Will Egypt’s military strong man, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, become the country’s next president? And will the Egyptian leader he most closely resembles be Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army officer who established an aggressive, nationalist military-backed regime that sought to establish Egypt’s pre-eminence in the Arab world? There are good reasons to think so.
The trial of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, which began Monday and was quickly adjourned, shows just how fast things have changed in the four short months since Morsi was overthrown in a military coup led by Sisi. Until July, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood was the leading political force in Egypt. Since then, Sisi and the armed forces have conducted a brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood, not paralleled since the Nasser era of the 1950s and ’60s.
Sisi’s effort to identify with Nasser appears to be deliberate. For example, Sisi had a prominent role at the recent 43rd memorial ceremony of Nasser’s death, and he includes Nasser’s picture with his own on political posters that appear throughout Egypt. What can we expect next from General Sisi?
Thus far, Sisi’s regime has been respectful of Egypt’s longstanding treaty with Israel. Perhaps that’s because Sisi has been so busy trying to neutralize domestic opposition to his regime, and seeking to control the militants in the Sinai who threaten the military government. As a result, the common wisdom is that so long as Israel doesn’t challenge Sisi, the cold peace relationship is likely to hold.
Instead, Sisi appears to be trying to bolster his Arab world credentials by standing up to the United States. In doing so, Sisi is tapping into a deep well of suspicion and outright hatred of America among some Egyptians — which has been exacerbated by the U.S. opposition to the coup against Morsi, as well as the decision to withhold aid to Egypt. That Sisi-led Egyptian opposition is of concern to the U.S., and appears to have motivated Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise stop in Cairo this week before his planned meetings with the Saudis. For their part, the Saudis, who have their own grievances against Washington, are pouring billions into Egypt. And the combination of Saudi and other Arab state largesse to Egypt has virtually neutralized the financial impact of the U.S. decision to withhold aid.
So where is this all going?
We are witnessing a high stakes political chess game in the troubled Middle East. The once prominent and respected role of the United States in the region is diminishing rapidly. Those few friends we still have in the region are on edge. They need to see steady, reliable and credible leadership from Washington. And so do we.