and Libyans have also begun paying the price, as Cairo’s single-minded pursuit of the Brotherhood—and of any Islamist group that bears the slightest resemblance to the Brotherhood—has become the guiding principle of Egypt’s foreign, as well as domestic, policy.

For now, there is little that the United States—Egypt’s most important foreign benefactor—can do to change the country’s trajectory; Egypt will have to solve its problems on its own. So far, however, Sisi has shown few signs that he is willing or able to implement reform.

“THE ORIGIN OF IT ALL”

Cairo’s suspicion and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood predate Sisi’s rise by many years. All the way back in 1948, the Egyptian government dissolved the group for allegedly planning a revolution, and the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser imprisoned thousands of its members after surviving an assassination attempt in 1954. Nasser’s successor, President Anwar al-Sadat, fashioned himself “the believing president” and tried a different tack, tolerating the organization for a period, until his relationship with the group soured after he signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, also showed the group leniency at first, hoping that the Brotherhood’s more moderate brand of Islamism would undermine the appeal of violent alternatives. He allowed the group to operate on university campuses, for example, and he never sought to disrupt the organization’s well-developed network of social services, although his government did try to control it. Yet when Mubarak sensed that the Brotherhood had accumulated too much power, he cracked down: after candidates linked to the organization won an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats in a parliamentary election in 2005, for example, he jailed hundreds of Brothers.

Today, Sisi and his allies want to crush the Muslim Brotherhood once and for all. To them, there is no difference between the Brotherhood and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS)—even though ISIS has characterized the Brotherhood as an “apostate” organization. “They both share the same ideology,” Sisi told Der Spiegel in early 2015. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the origin of it all. All these other extremists emanated from them.” In December 2013, his government declared the group a terrorist organization. Since then, on top of the mass arrests, it has forced the group’s leaders and any midlevel figures who have escaped the crackdown to flee to Doha, London, or Istanbul, and it has shut down almost 500 nongovernmental organizations, many allegedly connected to the group.

Many Egyptians have good reason to be angry with the Brothers, who, in their brief time in power, proved themselves to be alternately incompetent, authoritarian, and sectarian. Yet the Brotherhood has deep roots in Egyptian society. Since Hasan al-Banna founded the group in 1928, the Brothers have offered a vision of authenticity, nationalism, and religious reform that many Egyptians have found appealing. The group attracted followers for its opposition to Zionism in the 1930s, the monarchy in the 1940s, the British in the 1950s, and, more recently, the United States, and its provision of social services to thousands of Egyptians in need has been a critical source of political support.

All of that makes it unlikely that any president will ever manage to eradicate the group entirely. What Sisi has managed to do, however, is further polarize Egypt and escalate the violence that has become commonplace since Mubarak’s fall. Sisi’s war on the Brothers has made a mockery of the calls for unity, decency, and tolerance that filled Tahrir Square in the winter of 2011 and again in late June 2013. To be clear, Morsi was no angel: his blundering and belligerence threatened Egypt’s social fabric, and the generals may have been justified in overthrowing him. Yet the military’s fixation on wiping out his followers has only made matters worse, profoundly destabilizing the nation and raising the chances that it will collapse entirely.

So far, Sisi seems not to care. Backed by compliant media, his campaign against the Brotherhood has kept the country on a war footing. By describing the group as un-Egyptian and exaggerating the threat it poses, he has mobilized popular support for his government.

But he has more important things to focus on. Corruption and bureaucratic inertia are crippling economic growth. Sisi has pursued grandiose megaprojects—he spent more than $8 billion expanding the Suez Canal, yet revenues have not picked up because the expected increase in shipping traffic has not materialized—instead of infrastructure improvements that would boost the economy, such as upgrading the country’s transportation network. Egypt’s educational system is underfunded, and its health care is barely adequate: the government still struggles to provide clean drinking water everywhere, hepatitis C is rampant, and recurrent outbreaks of avian flu and foot-and-mouth disease have swept the country. In August, the International Monetary Fund offered Egypt a $12 billion bailout, and Sisi promised reform in return. So far, however, it remains unclear whether he will follow through.

