Sisi’s foreign policy is a balancing act

Egypt Blog

Since becoming Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pursued an admirably erratic approach to foreign policy that has secured major gains for Egypt but left allies and enemies confused and concerned.

Sisi, a former army general, has variously indicated an openness for closer ties and stronger coop­eration with seemingly opposing regional and international powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Giv­en the nature of geopolitics and the tense relationships between some of these countries, it should be impossible to move closer to one without moving away from another.

The United States has tradition­ally been one of Egypt’s closest allies, providing the country with an estimated $1.3 billion in military aid annually since 1979. Yet Sisi also signed a $3.5 billion weapons deal with Moscow in September 2014 and accepted a $25 billion loan from Russia to build a nuclear power plant. How is Washington to read Sisi cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time when US-Russian relations are in sharp decline?

Sisi has also increasingly opened Egypt to China, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on four occasions in the last two years. In January 2016, Beijing pledged to invest up to $15 billion in Egypt, including assisting in the construction of Egypt’s new administrative capital.

Will Sisi be able to juggle com­peting claims from three of the world’s largest powers?

Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf countries have traditionally been among Egypt’s closest allies. Riyadh pledged $5 billion to Cairo in July 2013 and an additional $4 billion in March 2015, in addition to monthly petroleum shipments for five years thought to be worth $23 billion. How is Riyadh to react to news that Cairo is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power and even hosted his se­curity chief, Ali Mamluk, in Cairo when Saudi Arabia views Assad’s removal as an urgent necessity?

The approaches of the two countries reflect differences in priorities. For Saudi Arabia, the priority is countering Iran. For Egypt, the Muslim Brother­hood remains the main source of concern. Saudi Arabia wants the Iran-backed Assad out; Sisi worries that Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will replace him. The same argument was rehashed in Yemen where Riyadh wanted Egypt to join its military coalition to fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels but Sisi demurred.

Egypt in October voted in favour of opposing resolutions on a Syrian ceasefire, a move that amply demonstrated the increas­ingly awkward position that Cairo will find itself in as it tries to maintain its strange and contra­dictory web of alliances.

More important, this gambit simply did not work and Cairo came in for rare public criticism from Riyadh, which halted ship­ments of petroleum, albeit tem­porarily. Saudi Arabia and Egypt need each other but few can deny that things are complicated and there is only so much room to manoeuvre.

The economic pressures facing Egypt domestically mean that Sisi must push for as much foreign as­sistance as possible. However, the prickly patriotism of the Egyptian people means that he cannot af­ford to be appearing to go hat in hand either.

Sisi’s decision to return two islands — Tiran and Sanafir — to Riyadh in the same week that Saudi Arabia announced a slew of investments exemplified the chal­lenge he is facing and there were unprecedented protests in Egypt in reaction to this. If Sisi had de­cided to commit Egyptian troops to a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and become part of a conflict that most Egyptians view as nothing to do with them, then such protests and criticisms would only have been amplified.

Sisi is engaged in a difficult and delicate balancing act. He is seeking to avoid lurching too far in any one direction. To move too close to Putin would threaten the military aid offered by the United States. To take too strong a stance on Syria could cause Riyadh to withdraw its backing. All the while his supporters bridle at sugges­tions that he could be another stooge of the United States or Saudi Arabia, like Hosni Mubarak, and hail his reorientation towards Moscow.

The longer Sisi can sit on the fence, the more gains he can secure for Egypt but given the increasingly divisive geopolitical situation abroad and the economic and social pressure at home, there are questions as to how long he can sustain this approach. One wonders whether it would be wiser for Sisi to pick a side before circumstances take the decision out of his hands.

This article was originally published here.

Code of Honor

Egypt Blog
The remains of a horse carriage lies on the street in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan on April 6, 2014 following tribal clashes which killed at least 23 people. Long-standing tensions between Bani Hilal tribesmen and the Nubian Dabudiya family erupted after a woman was accosted on April 3, the interior ministry said. Tribal vendettas are common in Egypt's poor, rural south, but police called the outbreak of violence the worst in recent memory. AFP PHOTO / AHMED EL-MOGHRABI        (Photo credit should read AHMED EL-MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images)

The remains of a horse carriage lies on the street in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan on April 6, 2014 following tribal clashes which killed at least 23 people. Long-standing tensions between Bani Hilal tribesmen and the Nubian Dabudiya family erupted after a woman was accosted on April 3, the interior ministry said. Tribal vendettas are common in Egypt’s poor, rural south, but police called the outbreak of violence the worst in recent memory. AFP PHOTO / AHMED EL-MOGHRABI (Photo credit should read AHMED EL-MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt is a country with many faces and a country that continually finds itself at the center of attention. One facet of Egypt’s complex culture that has only recently drawn international interest is al-tar—the vendetta. Although blood feuds have long been a defining feature of Upper Egypt, the custom made headlines earlier this month when at least twenty-four people died in Aswan over a period of two days in a series of revenge killings between Nubian villagers from Daboud and members of the Arab clan of Beni Helal.

For an Egyptian, the word al-tar evokes a rich and somewhat otherworldly history of black and white television, old stories of turbaned and mustachioed clan leaders resting their kartoush shotguns across their knees and ordering attacks on rival families while puffing on shisha and drinking Turkish coffee. For those living in Aswan and elsewhere in Upper Egypt, these blood feuds remain an all-too-near reality; the only difference is that the ancient shotguns have been replaced by AK-47 assault rifles. In the Arabic language, where any one word can mean a host of different things, al-tar has only one meaning. This entire culture of vendetta, going back hundreds of years, can perhaps best be summed up in the oft-quoted proverb al-tar wala al-aar: “Revenge or disgrace.”

