The land of the Nile, the land of milk and honey, the land of a 100 gods, Egypt has many things, but Egypt suffers a grim dearth of heroes. In early 2011 the Arab Spring swept into Egypt, and the Western world held its breath. Hosni Mubarak had been a strongman and a despot. That much was beyond question. He had held the office of president for 29 years without a single legitimate re-election, and throughout his entire term he kept special powers established by maintaining an unending “state of emergency” that suspended all but the least vestiges of political freedom. Torture, political arrests that numbered in the tens of thousands and terrible corruption marred his regime.
He may have been a depot, but he was a West-friendly despot, and the West had precious few friends in the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak had maintained strong ties to the USA and the Western Powers, accepting billions in foreign aid and military assistance in exchange for protecting peace with Israel, keeping the Suez Canal open and letting the US use his airspace with impunity.
When the revolutionary tide of the Arab Spring reached Egypt, the people wanted Mubarak out. After a few weeks of protests, and after it became clear that the military would not intervene to save him, he stepped down, leaving behind him an energized and hopeful populous of Egyptians who were no fans of the Western Powers that had propped Mubarak up for decades. His removal was part of a new and progressive serge of democratic change in the Middle East, but it also represented a dear test of the West’s commitment to democratic ideals.
After all the rough and tumble of the revolution, an election was held in 2012 and the West’s fears were realized. Mohamed Morsi became the first democratically elected president of Egypt. Morsi campaigned as a member of the recently formed Freedom and Justice Party, but that was only because law prevented him from running under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s strongest Islamist political party and his true affiliation. Morsi was shaping up to be an enemy of the West and might have taken the entire Middle East out of Western reach.
Then came a champion. Mere days after Morsi’s election, responding to widespread civil protests against Morsi’s attempts to re-write Egypt’s constitution, the Egyptian military arrested and deposed Morsi. Egyptian Military Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the West’s hero in uniform beige, yanked the land of many gods out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s hands and into a strange game of “Don’t Name that Junta.”
June 2013, the month of the military disposition of Morsi, was a fun time to be reading American government press releases. The USA has a decades old policy of publicly opposing any military coup d’état anywhere in the world, but this coup benefited the West greatly, lending hope to the possibility of seeing a friendly president in Egypt or any president that was not a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the American government, and any media friendly to it, bent over backwards to avoid calling the military’s actions a coup. “Intervention,” “revolution,” any word would do as long the USA was not seen to be encouraging an actual military coup, but coup it was, and the USA did want it.
The interim government set up by the coup did its job, and last month an election was run to replace Morsi. The victor was announced: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. If that name seems familiar, that is because el-Sisi was supposed to be the hero of this story. The selfless Commander-in-Chief who brought the military in to end the Islamist tyrant’s regime chose an auspicious moment to go into politics. Out of the 23 million votes counted during the May 2014 election, 22 million were reported to be for el-Sisi. It is odd how the greatest electoral landslides in history tend to go toward politicians who happen to command the columns of tanks that are moving through the constituency’s streets.
In the weeks since his election, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has managed to arrest dozens of journalists and scores of peaceful protesters, holding many without charge for indefinite periods. His government has handed down a 15 year jail term for 25 protesters arrested under his interim regimen for protesting the military trial of civilians. Tellingly, influential satirist Bassem Youssef, a socially conscientious observer and a vocal critic against the excesses and abuses of all parties during the past few years, has recently ended his television show, sighting pressures from above and his fear for the safety of himself, his family and the show’s staff.
In 2011, just before Egypt’s Arab spring, the West had a dangerous but accepted ally in the form of a military strongman who ruled Egypt under false pretenses of democracy while suppressing the rights and freedoms of its people to protect his own power. Three years, two revolutions and a coup-de-not later, things seem to have come full circle. Perhaps el-Sisi will turn things around, heal the wounds of his rough entry to power, and like Cincinnatus before him, surrender the dictator’s mantle when the appointed hour arrives. History implies otherwise, and although Egypt may have its 100 gods, it still seems a little shy on heroes.
Opinion By Evan Prieskop