FEAR AND LOATHING

The sorry state of Egypt today is worrisome enough in its own right. Yet the havoc wreaked by Sisi’s obsession extends far beyond Egypt’s borders and has helped destabilize the entire region.

Take Gaza. As president, Morsi offered Hamas (a group founded in the 1980s as an offshoot of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) symbolic support, but he made few actual policy changes, maintaining the blockade that Mubarak began in June 2007, after Hamas seized control of the territory. Since Sisi took over, however, Cairo has sought the destruction of the group. During Israel’s 2014 military campaign against Hamas, the Egyptian government went so far as to encourage the Israelis to reoccupy Gaza and deal Hamas a fatal blow.

The Israelis refused to oblige. So since then, Sisi has taken matters into his own hands, doing all he can to suffocate Gaza. His government has slashed the number of Palestinians permitted to enter Egypt and destroyed many of the tunnels running under the Egyptian border wall that have long been a critical source of Gaza’s food, construction materials, tools, luxury goods, and weapons. In late 2014, the Egyptian military created a quarter-mile buffer zone along Egypt’s border with Gaza, destroying around 800 homes in the process. The army later expanded the buffer zone to a half mile, demolishing an additional 500 homes. By mid-2016, the military had cleared the entire border town of Rafah and established a three- to five-mile security belt—which even incorporates a moat in some places—along Egypt’s border with Gaza.

Hamas is indeed an Islamist organization with links to the Muslim Brotherhood; there is no question that the group wants to govern society in line with its own interpretation of Islam. Hamas is also a terrorist group, responsible for the deaths of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians, and Sisi claims that Hamas has killed numerous Egyptians, although there the truth is less clear.

Even if the Egyptian president is right about the violence, however, he has ignored a number of crucial differences between Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. For starters, the two groups have different leaders. They also diverge on tactics, strategies, and goals. Hamas wants to liberate Palestine through violence. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, has for decades sought political power primarily through nonviolent means. No doubt there is solidarity between the two groups. But there is scant evidence that Hamas and the Brotherhood have worked together to undermine the Egyptian regime.

Yet such distinctions are lost on Sisi, whose attempts to destroy Hamas have significantly worsened the already miserable plight of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents. Almost 40 percent of Gaza’s population lives in poverty, real per capita income is 31 percent lower than it was in the mid-1990s, and access to basic necessities such as water and electricity is unreliable. According to the World Bank, in 2015, Gaza’s economic performance was 250 percent worse than that of the West Bank. Only the Israelis, who allow 800–1,000 truckloads of supplies to enter Gaza every day, have prevented Egypt’s blockade from successfully strangling Hamas—and all of Gaza with it. As support for Hamas wanes, the group may well lash out once again at Israel, risking yet another round of fighting that will only compound the misery of Gaza’s Palestinians.

SISI’S PIVOT

Cairo’s unhealthy obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood has also determined its policy several hundred miles north—in Syria. After Mubarak’s fall, Egypt’s military rulers showed little interest in Syria’s civil war: they had far more pressing challenges to deal with at home. Things changed under Morsi, who was far more sympathetic to Syria’s rebels. During his tenure, Egypt welcomed large numbers of Syrian refugees and, in September 2012, held a conference with envoys from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to explore ways to resolve the conflict.

Then, in 2013, Morsi took things further, with a step that may have sealed his fate. On June 15, he told a packed crowd of supporters at Cairo International Stadium that he was committed to “the liberation of the Syrian population,” implicitly signaling his sympathy with the jihadist groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This pronouncement instantly raised alarm bells within Egypt’s Ministry of Defense. Just a few weeks later, after massive protests against the president, Sisi, at the time the defense minister, launched his coup and deposed Morsi.