Vendettas in Upper Egypt break out over the reasons most people might expect: land, property and perceived slights on honor. In a region suffering from a weak police presence, the proliferation of arms and a culture where the code of silence is still practiced, al-tar servers as an important, if somewhat crude, societal safety valve. But the most recent deadly conflict, between the Arab Haleyla clan and Nubian Daboudiya tribe this month, differed from most traditional examples of the phenomenon, seemingly centering on three of the great blights of modern Egyptian society: sexual harassment, political division and ethnic tension.

The unrest in Aswan apparently broke out over the harassment of a girl from one of the tribes, starting a brawl at a local school. Clashes continued for the next 48 hours with casualties on both sides before the authorities intervened, securing a fragile truce. The underlying political and ethnic tensions can be seen in graffiti scrawled on the burned-out walls of houses, with the Nubians accusing the Arabs of being faloul, backers of the now-discredited regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Mursi. The Arab side reportedly castigates the Nubians for their recent meeting with president-in-waiting Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi while extolling Arab dominance in the region.

Egypt’s Nubian community, marginalized under both Mubarak and Mursi, are hoping for a brighter future under Sisi’s presidency. But at a time when politics in Egypt appears to be taking a more confrontational approach, it is only reasonable to assume that ethnic and religious hostility will continue, if not worsen.

Even the manner in which this unrest was resolved betrayed some of the worst aspects of Egypt today, including a preoccupation with conspiracy theories and a disinclination to deal with reality objectively. Following the truce, a joint statement issued by the two sides accused “invisible hands” of igniting the feud, while Egyptian military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali blamed the Muslim Brotherhood.

The unrest in Aswan may have cooled, thanks to political and security deployments and the intervention of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic institution. But with so many dead, and honor on each side demanding retribution, one cannot expect this to last for long: In Egypt, al-tar is a dish that can be served cold or hot.

Dammed-Up Politics

Egypt Blog
A picture taken on May 28, 2013 shows the Blue Nile in Guba, Ethiopia, during its diversion ceremony.  Ethiopia has begun diverting the Blue Nile as part of a giant dam project, officials said on May 29, 2013 risking potential unease from downstream nations Sudan and Egypt. The $4.2 billion (3.2 billion euro) Grand Renaissance Dam hydroelectric project had to divert a short section of the river -- one of two major tributaries to the main Nile -- to allow the main dam wall to be built.  "To build the dam, the natural course must be dry," said Addis Tadele, spokesman for the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), a day after a formal ceremony at the construction site. AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM LLOYD GEORGE        (Photo credit should read William Lloyd-George/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on May 28, 2013 shows the Blue Nile in Guba, Ethiopia, during its diversion ceremony. Ethiopia has begun diverting the Blue Nile as part of a giant dam project, officials said on May 29, 2013 risking potential unease from downstream nations Sudan and Egypt. The $4.2 billion (3.2 billion euro) Grand Renaissance Dam hydroelectric project had to divert a short section of the river — one of two major tributaries to the main Nile — to allow the main dam wall to be built. “To build the dam, the natural course must be dry,” said Addis Tadele, spokesman for the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), a day after a formal ceremony at the construction site. AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM LLOYD GEORGE (Photo credit should read William Lloyd-George/AFP/Getty Images)

“We will not allow anyone to touch Egypt’s share of Nile Water. This is a matter of life and death for Egypt,” the country’s Mursi-era water resources and irrigation minister, Mohamed Bahaa El-Din, said last June during a high-level meeting chaired by now-ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi that was accidentally—and famously—broadcast on live television.

“We do not have the luxury of giving up any drop of water from Egypt’s share of Nile water,” reiterated Egypt’s current water minister, Mohamed Abdel Moteleb, earlier this year.

It is clear that Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project continues to provoke feelings of concern across Egypt. That concern has been edging towards a state of mass hysteria following reports that a third of construction has now been completed as the 2017 completion date draws ever closer. But away from all the political and media posturing, just how much of an actual threat does the dam represent to Egyptian water security?

According to the UN, Egypt could become a “water scarce” country by 2025. And, whatever the differences between Cairo and Addis Ababa—and they are myriad—Egypt’s fundamental connection to the Nile is perhaps the only thing all Egyptians can agree on.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, to give the project its full name, will stand 550 feet (170 meters) high and be 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) wide, holding a reservoir of 16.6 trillion gallons (63 billion cubic meters) of water and boasting a 6,000-megawatt production capacity. Approximately 8,500 people are working on this 4.7 billion US dollar project, with construction taking place around the clock. All in all, the dam will be the largest in Africa and thirteenth largest in the world, dwarfing Egypt’s own not-so-high-anymore High Dam.

It is true that most analysis—though not all—agrees that Egypt’s share of Nile waters will be negatively affected by the dam. But, as indicated above, the political dimensions of this issue are taking precedent over ecological and technical details, and so any technical claims that the dam will be good or bad for Egypt must be viewed through a political lens.

But Egypt, whether under Bahaa El-Din or Abdel Moteleb, Mursi or Sisi, continues to lose on the political front as well. Addis Ababa announced the project just two months after the revolution, while Cairo only began dealing with the issue in earnest after Mursi came to power. Even then, it kept dropping the ball. Mursi-era water minister Bahaa El-Din moved from expressing “surprise” at the news (at least eighteen months after the project had been publicly announced) to denying that it would affect Egypt’s share of Nile water to beating his chest and framing the issue as an existential crisis for the post-revolutionary country. Then there was the behind-closed-doors meeting, chaired by Mursi, which was accidentally broadcast live on television in which senior Egyptian politicians mulled destabilizing the Ethiopian government and physically sabotaging or attacking the dam.

