Analysis

Egypt's Sissi Is Testing the Limits of His Ties With Trump

The Egyptian president is maneuvering between the military and international arenas, while also bolstering the economy. But as he tightens his grip on the country under the guise of fighting the coronavirus, Egyptians are growing frustrated

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, center, during an April visit to the Huckstep military base near Cairo.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, center, during an April visit to the Huckstep military base near Cairo. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The officers and soldiers of the Egyptian army received good news this month: The government approved another pay raise for them, the 10th since President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi came to power six years ago. On average, army personnel and pensioners will get an annual salary hike of 15 percent; children of bereaved families will enjoy generous study scholarships and surviving sisters and daughters will receive a wedding grant in the amount of a yearly salary; and parents, too, will receive an annual increment. But the most important “gift” is the one that vests the army – the military prosecutors – with the power to interrogate and try civilians, under emergency regulations that are renewed every three months.

That regulation, which sparked a public furor and outraged human rights organizations because it is contrary to Egypt’s constitution, is the latest measure adopted by Sissi to tighten his grip on the country. In March he assumed other broad powers, such as the authority to shut down schools and universities, decide the amount of aid the government will provide to various classes of society, and prevent demonstrations and assemblies – all in the name of the battle against the coronavirus and with no parliamentary review or supervision. No one expects these measures to be annulled when the epidemic is contained or ends.

These steps come on top of a “media lockdown” on reporting about the epidemic, which was imposed after media outlets and the social media expressed serious doubts about the official government figures. Newspaper editors and television networks were told that they could publish only data they had received from the state. Owners of Facebook or Twitter accounts who questioned the official data or ridiculed the government’s efforts to combat the pandemic, soon found themselves being interrogated by the police and the intelligence services – and some of them have even been subject to trial.

An order to release prisoners, for the purpose of reducing crowding in detention facilities as the virus spread, did not include the political prisoners. According to local human rights organizations, their number has reached 60,000 since Sissi became president. This week, Lina Atallah, the chief editor of the website Mada Masr, an independent online newspaper, perhaps the last one left in Egypt, was released after a brief imprisonment. The offenses she is suspected of committing are not clear, but in the past few months the site angered authorities by uncovering and publishing exclusive information about disagreements within Egyptian intelligence and about the removal of Sissi’s son, Mahmoud, from the top ranks of the intelligence establishment and his posting to a senior position in the Egyptian embassy in Moscow.

In the face of international criticism concerning the ongoing infringement of human rights and freedom of expression – the 2020 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders places Egypt at number 166 out of 180 countries surveyed – Sissi posits the security needs that are dictated by the unfinished war on terrorist organizations. According to Cairo, those who seek to combat terrorism cannot grant its supporters freedom of expression or allow them to hold assemblies and demonstrations.

This is indeed a long and blood-drenched war that takes no account of the coronavirus epidemic. Last month, the ISIS forces that are operating in the north and center of the Sinai peninsula perpetrated a number of serious attacks, in which three civilians were killed and seven wounded; Bedouin who are suspected of collaborating with the military suffer from kidnappings, the torching of their homes and cars, and even murder. Ostensibly, this is a quiet war, which gets sparse coverage in the Arab and international press, but for the past five years it has been at the center of the efforts of the Egyptian army and regime.

Bedouin non-combatants also sustain damage from the army. Beyond the checkpoints, nighttime curfews and close supervision of the movement of civilians from Sinai into Egypt and back, an effort is underway to recruit Bedouin for the war. The army recently offered young Bedouin a handsome salary and distributed arms and vehicles among them, so that they will act as a kind of armed militia whose members will join army operations, or will at least prevent terrorist attacks on Bedouin communities.

AFTER YOU: U.S. President Donald Trump meeting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at the White House, Washington, April 3, 2017.
AFTER YOU: U.S. President Donald Trump meeting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at the White House, Washington, April 3, 2017.Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP

This would seem to be a sensible initiative – the army tried unsuccessfully to implement it in 2017 and again in 2018 – but it is encountering flak from the tribal chiefs. Their fear is that the Bedouin will become cannon fodder. Not only are they not trained or skilled in combatting terrorist organizations, but their active participation in the fighting is liable to result in heightened ISIS attacks against the tribes, at a time when the government is not fulfilling its promises to invest in infrastructure and to create jobs for the Bedouin.

“We understand the language of politics, and the era of free services has ended,” one of the tribal leaders, Ibrahim al-Menai, told the media outlet Al-Araby al-Jadeed. He is demanding – and in this he is speaking for many of the tribes – that the government allow the Bedouin to return to the lands from which they were expelled when the army created neutral zones, which it subsequently took over. For its part, the Cairo government and economists who are close to the regime cite impressive figures about the amount of money that the regime has invested in Sinai, ranging from 600 billion Egyptian pounds in the past to 18 billion Egyptian pounds (about $1.25 billion) in the coming years, but it’s difficult to see any evidence of such payouts on the ground.

The Sinai front is not the only one where the army is engaged. A second arena is Libya, where Gen. Khalifa Haftar is waging a war against the recognized government. Though this is an ostensibly secondary front, it is dragging Egypt into a web of international interests, which include the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Saudi Arabia, in supporting the secessionist general, and who are opposed by Turkey, Qatar and Italy, which back the country’s recognized government. In this campaign the United States is playing the part of a linesman which isn’t entirely sure who it favors.

Until last week, Haftar displayed impressive military capability in confronting the efforts of the regular army and the militias supporting the government to block his advance toward Tripoli, the capital. This week, the army captured two cities in western Libya which had been under Haftar’s control, as well as an air force base in south Tripoli that his forces had held since 2014. In addition, the official state army destroyed Russian antiaircraft systems that the UAE had provided to Haftar.

These local victories are still far from deciding the campaign, but they are important for morale, and play well into the hands of Turkey and Qatar in the competition they are conducting against their rivals. But what worries Washington more than the war itself is Russia’s involvement in this new arena and the challenge presented to a recognized government by three of America’s traditional allies. In the background is Egypt’s purchase, in a deal worth $2 billion, of Sukhoi Su-35 warplanes from Russia in 2018. The beefing up of Egypt’s offensive aircraft with Russian planes doesn’t make its army “non-American,” but it does give Russia an important foothold in the country; in addition, Russia will also build Egypt’s nuclear reactors for the production of electricity at El Dabaa on the Mediterranean.

Washington warned Egypt against implementing the aircraft deal and even threatened to impose economic sanctions, but in the meantime Moscow has announced that the planes are already under production, while Egypt shows no signs of backing out of the deal. It will be interesting to see how far Sissi can stretch the rope with his friend President Trump, especially when he needs U.S. support to wield pressure on Ethiopia over the dam that country is building on the Nile. Egypt maintains that filling up the dam on the Ethiopian side will have a significant effect on the amount of water that will reach Egypt, resulting in irreversible damage to agriculture and to the sources of its drinking water.

Sissi’s ability to maneuver between the military and international arenas, and at the same time to bolster the Egyptian economy and increase the country’s foreign currency reserves impressively, rests cumulatively on his close ties with Trump, his alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and military cooperation with Israel. As such, he overshadows even the abilities of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is now persona non grata in Congress and who launched an oil war against Russia until Trump clamped down and forced him to reach an agreement with Moscow.

Sissi is careful not to present Egypt as the leading country in the Middle East, but contrary to Saudi Arabia, he is adept at evading problematic arenas such as Syria and Yemen and at avoiding open confrontation with the United States, thereby protecting his status as everyone’s partner. Sissi will lose no sleep over the cost of maintaining that status in terms of human rights in Egypt.

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