These days, Egypt’s government carefully eschews such language on Syria. Instead, in late September 2015, Sisi—echoing Assad’s own rhetoric—told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the priority in Syria should be fighting terrorists, who, for Sisi, include the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptians, of course, have reason to worry about terrorism. The war in Syria may be 400 miles away, but ISIS has already established an affiliate in the Sinai, and Egyptians worry that fighters will migrate from the Syrian battlefields to Egypt. Egypt also faces a jihadist threat on its border with Libya.

But in Syria, as in Gaza, Sisi has willfully conflated the Muslim Brother­hood with violent extremists. Syria has its own chapter of the Brotherhood, and Sisi fears that if the Brothers were to play a constructive role in a new Syrian government, it would demonstrate that the Brotherhood could once again be a viable alternative political force in Egypt.

The idea that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood might play a role in a future government is not far-fetched. Although Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed the Brothers after protests in Hama in 1982, Bashar allowed the group to recover. When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the Brothers were initially cautious, but the following fall, they helped found the Syrian National Council, an alliance of opposition groups. And they have a powerful ally in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who would surely seek to protect Turkey’s interests in a post-Assad Syria by expanding the Brotherhood’s role.

But Cairo dramatically overstates the influence of the Syrian Brother­hood today. The group has never wielded the kind of cultural, social, and political influence in Syria that it has in Egypt. Since the Hama massacre, the Brotherhood’s leadership has been in exile and out of touch with most Syrians. Yet once again, Sisi has ignored such nuances in his irrational fear that a chapter of the Brotherhood could wield power in Damascus and shape events in Cairo. To prevent that from happening, Sisi has broken from his Emirati, Saudi, and U.S. allies to support Assad—alongside Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah—despite the fact that Assad’s coalition is collectively responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. The Egyptians have not sent Assad any money, weapons, or soldiers. But their rhetorical support is nevertheless symbolically important. Mubarak and his successors may have debased Egypt’s power and influence, but Egyptian words still carry weight in the region. By supporting Assad in the name of counterterrorism, Sisi has divided the major Arab powers and provided political and diplomatic cover to Assad’s Arab and non-Arab allies.

BETTER THE GENERAL YOU KNOW?

Egypt’s pursuit of the Brotherhood has also contributed to the destabilization of Libya, a country that has been mired in chaos since its longtime leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011. In June 2014, Libya held elections in which a coalition of liberals, secularists, and federalists beat out a host of Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood–related candidates, as well as tribal figures based in the city of Misurata. The losers disputed the outcome and refused to cede their seats. This produced two parliaments: an Islamist-dominated body in the capital, Tripoli, and an internationally recognized House of Representatives in Tobruk, in the east.

By the time of the split, militia violence had already been racking Libya for years, but things soon descended into a full-fledged civil war. This unfolding crisis alarmed Sisi. It posed a real threat that armed extremists would take power on Egypt’s western border. But even more troubling, Sisi believed that if the forces in the west prevailed, it would strengthen the Islamist-dominated parliament in Tripoli. So he threw his support behind General Khalifa Haftar. A former senior officer in Qaddafi’s military who turned against the Libyan leader in the late 1980s, Haftar had spent the better part of two decades living in the United States before returning to Libya soon after the revolution there began. Frustrated by the political chaos that persisted three years later, he raised an army without the government noticing and, in 2014, launched a brutal campaign against extremists and Islamists.

Haftar is violently anti-Islamist and views military force as critical to achieving order—a worldview he shares with Sisi. Egypt, accordingly, has provided him with weapons, money, and diplomatic support (as have France and the United Arab Emirates). In doing so, Egypt has only helped deepen the divisions in an already badly fractured country. Egypt’s backing has allowed Haftar to dismiss the idea of national reconciliation; the general would rather install himself and his allies in Tripoli or, failing that, establish an autonomous region in Cyrenaica, his power base in the east. Haftar has rejected UN efforts to end the conflict through a negotiated settlement and the establishment in 2015 of a unity government, known as the Government of National Accord, and he has prevented members of the House of Representatives from supporting the new unity government.