Less than two months later, Mursi was in custody and a new president was in power. Has the current government fared any better? In short, the answer is no. Abdel Moteleb has also flip-flopped on the issue, from attempting to reassure the public that Egypt’s share of the Nile will not be affected by the dam to warning that “all options and scenarios are open.” Amid all this chest-beating, almost exclusively for domestic consumption and political point-scoring, the third round of technical negotiations between the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian water resources ministers broke down in January.

Sudan has since taken a step back from the issue, leaving Egypt as the sole downstream country that objects to the ambitious project. Cairo has subsequently ramped up its diplomatic efforts to halt the construction of the dam, appealing directly to the Italian company that won the construction contract, filing reports with the EU, and seeking to obtain international help to shut the project down. In addition to this, rumors and reports are currently emerging among Egyptians—who are renowned lovers of conspiracy theories—that the dam is being funded by Turkey, Qatar, Israel, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, or some combination thereof. According to WikiLeaks, former President Mubarak had planned to launch air strikes on any putative upstream dam if diplomatic options failed. Diplomatic options have failed, but Egypt today is in no position to start a war while Ethiopia is basking in its security victories and economic boom.

Most Western analysts, misunderstanding both Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s deep cultural and national connection to the Nile, believe that the solution to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project is simple: you just replace the word “Ethiopian” with “African.” This would prompt Egypt to contribute to the dam’s funding and obtain much-needed water and electricity guarantees in return. This solution is reasonable, logical and sound—which means, given the state of hysteria and chaos that has dominated Egypt since the revolution, it is unlikely to come to pass.

Egyptians are fond of quoting the aphorism of ancient Greek historian Herodotus that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Ethiopians have developed an aphorism of their own: “The Nile is the gift of Ethiopia.” As these two African powerhouses— Ethiopia in the ascendency, and Egypt economically and politically flailing—continue to wrangle over the lifeblood of the continent, how much longer will it be until Egypt reaches the point of no return?

This article was originally published here.

Everybody’s a Faloul

Egypt Blog
An Egyptian street vendor sells the country's national flag and masks of the Egypt's Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as voters queue outside the polling station during the second day of voting on a new constitution on January 15, 2014 in the southern Cairo Giza district. Egyptians resumed voting in the constitutional referendum, with turnout expected to hold the key to a likely presidential bid by al-Sisi after clashes killed nine the previous day. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

An Egyptian street vendor sells the country’s national flag and masks of the Egypt’s Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as voters queue outside the polling station during the second day of voting on a new constitution on January 15, 2014 in the southern Cairo Giza district. Egyptians resumed voting in the constitutional referendum, with turnout expected to hold the key to a likely presidential bid by al-Sisi after clashes killed nine the previous day. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt took one step forward on the military-backed post-revolutionary roadmap this week following the unsurprising approval of a controversial constitution. But this sentence could very well have been written in March 2011 or December 2012, and if the past is any indication of the future, we may be seeing it again soon following the collapse of the “third republic.” So while it may have been one step forward, we are now waiting for the inevitable two steps back.

Egypt today is arguably more divided than at any time since the January 25 revolution. To look at the news coverage in the country, with reports of car bombings and Al-Qaeda affiliates, Egypt more closely resembles Iraq or Syria than itself before the revolution. At least 14 people were reported killed and 444 arrested over the two-day constitutional referendum despite, or perhaps because of, the huge security presence. This is just part of a larger trend of Egypt’s new decision-makers stamping their authority on the country by literally stamping all over the former rulers. The only difference is that this time it is the military that is once more in power, while the faloul —the remnants of the former regime—are the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s military-backed interim government has taken a number of calculated decisions following former President Mohamed Mursi’s ouster on July 3, 2013—variously described as a military coup or a second or “corrective” revolution—to secure its grip on power. But lately, power in Egypt is more like a wet bar of soap—the tighter you hold it, the faster it will slip from your grasp. That is a lesson the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi failed to learn. Will Egypt’s interim government and its popular defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, do any better?

From initial indications, it appears not. A spate of attacks targeting the security apparatus, most prominently the suicide bombing of a Mansoura police station on Christmas Eve, killing at least 14, was immediately followed by the military-backed interim government taking the—at best suspect and at worst unconstitutional—decision to unilaterally designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization before investigations could be launched and trials held. What cannot be denied is that if the Brotherhood weren’t terrorists before the announcement, they have no reason to follow the path of peaceful protests now that they have been further marginalized. This decision has served to divide, not unify, post-Mursi Egypt, and it was decision-making similar to this that ultimately led to Mursi’s downfall.

There is also the controversial constitution itself, which greatly expands the army’s role in Egypt. The new constitution permits military trials for civilians while also placing the post of Defense Minister outside civilian control for the next eight years, so that in very real terms the question of a Sisi presidential bid are moot. Whether Sisi takes the throne or remains the power behind it, Egypt has now entered the Sisi era.

Sisi-mania has become a sideshow in Egypt, with more and more Egyptians viewing a Sisi presidency as the answer to their prayers. Reality, unfortunately, does not work this way. In a post-revolutionary situation as complex as Egypt’s, no one man, or even one party, can fix everything, and this is why the military’s divisive policies are so dangerous at this critical juncture. As for Sisi himself, he appears charismatic and earnest, particularly when compared with the chaos and political ineptitude that governed the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. Nevertheless, this is no guarantee of success. Questions have also been raised about this career soldier’s political prowess following a number of leaked videos and audio recordings. These range from him blithely talking about a secret military plan to get Egypt’s media on side to prophetic dream conversations with the late former president Anwar Sadat.

