By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
President Trump met Monday with Egyptian field marshal/ president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Trump effused,
“We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt . . .”
Although it is being said that Obama kept al-Sisi at arm’s length because of human rights concerns, actually the Obama administration regularized relations with Egypt after the military coup and re-authorized the roughly $1.2 bn in aid as soon as al-Sisi held a fraudulent election and declared himself president rather than remaining a field marshal.
No one should ever let al-Sisi forget that he claimed that the Egyptian army cured AIDS. And Hepatitis C.
Al-Sisi lambasted anyone who objected to this ridiculous assertion as overly negative and unappreciative of the sacrifices of the Egyptian army for the nation.
In other words, he lives in an anti-intellectual, science-denying fantasy world that he uses all the might of the Egyptian state to impose those fantasies on journalists and teachers.
Bassem Youssef, the satirist who is also a medical doctor himself, said that the army spokesman who made the announcement in early 2014 had gotten mixed up between RNA and DNA. Youssef wrote that if a first year medical student had made such an error in public, he would have been drummed out of medical school and moreover no one from his village would ever be allowed to become a physician again.
Youssef is now in exile, and Egypt has lost its formerly famous sense of humor.
Al-Sisi took advantage of the massive protests of summer, 2013, against the Muslim fundamentalist government of Mohammad Morsi (a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood) to stage a coup. He had Morsi arrested and has kept him in jail ever since. He declared the Muslim Brotherhood, a licit political party that had won a plurality in parliament in 2011 and won the presidency in 2012, to be a terrorist organization. He persecuted prominent members of the party. In mid-August of 2013 he used unnecessary force physically to clear major sit-ins by Muslim Brotherhood members, resulting in the deaths of some 600 persons. The death toll rose that fall.
The Muslim Brotherhood had not been innocent of terrorism in the 1940s and 1950s, but had made a pact with President Anwar El Sadat in the 1970s to eschew political violence in return for state tolerance. When Sadat allowed (phony) parliamentary elections in the late ’70s he even allowed some Brotherhood members to run, under other party banners, and to sit in parliament. In the 2005 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in a parliament of some 450 and so had become a junior partner in the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
Al-Qaeda, ISIL and other radical Muslim groups made fun of the Muslim Brotherhood as Mubarak’s Uncle Toms and predicted that they would gain nothing from their moderation.
Al-Sisi vindicated these extremists by rewarding the Brotherhood for peaceful participation in civil politics by launching a full scale assault on them and driving them underground.
Having suppressed the Brotherhood, taking advantage of its plummeting popularity, al-Sisi then turned to the youth revolutionaries of 2011, rounding them up one by one. Ahmad Maher, one of the leaders of the April 6 Youth Group that had supported a major textile strike in 2008 and then emerged as a significant player in 2011 and after, was arrested for protesting and sentenced to three years. He is out but on strict probation. Alaa Abdel Fattah, who had protested Mubarak in 2005 and after, using blogging and tech tools, was beaten in the head, arrested and is still behind bars. Mahienoor El-Masry was jailed repeatedly. People have disappeared, for all the world like 1980s Argentina. It is a dirty war on Egypt’s youth.
Nevertheless, university students have continued to mount substantial and ongoing protests.
Having neutralized the Muslim Brotherhood and the largely secular-minded youth activists, al-Sisi then turned on the third leg of the 2011 revolution, the labor movement, cowing its leadership and crushing dissent in its ranks.
Having milked the gullible Gulf oil states for tens of billions in the first years of his coup (they wanted the populist Muslim Brotherhood crushed, as well, seeing it as a threat to their more tribal and bureaucratic forms of authority), al-Sisi then turned to the International Monetary Fund for a $12 bn. loan. The price, as with all IMF aid, was to screw over the poor by eliminating subsidies for staples.
As a result, this winter and spring Egypt is seeing substantial bread riots.
Al-Sisi has also had large numbers of journalists jailed or fired, taming the once feisty Egyptian media. When he ran for president in 2014 he strong-armed most other candidates into withdrawing, and won a shamefully high percentage of the final vote.
Trump has a theory that strong men are like a lid you can slap atop the pressure cooker of Middle Eastern societies.
But if you just put a lid on, leaving no aperture for steam to escape, you’ve actually created a political bomb.
What happened in 2011 was that the political explosives detonated.
The Tunisian ruling class took a lesson and moved to a more democratic form of government.
In Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain, the ruling elites have decided that what was wrong was that the lid hadn’t been placed tightly enough. Screwing back on the lid may work in the short term. In the medium to long term, I expect trouble.
But at least al-Sisi has cured AIDS. And Hepatitis C.