The Egyptians insist that supporting Haftar is the best way to stabilize Libya. After all, they argue, the Government of National Accord is unwieldy and essentially powerless; it cannot serve as a bulwark against extremism or the Islamism that Egypt’s leaders revile. And Egypt’s leaders are right to worry. Libya poses the gravest threat to Egypt’s security; people and weapons flow easily across the two countries’ 700-mile border. But Egypt’s actions in Libya are motivated more by Sisi’s obsessions than by any legitimate security threat. By helping undermine the Government of National Accord, the Egyptians have accelerated Libya’s fragmentation and sabotaged efforts to restore some semblance of stability—the best and only real guarantor of Egypt’s security.

THE GREAT MIDDLE EASTERN STABILIZER

Egypt’s current policies leave Washington with few good options. Without aid from Washington, the International Monetary Fund, or the Gulf states, Egypt may well collapse. Its failure would have a devastating effect on a region already confronting the fragmentation of four other states—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—and unprecedented violence. For now at least, the United States cannot cut Egypt loose.

Yet the United States will also struggle to dissuade Egypt’s leaders from maintaining their current approach, because they regard their fight against the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential struggle. They also invariably interpret U.S. criticisms of their domestic repression as advocacy for the Brothers. Sisi and his supporters have not forgotten that in mid-2012, Washington welcomed Morsi’s election and thus, at least tacitly, seemed to endorse the Brotherhood. And many U.S. officials did make the mistake of putting too much stock in the Brothers’ reformist rhetoric while overlooking their anti-Americanism and authoritarian leanings.

Still, the United States could help in small ways—or at least avoid making things worse. Congress is currently considering whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Doing so would be a mistake. It would embroil the United States in Egypt’s domestic political drama and further harm the United States’ position in a country in which almost every political actor already mistrusts U.S. intentions. Declaring the Brothers a terrorist group might help mend ties with Sisi, but it would be tantamount to condoning Cairo’s brutal repression.

As for Gaza, U.S. diplomats need to encourage the Turks and the Qataris, who can play an important role in the area’s reconstruction, to coordinate their efforts to relieve the pressure created by the Egyptian and Israeli siege, so as to prevent Gaza’s further descent into chaos. The Israelis seem to have realized that immiserating Gaza’s Palestinians has achieved little and so have eased their blockade. If Washington can convince the Turks and the Qataris to work together, while encouraging Israel to continue to allow goods into Gaza, life there will improve despite Egypt’s ill-considered meddling.

In Syria, Washington is less likely to succeed in counterbalancing Cairo’s support for Assad. For years now, U.S. policy toward Syria has been indecisive and timorous, allowing pro-Assad forces to gain ground. Unless the United States intervenes more forcefully, it will have few means for undermining or reversing Sisi’s support for Assad.

When it comes to Libya, finally, the United States, along with the Europeans and the UN, need to provide the new government in Tripoli with economic assistance, security, and legitimacy. Propping up the unity government might force the Egyptians to change tack, weakening Haftar. The Egyptians are susceptible to international pressure in Libya: they went along with the rest of the UN Security Council and recognized the Government of National Accord in 2015, although Sisi still maintains that the best way to fight terrorism is to support Haftar’s army. Yet absent far more dramatic changes, which don’t seem likely, Libya’s unity government is unlikely to survive in the long term.

Egypt’s failures are all its own, but the country’s plight also reveals the bankruptcy of U.S. policy toward Egypt over the past 40 years. The United States has spent almost $80 billion to support Egypt’s economic development, national security, and civil society. For decades, U.S. policymakers assumed that Egypt was the great Middle Eastern stabilizer. It’s true that under Mubarak in particular, Egypt scrupulously maintained the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, routinely accommodated U.S. requests to support military operations in the region, and repressed violent Islamists. Today, however, the United States needs to reconsider the idea that Egypt is a force for stability. Egypt’s foreign policy has changed. Egypt is not a rogue state, but it is exporting its central domestic political conflict—the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood—to its neighbors, with devastating effect.

Read full article at ForeignAffairs.com.

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