With many expecting Sisi to announce a presidential run any day now, the question remains: Is Sisi the solution? While ‘President Sisi’ could be no worse than President Mursi, and even if the man meets the Egyptian people’s wildest dreams, the next phase will be rife with challenges. The once-again ‘terrorist’ Muslim Brotherhood organization does not intend to return to the shadows quietly. The Cairo government may be able to lock up their leaders—including Mohamed Badie, Khairat El-Shater and Mohamed El-Beltagy—and threaten their supporters, but the people in post-revolution Egypt will not be so easily cowed. In fact, this could ultimately serve to inject new blood into the Brotherhood leadership, with politically savvy younger leaders taking over the mantle.

As for the military, it will continue to try to strengthen its position in post-Mursi Egypt. It is facing a number of difficult challenges, not least restoring calm to the restive Sinai Peninsula. But fighting a war on terror while also trying to kill off the Muslim Brotherhood and secure their grip on Egypt’s state institutions will be a far more difficult juggling act.

We have taken our one step forward this week with the approval of the constitution. Will Egypt’s post-Mursi authorities be able to keep going?

This article was originally published here.

Egypt’s Ex-Presidents’ Club

Egypt Blog
Morsi supporters gather outside Cairo Police Academy on November 4, 2013. (Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Morsi supporters gather outside Cairo Police Academy on November 4, 2013. (Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“The trial of Mohamed Mursi is not taking place in the same manner as the trial of Mohamed Hosni [Mubarak]. If Mursi has committed crimes against the people, then we, as the people, should have the right . . . to see what is happening inside the court,” one Egyptian citizen opined as he was interviewed on Egypt’s Nile Television Network last month during Mohamed Mursi’s trial. “Otherwise, this means that you are afraid, that you are the criminal, and so what happened was a coup, not a revolution,” he added, to the applause of the small crowd gathered around him.

As many Egyptians, including myself, look ahead to Mohamed Mursi’s next court date (his case was adjourned until January 2014), we find ourselves overcome by a curious blend of emotions: bemusement and dread, as well as a desire to simply move on. As for Hosni Mubarak’s newest court appointment—the former president and his two sons have been referred to criminal court once again over new financial corruption charges—it has become nothing more than a sideshow to the main event.

Mohamed Mursi, the former Egyptian president, strode into court last month like a prizefighter entering the ring: “I am Dr. Mohamed Mursi, the President of the Republic. I am Egypt’s legitimate president. You have no right to conduct an investigation into presidential matters,” he said, addressing the judiciary.

Or, at least, that is what the media and those inside the court reported. The brief footage of the trial provided by Egyptian state TV was curiously silent, with Egyptian authorities evidently afraid of the reaction that the deposed president’s bombastic statements could have on his supporters beyond the courthouse walls. Both liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters criticized this move, because a just and fair trial must be transparent. However, the military-backed interim government’s fears may be rational given the media circus that surrounded the trial and the divisive atmosphere that continues to prevail over Egyptian society. This can be seen in both secular liberals and pro-Mursi Islamists coming out this week to protest a controversial protest law—albeit separately.

Egyptian media closely scrutinized every aspect of the first session of Mursi’s trial, particularly as this was his first public appearance since his ouster: “What did it mean that he was wearing a suit rather than prison attire?” Psychoanalysts and body language experts appeared on television to painstakingly analyze every second of footage from the courtroom, while legal experts debated Mursi’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, or to officially appoint a legal defense team.

As for the Egyptian public, they had been engaged in this pastime for months, eagerly digesting leaks and rumors about former President Mursi’s time in the bowels of the state he once led. “Mursi has his own personal chef and is eating duck every night. Mursi is growing his beard and has become even more religious. Mursi is refusing to wear prison uniform.” The rumors, and jokes, were endless. Egyptians have continued in this vein since the trial and Mursi’s surprise transfer to Alexandria’s Burj Al-Arab prison.

One rumor that swept through Egypt following the trial is the claim that during his transfer to Alexandria by military helicopter, Egyptian army officers took him on a tour of the capital, pointing to the calm city below and taunting: “Where are your supporters now, Mr. President?”

The trial and re-trial of Mubarak, on the other hand, is easygoing by comparison. The former president is brought into court on a stretcher, his features obscured by dark glasses, and the big news revolves around whether he waved or smiled. In fact, the more outrageous Mursi acts, the better Mubarak looks. Mubarak stepped down in the face of eighteen days of public protest, while Mursi continues to hang onto claims of legitimacy as the so-called Anti-Coup Alliance discuss escalating protests and even the formation of a government in exile.

Ultimately, there is only so much Egyptian public anger to go around, and it is difficult to be angry with two former presidents at the same time.

The Egyptian authorities are also facing a dilemma: Egypt’s political transition is under way, and they want to move on, but to do so they must strike a balance between completely burying Mursi and allowing him to have his day in court. The former could serve to make a martyr out of the man and incite his supporters to burn the country to the ground, but the latter could do the same.

When former President Mursi next appears in court, Egypt may well have concluded a referendum on a new constitution and be well on the way to parliamentary and presidential elections. Given this, his impending court appearance certainly will not enjoy the same level of media coverage and public obsession; Egyptians want to look forwards, not backwards. The Muslim Brotherhood will continue their protests and disruptions, and the majority of Egyptians will continue to ignore them.

Speaking during the final few months of the Mubarak regime, when the prospects of his son, Gamal Mubarak, taking the presidency seemed assured, an Egyptian friend of mine who was searching for a silver lining told me: “Whatever happens, it will be historic. This will be the first time that Egypt has seen a peaceful transfer of power from one living president to the next.” Well, it is three years later and Egypt is still waiting to see a peaceful transition of presidential power.

