Roger Owen: "General Sisi's Calculated Risks"

August 20, 2013

By Roger Owen, A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History

The following article was written by Professor Owen for the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat, where he publishes a regular column.

General Sisi’s declaration of all-out war against the Muslim Brothers is easily explicable in terms of both historical enmity between the Army and the Brothers and his perception of present dangers. After all, the military have been putting members of the Brothers in jail since shortly after the Free Officers coup of 1952, worried not only about organizational power but also the possibility that they may have been able to infiltrate parts of Egypt’s largely conscript army. While, as for the present, not only were the sit-ins and occupations an obvious affront to what the army perceived as public order but parts of the Brotherhood were also engaged in attacks on government buildings as well as on Egyptian troops in the Sinai peninsula.

Nevertheless, the risks are high. For one thing, the Brothers are extremely adept at using the exigencies that come from their victim status to find powerful ways of fighting back with words and new forms of public protest. Not to speak of the threat they pose to any serious attempt to create a new and legitimate political order. Indeed, it could be said that the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people who made the revolution has only just begun. For another, it is not clear how long the Obama team’s patience with the massacres and persecution will last. True the administration seems to have taken General Sisi at his word when he told the President, his Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense that he could disperse the various Muslim Brother sit-ins with minimum blood-shed. But by the time the battle for control of the mosque in Cairo’s Ramses Square had begun in earnest over the Egyptian weekend of August 16/17, with Obama preparing to return to Washington after his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, this patience was clearly wearing very thin.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing, there is still no sign General Sisi has decided that he cannot manage both sets of risks, the first by putting his weight behind a vision of a corporatist and so depoliticized Egypt, the second by at least half-acknowledging the fairly obvious fact that most of America’s military aid is made up of tanks and planes which the Egyptians either don’t need or can’t use effectively against its one serious enemy, Israel. So let President Obama display his displeasure by postponing September’s joint military exercises. Or even by going so far as to cut most or all military aid. Neither makes any great difference in real operational terms, while each American threat can be used to bolster that special form of Egyptian nationalism which feeds on a historical dislike of foreign interference in its internal affairs.

Let me elaborate. Many of the world’s revolutions have what you might call a ‘Napoleonic’ moment when some of the leaders of certain well-established state institutions begin to feel sufficiently threatened by the popular forces that continue to mill around with inchoate but passionately-held demands for change that they decide to clear the streets by using what in the Paris of 1795 came to known as Bonaparte’s “whiff of grapeshot,” that is by firing on them with guns, in the name of saving the revolution from itself.  This then turns into an opportunity to introduce their own institutional agenda, involving a new system of popular representation by which political enthusiasm and ideological excess is replaced by something more manageable—in Sisi’s present case by a combination of elections, signature collection, and the proposed creation of a body of fifty persons to vet the proposed constitution chosen not just from the political parties but also from various corporate constituencies like professional associations, work-place syndicates, and unions, augmented by representatives of established religion, youth, and women.

It helps, too, if there is a common external enemy like the monarchies of Europe, some of whom sent their forces to invade France in 1793 in an effort to put the King back on his throne. No such enemy for Egypt today. But, from Sisi’s point of view, a combination of patriotic opposition to outside pressure and the ability to portray the demonized Brothers as an international, rather than a purely Egyptian, movement might just do the trick as far as domestic support is concerned, as well as with his regime’s oil-rich Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia.

And then, to pose the question from General Sisi’s point of view, are not the risks involved in going after the Muslim Brothers significantly less than doing nothing at all?

Nevertheless, it is still important to question whether the General, acting no doubt on the advice of a cabal of clever advisers, has actually got it right? And will his gamble work? There are three major reasons why it may well not. First, there is the possibility that a decline into something approaching civil war, with rival militias fighting it out with pistols and automatic weapons in the streets, will put paid to any hope of the creation of a new political order being accepted by a significant majority of the people. Let alone the problem that many of those who do go along with his plans will do so reluctantly, only for fear of something worse. Second, Egypt may become internationally isolated as a result of the army’s violence against a part of its civilian population, shunned by governments in both the United States and Europe at a time when, because of its deep economic problems, it is desperately in need of foreign investment and the revenue from foreign tourism. Third, there are signs that a powerful group of American senators lead by John McCain, snubbed in their effort to persuade Sisi to include the Brotherhood within his new system, have shifted away from seeing Egypt as a strategic partner to a view of it as an embarrassing political ally.

Sisi may think that he is acting in Egypt’s greater good. But, given the many risks involved, it is difficult to believe that his attempt to establish his position as both the umpire and most powerful player in his country’s politics it will not come to grief sooner rather than later.