Gamal Abdel Nasser ousted Egypt’s first president Muhammad Naguib. Anwar Sadat succeeded Nasser on his death. Mubarak succeeded Sadat following his assassination, and then the Egyptian people rose up to drive out Mubarak, only to rise up again to get rid of his successor.

However, my friend was right in one regard: what happened was historic, for we now have two former presidents, and they are both behind bars. Egypt must be careful to ensure that the next man to join the “Ex-Presidents’ Club” is worthy of the name.

This article was originally published here.

Constitution Conundrum

Egypt Blog
Egypt’s 50-member constitution-drafting committee at their first meeting in Cairo on September 8, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt’s 50-member constitution-drafting committee at their first meeting in Cairo on September 8, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

Rumors continue to swirl around Egypt’s Lagna Al-Khamseen—the fifty-member committee tasked with drafting its new constitution. Speculation is rife as to whether the document will designate Shari’a law as the basis for legislation, allow civilians to be tried by military tribunal, or perhaps destroy freedom of religion. The rumors, opinions, and leaks are unending, and ultimately only those fifty committee members truly know what is going on behind the doors of their closed sessions.
The committee has a huge task ahead of it, and only after the new articles have been deliberated, voted upon, and announced will we be able to judge its work. With the final draft of the constitution set to be announced sometime before the end of the year, and parliamentary elections to follow shortly thereafter, let’s take a look at some of the more controversial articles under discussion.

The role of Shari’a law as a source of legislation is a particular bone of contention, with Al-Azhar, the top religious authority in Sunni Islam, and the Salafist Al-Nour Party on one side, and Egypt’s secularists and three Christian denominations on the other. Articles 2 and 219 of the 2012 constitution drafted under the Muslim Brotherhood are reportedly the subject of heated discussions. Although Article 2 explicitly enshrines Shari’a law as the source of Egypt’s legislation, Article 219 goes further, defining the “principles” of Shari’a law as being “the general evidence, fundamental and jurisprudence rules, and recognized sources as acknowledged by the Sunni school of thought.” There was even disagreement within the Islamist camp over the wording of Article 2, with Al-Azhar reportedly favoring the pre-existing term “principles” of Shari’a law, while the Salafists wanted to see this strengthened even further to “rulings.”

The Christians and secularists want to see Article 219 completely removed, and the Salafists and Azhar, to a lesser degree, are adamant that it remains. With the Brotherhood absent from the constitution-drafting committee, it is the Al-Nour Party that is left to fly the Islamist flag and try to save as much of the 2012 Islamist-flavored constitution as possible. However there is one proviso. While Article 219 was a complete novelty in 2012, Egyptian constitutions have always included an Article 2, a constitutional article explicitly stating Islam as the state religion, Arabic as the official language, and Shari’a law as the source—sometimes “principal” source—of legislation. This was the case under Sadat and Mubarak. It was also the case under the SCAF and Mursi. It will certainly remain the case under whoever comes next.

There are other issues relating to religion and legislation, particularly Article 3 which stipulates that “the canon principles of the People of the Book [Jews, Christians and Muslims] are the main source of legislation for their [respective] personal status laws, religious affairs and the selection of their spiritual leaders.” The term “People of the Book” is considered offensive by some Christians and Jews in Egypt, so the churches want this changed to “non-Muslims.” The Muslims would, at best, agree to see it changed to “Muslims, Christians, and Jews.” If such a straightforward constitutional article can be the subject of heated debate, how can the committee members, representing Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, secularists and Islamists, seek to reach a consensus on anything?

The Arab Republic of Egypt has had at least six different constitutions since 1956. While it is true that no two constitutions are likely to differ as much as the one drafted into law by Islamist president Mohamed Mursi and the one that will be drafted into law by those who ousted him, we are still talking relatively minor changes. The term “constitution” evokes epic imagery in the modern English vernacular, bringing to mind grim-faced patriots debating philosophical issues of the highest order. The problem is that there is nobody like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams in Egypt’s Lagna Al-Khamseen, and the document its members emerge with will not be worth the paper it is written on unless Egypt has a government that seeks to implement its articles.

Loopholes that allowed mass arrests, the outlawing of political groups, and a state of emergency that lasted for thirty years will most likely survive in one form or another. The only thing that can change is a general shift in society and among the authorities against these practices. While a bad constitution can ruin a country, a good constitution does not necessarily guarantee success. A constitution can only reflect principles already found in society; if society does not believe in the principles of democracy and religious freedoms, then guaranteeing these in the constitution can only do so much. Egypt must look to instill these principles, not just talk about them.

This article was originally published here.

Sadat’s Example for Egypt

Egypt Blog
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat attends the successful conclusion of the Sinai II negotiations in 1975 in Alexandria, Egypt. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat attends the successful conclusion of the Sinai II negotiations in 1975 in Alexandria, Egypt. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

There is a well-known joke in Egypt that says presidents always appoints a vice-presidents less capable than themselves, which is why Nasser appointed Sadat, Sadat appointed Mubarak, and Mubarak did not appoint anyone at all.
This gag reflects a general belief within Egyptian society regarding the performance—and consequently the popularity—of subsequent Egyptian leaders, with the majority of people holding Nasser up as a paradigm of Egyptian and pan-Arab leadership. It is this belief that is fuelling the Sisi-mania currently gripping Egyptian society, with the defense minister being viewed by many as the second Nasser, come again to restore Egyptian pride. In my mind, however, what Egypt requires today is not another Nasser, but a second Sadat.

Former president Gamal Abdel Nasser enjoys a peerless position in the Egyptian cultural psyche; he was a hero who stood up to Western imperialism, Islamic extremism and creeping Zionism. His victories— the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the taming of the Muslim Brotherhood, land reforms, and economic boom—continue to live on in the Egyptian popular zeitgeist. Nobody can doubt the man’s personal charisma and magnetism. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate him during a speech in Alexandria in 1954, firing eight shots with a handgun towards the stage. All missed, and as the would-be assassin was taken into custody, Nasser, who had remained defiant at the podium, proclaimed: “Let them kill me; it does not concern me so long as I have instilled pride, honor and freedom in you. If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, each of you shall be Gamal Abdel Nasser.” Given the sense of national pride that he instilled in the Egyptian people at the time, it is no wonder that millions took to the streets to demand his return in response to his short-lived resignation in 1967 following Egypt’s crushing defeat against Israel in the Six-Day War.

These moments continue to live on in the Egyptian memory, while his mistakes—and there were many—have been forgotten. There was the weak military challenge he offered Israel during his tenure, particularly in the 1967 war—which Egyptians call Al-Naksa, or “The Setback”—which saw the complete annexation of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The failed propaganda war he tried to run during this conflict, with Egyptian state radio claiming that Egypt was close to victory, made the announcement of defeat that bit more surprising and traumatic for the general public. This is not to mention his using, and then discarding, the Muslim Brotherhood, or his failure to implement democracy.

Nasser was such a popular leader because he was a polarizing one; he promoted an ‘us against the world’ mentality, both within Egyptian society and in the Arab world at large. Nothing could be more dangerous for Egypt today than the return of this divisive approach. It would fragment an already divided society.

Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, made the tough and unpopular decisions that ultimately saved Egypt. He began his presidency by releasing Muslim Brotherhood leaders from prison, signaling an immediate shift from the Nasser era. Rather than using the US as a convenient whipping boy to stir up national sentiment, Sadat realized which way the wind was blowing, moving Egypt’s diplomatic alignment from the doomed Soviet Union to the US. He masterminded the Infitah, economic liberalization policy, opening Egypt up to much-needed foreign investment, and restored Egyptian national pride with the successful 1973 war against Israel. Most importantly of all, Sadat made peace with Israel. He realized that Egypt needed to be at peace with its eastern neighbor, that this was vital for the country’s stability and prosperity, and he worked to make it happen despite a general lack of public support. A true leader leads from the front. His historic visit to Israel’s Knesset in 1977, travelling into to the belly of the beast less than five years after leading a war against the country, represents perhaps one of the greatest acts of political bravery undertaken by a world leader over the past fifty years.

In a month that has seen the US withhold vital military aid to Egypt, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi not ruling out a prospective presidential run, and Sadat’s own widow endorse a Sisi presidency, Egypt increasingly finds itself at a crossroads. The Muslim Brotherhood practiced a polarizing and divisive approach during their single year in power, while the military-backed interim government has gone to the other extreme, cracking down strongly on the Islamists. Egypt now needs rational, middle-of-the-road presidents who can unite the country behind them and secure Egypt’s future.

Speaking at the Knesset in 1977, Sadat said: “I took this decision [to come to the Knesset] after long thought, knowing that it constitutes a great risk, for God Almighty has made it my fate to assume responsibility on behalf of the Egyptian people … to exploit all and every means in a bid to save my Egyptian people … from the horrors of new suffering and destructive wars.”

This article was originally published here.

Islamist Infighting

Egypt Blog
Supporters of the Salafist Al-Nour Party watch a speech given by popular Salafi religious leader Mohamed Hassan in Cairo, Egypt, on October 14, 2011. (David Degner/Getty Images)

Supporters of the Salafist Al-Nour Party watch a speech given by popular Salafi religious leader Mohamed Hassan in Cairo, Egypt, on October 14, 2011. (David Degner/Getty Images)

On one warm Cairo Wednesday recently, Salafist Al-Nour Party Secretary-General Galal Murra awkwardly hemmed and hawed his way through a statement: “To the great people of Egypt, by God we only took this decision and position to stop the bloodshed of our people, and put an end to this situation in Egypt, which has perhaps reached the stage of opening the door to civil war. We were moved by our love for this country, and in defense of our religion and legitimacy, which we firmly believe in, and that is why we took this course of action in order to rescue Egypt.”
As the camera slowly panned out, the source of his discomfort was revealed: he was the sole Islamist standing before a veritable coterie of Egyptian civil, political, religious and, most importantly, military leadership, and they were all seeking to dislodge the country’s elected president.

The day was July 3, 2013—President Mohamed Mursi’s last day in office. In fact, that day may prove to be the last day that any Islamist holds the top position in Egypt in the near, and perhaps far, future.

More than two months later, there are two questions that must be asked: Has Egypt been rescued from the prospect of civil war? And just what motivated Egypt’s second party to turn on the standard-bearer of Egyptian political Islam and their sometime ally, the Muslim Brotherhood?

The answer is simple, and coincidentally it also explains the presence of every other figure at that fateful press conference in which Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced Mursi’s ouster: Fear over the direction in which Egypt was heading under Mursi, sprinkled with some self-interest and served with a side-order of political opportunism.

We must dispense with the myth that because the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood are both Islamists they are somehow comrades-in-arms. While they certainly share some interests, they are also largely competing against one another for the same support base. Egypt’s native Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally ruled the roost, even though it has been outlawed for most of its eighty-year history. The ultraconservative Salafists, on the other hand, are relative newcomers to the Egyptian scene in general and the political scene in particular.

The Salafists, who adhere to a strict, fundamental interpretation of Islam harking back to the seventh and eighth centuries, share a number of ideological beliefs with the Muslim Brotherhood, including viewing the Qu’ran and Sunnah as the sole reference point for all aspects of life, including politics. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has been a political organization since its very inception, and therein lies its major strength. While the Salafists predate the Brotherhood, they were not organized until very recently; The Muslim Brotherhood has always been the most organized force on the ground in the modern Republic of Egypt, allowing them to secure strong grassroots popularity at home and abroad. While its organization has been the Brotherhood’s biggest strength, it has also proved a major weakness in terms of the manner in which the group administrated, or shall we say failed to administrate, the country under Mursi’s tenure.

Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood’s very existence caused a radical change in the nature of Salafi organizations and Salafists. The term “Salafi” today has become almost synonymous with terrorism, with so-called Salafists aspiring to be shoe- and underwear-bombers. However, this ultraconservative doctrine did not—and arguably still does not—advocate violence as a tool for change. It was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb who developed and popularized the concepts of takfirism, the practice of one Muslim declaring another Muslim an unbeliever, and Dar Al-Jahiliya, a division of the world in Islam, with Qutb claiming that the modern Islamic Umma (world community) had reverted to a state of pre-Islamic ignorance, invaliding a number of until then cast-iron Islamic guidelines regarding warfare. Both of these concepts are major pillars in the rise of Islamic terrorism and Al-Qaeda.

As for their interactions following the January 25 revolution, the Brotherhood and Salafists initially competed against one another. The Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al-Nour Party, the two largest blocs in Egypt’s 2012 parliament, eventually reached a somewhat tense post-revolution alliance, particularly over Egypt’s nascent constitution. It was this alliance in the much-derided and Islamist-dominated constitutional drafting committee that led to Egypt’s controversial constitution that is again in the process of being amended.

However, this cooperation proved to be an exception, and the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists—especially the Al-Nour Party—have largely been at odds since the Arab Spring, and particularly following the election of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi. The Al-Nour Party initially backed Muslim Brotherhood defector Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh for president, before throwing its weight behind Mursi in the presidential run-off to ensure that Mubarak stalwart Ahmed Shafiq did not come to power.

After the ratification of the 2012 constitution, the Brotherhood–Nour pact came apart, with the Salafists criticizing Mursi for his controversial constitutional declaration and the Brotherhood’s monopolization of the apparatus of power. Mursi, as ultimately evidenced by his ouster, was not one to back down from a fight, escalating the political spat with the second-largest bloc in parliament and eventually leading to Murra’s unexpected presence at Sisi’s press conference.

Unsurprisingly, the Al-Nour Party did another about face less than a week later, after the outbreak of nation-wide violence in Egypt. The party announced its withdrawal from Sisi’s road map after the massacre of Islamist supporters of the former president outside a Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo.

With the Muslim Brotherhood’s very existence as a legal organization in Egypt under threat this week following disputed reports that the governments intends, or indeed already has, dissolved the Brotherhood’s status as a non-governmental organization, what lies ahead for the Nour party?

Squeezed on one side by the secular and liberal forces it allied with to oust Mursi, and despised by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, the Salafists today find themselves in an awkward position. With just one representative in the secularist-dominated body tasked with amending the constitution, the Al-Nour Party will most likely find its voice drowned out in post-post-revolutionary Egypt.

This article was originally published here.

Egypt’s Need for Common Sense

Egypt Blog
Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi spray slogans on a wall during a march through the Nasr City district on the second day of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday on August 9, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. (Ed Giles/Getty Images).

Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi spray slogans on a wall during a march through the Nasr City district on the second day of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday on August 9, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt. (Ed Giles/Getty Images).

Last week, Egypt’s interior ministry issued repeated warnings to the massive pro-Mursi sit-ins in Cairo, calling on supporters to leave the squares and return to their homes. The expected violence failed to materialize, with supporters of the ousted president conducting Eid prayers in and around Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, across town from supporters of the military-backed interim government who were celebrating the end of Ramadan in Tahrir Square.
Despite the celebrations, Egypt remains on edge, with all sides waiting anxiously to find out just what will happen next. So, how can we ensure that Egypt does not descend into further violence? The answer is simple: Egypt needs to see the return of common sense to the scene.

Egyptian defense minister and army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi calling for mass demonstrations against “terrorism” in order to mandate the military to confront violence was either an act of pure irrationality or political Machiavellianism at its worst. In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Following a deadly incident during which scores of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed, allegedly while trying to storm the Republican Guard barracks were Mursi was being held, Sisi took the decision to call for more—not fewer—demonstrations. Rather than call for the Egyptian people to remain in their homes, he called on them to take to the streets.

Unsurprisingly, Sisi’s call for a “no to violence” Friday in Tahrir Square at the end of July was met with Brotherhood calls for pro-Mursi counter-demonstrations. Even more unsurprisingly, the “no to violence” Friday ended in widespread violence, with heated clashes between Mursi supporters and security services killing at least 78 and injuring hundreds more.

The Muslim Brotherhood estimated that more than one hundred were killed, reporting that the security services employed snipers and that the majority of those killed were shot to the head and chest. For its part, Egypt’s interior ministry denied that live ammunition was used, claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood had attacked the security forces, not the other way around.

However, cover-ups are just not feasible during this era of digital media and citizen journalism. We have spent shell casings collected in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, and even images of snipers on roofs. It is unconceivable that the Egyptian authorities will be able to use violence to sweep away these pro-Mursi sit-ins and then cover up the violence from the eyes of the watching world.

Thus the interior ministry and Egyptian military must realize that forcibly removing the Mursi supporters from Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square will only end in a bloodbath. One massacre will only lead to another, which in turn will lead to civil war and widespread violence. The Egyptian authorities must demonstrate patience and prudence to ensure that the country does not descend into the abyss. In short, they must do what everybody has failed to do since January 25 and take the long view, doing what is best for the country as a whole, rather than attempt to serve their own interests in the short-term.

The continued presence of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares, vociferously demanding the impossible—Mursi’s reinstatement—is also illogical. The Muslim Brotherhood must accept the new status quo and return to the political arena, or risk being shut out forever. They must understand that Egypt has changed and changed again, and just as they welcomed the first change, they must now accept the second. To do otherwise will not make anything better, and could make everything far worse.

The Islamists had been divided, with the Salafist Nour Party initially supporting the military coup. Salafists of all stripes are now standing shoulder to shoulder with their Muslim Brotherhood brethren in Egypt’s squares and streets. This is an increasingly dangerous state of polarization, with two competing visions for the country’s government and future taking shape.

In my opinion, both sides must retreat from their all-or-nothing positions and meet in the middle. A compromise will heave both sides dissatisfied, but Egypt’s Islamists and secularists need to reach just such a compromise. It would benefit of the country and the Egyptian people as a whole.

What would be the ideal solution? The Egyptian people—secularists and Islamists—returning to their homes, allowing the country to return to stability and the military to return to their barracks. As for the interim government, it must understand that it is an interim government, and that its sole job is to steady the ship and prepare for the next stage. It must focus on holding free and fair elections, establishing a new government and selecting a new president.

Has post-coup Egypt learned from the mistakes of its post-January 25 revolutionary past?

Only time will tell.

This article was originally published here.

The Egyptian Cousins’ War

Egypt Blog
Vintage color lithograph from 1864 showing the Duke of Somerset accusing the Duke of York of treason before an invalid King Henry VI. Getty Images

Vintage color lithograph from 1864 showing the Duke of Somerset accusing the Duke of York of treason before an invalid King Henry VI. Getty Images

Mohamed Mursi was simultaneously Egypt’s first civilian, democratically elected and Islamist president, in addition to being arguably one of the country’s most inept heads of state. He came to power following an unprecedented popular uprising, inheriting a sharply divided society, stalled economy and fractured political arena. On his ouster one year later, the situation is far worse.

The situation in Egypt today broadly echoes England’s infamous Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic struggles between two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet during which the English crown changed hands six times over a period of thirty years. Between 1455 and 1485, practically all of England found itself embroiled in the sporadic outbreaks of violence and political intrigue between the House of Lancaster and the House of York.

Each camp was beset by its own internal political divisions and maneuvering, often proving more deadly than the broader conflict. This political intrigue saw the three sons of the House of York jockey with one another for position and power, with King Edward IV ordering the death of one brother for treason, while the surviving brother, Richard III, is the hunchback king “determined to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days” of Shakespearian lore.

The House of Lancaster was no better. It was led by Henry VI, who suffered periodic bouts of madness. Leading from the field before retreating into almost ecstatic religious contemplation, Henry VI was not the most dependable leader, to say the least. He was eventually captured by Edward IV’s forces and purportedly executed on his orders.

This discord is being repeated today in Egypt, with the anti-Brotherhood camp initially putting on a show of force to help bring about Mursi’s ouster. Following Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s announcement of Mursi’s removal from power, Egypt’s secular, political, and youth forces lined up behind the military to back their “roadmap.” Egyptians listened, rapt, as Sisi’s announcement was followed by speeches from secular leader Mohamed El-Baradei, Al-Azhar grand sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, Coptic Pope Tawadros II, Tamarod (Rebellion) youth leader Mahmoud Badr, and even the Salafist Nour party secretary-general Jalal Mara.

However, following interim president Adly Mansour’s dissolution of the Shura Council and attempts to appoint Baradei as prime minister, the Nour party has withdrawn from the anti-Brotherhood alliance. Egypt’s other main Salafist group, Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya (along with its Building and Development Party), has staunchly stood with the Brotherhood since the beginning. As for Al-Azhar, Grand Sheikh Al-Tayyeb has lately come out to warn that the country is heading toward civil war, announcing that he intends to go into seclusion until “everyone shoulders his responsibility to stop the bloodshed.” Is it not convenient that his own responsibility in ending the violence ends at his front door?

As for Mursi, perhaps he most resembles Henry VI. The deposed Egyptian president’s actions during his first and final year in office often defied logic, including his harmful spat with the judiciary, his controversial constitutional declaration—which he later withdrew under public pressure—and his erratic speeches and public appearances. In the run-up to the expected nationwide protests against his rule, rather than attempting to calm tensions, Mursi appointed a member of the ultra-conservative Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya as governor of Luxor. Al-Gama’a was the group responsible for an infamous massacre of tourists in Luxor in 1997, part of a broader campaign by the then terrorist-designated organization to cripple Egypt’s tourism sector. To say that Luxor did not want to see the return of Al-Gama’a would be an understatement. In addition to this, the deposed president gave a brazenly defiant speech on July 26, promising media clampdowns and no mercy to “illegitimate” protesters. Sisi, who was sitting in that audience, will certainly not have been impressed by the soon-to-be-former Egyptian president’s rhetoric.

The Wars of the Roses, known as the Cousins’ War at the time because it was being fought between rival branches of the same house, ended when the scion of the House of Lancaster, Henry Tudor, married the daughter of Yorkist King Edward IV, forming the House of Tudor. This reunification of the House of Plantagenet saw a rare period of relative stability and prosperity in England, culminating ultimately in the so-called “golden” Elizabethan era of high culture. I do not see such a future in the offing for Egypt however; the country is too sharply divided, and is likely to remain so in the near, and far, future.

This article was originally published here.