Sisi is the strongman America can't resist

Sisi is the strongman America can't resist
Comment: Trump and the American right have much sympathy for Sisi's authoritarian rhetoric, but Hillary too knows the importance of keeping Egypt on side, writes Usaid Saddiqui
6 min read
28 Sep, 2016
US right-wing politicians strike a similar tone to Sisi's rhetoric on terrorism [AFP]

"He is a fantastic guy" said Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, after a short meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) address last week. "He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it," Trump said referring to Sisi's successful coup d'etat in July 2013, ousting a democratically elected government and leader.

It is hardly surprising that Trump, an arguably fascistic and Islamophobic personality would find "strong chemistry" with a leader like Sisi. The Egyptian leader - whose authoritarian ways some say have surpassed those of his former boss and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - is a classic example of a strongman that virulent Islam/Muslim bashers in the US tend to admire.

Sisi's insistence that radical Islam is a problem, a term and phenomenon he believes more and more Muslims should acknowledge, is music to the ears of the likes of Trump and Ted Cruz, who have relentlessly criticised the current Obama administration for refusing to use the word.

For those who are not as praiseworthy of the Egyptian leader, including democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, they too realise the importance of keeping him in their good graces, with regards to American interests in the region.

Sisi and the American right wing

Right-wing elements in the US, politicians and the media alike, have been head over heels in their embrace of Egypt's military strongman. The likes of Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose election campaigns made a point of demonizing Islam and Muslims at every turn, see a strong ideological partner in Sisi - who like them, stresses the threat of "radical Islam".

In an interview with CNN at the UNGA, Sisi said "it is really important that we state the truth so that we could correct it". The Egyptian leader added that "terrorism" is "truly extremism, Islamic extremism, which is something that we must confront and we must correct the Islamic rhetoric".

Sisi's insistence that radical Islam is a problem is music to the ears of the likes of Trump

Sisi's own domestic crackdown on dissenters necessitates branding much of his opposition as terrorists, as he so proficiently demonstrated with the previous ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi's takeover laid the ground for a period of mass incarceration and arrest of all those who sought to criticise his coup for doing away with Egypt's first democratically elected government. Weeks later, an estimated 800 people were killed at Rabaa Square on 14th August in a single day, as the military rampaged through a peaceful sit-in against the overthrow of a democratically elected government - a feat even the murderous Assad regime is apparently yet to achieve.

The Egyptian state and its media arm (as well as private channels) were quick to defend Sisi's actions, erroneously identifying the protestors as extremists.  

When it comes to discussion surrounding radicalism and Islam, far right politicians in the US strike a similar tone to the Egyptian's president's rhetoric. Trump has previously suggested a moratorium on Muslim immigration while endorsing policies such as Stop and Frisk which overwhelmingly targeted people of colour and Muslims.

Cruz, an arch-rival of Trump, proposed that Muslim neighborhoods be patrolled by police forces, a plan condemned even by the former New York police chief commissioner Bill Bratton, who is considered to be the architect of the Stop and Frisk program in New York City.

The likes of Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz see a strong ideological partner in Sisi

Moreover, Sisi has called for reform in Islam citing the ambiguous prospect as a remedy for the terrorism plaguing the Muslim world, a call that greatly resonates with the US far right - who have long identified Islam as incompatible with American values.

Ultra-Conservative outlets like Breitbart (whose chairman left the outlet to become Trump's campaign CEO) praised Sisi's call for reform last year calling it "historic" and "unprecedented", adding that "more than ever in the war against extremism, the words of President Sisi should be elevated and backed up by the Western world".

New face, old policies

As Egypt's violent coup was scorned by most of the international community, the US government (and much of the western world) was careful in expressing their condemnation of the military's illegal action. Even though relations between the two governments soured over the killings and arrests following the military takeover, the Obama White House refused to declare it a coup.

Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to say that the military had been "restoring democracy" which had "been asked to intervene by millions and millions of people" within weeks of the Sisi-led overthrow of Morsi.

Though Morsi's one year in power did not indicate that he was about to dramatically overturn Egypt's relations with the US or any of its allies, Sisi for many American policymakers was a sure-fire prospect: He was military man and a high ranking member of the former Mubarak regime, an administration that had for three decades pursued a foreign policy strongly favoring American ambitions in the region.

Sisi's public embrace of Israel would have eased any concerns the US might have had

In US political circles the Brotherhood was largely seen as antagonistic of American interests in the region; which included the Brotherhood's historic relationship and support for groups like Hamas, sworn enemies of their strongest ally Israel. While Morsi pursued a peaceful path with the Israelis, he was often blistering in his criticism of Netanyahu and the occupation of Palestine, leaving Israel uncertain of its future relationship with Cairo.

The current regime on the other hand is equally as intolerant of Hamas as it is of the Brotherhood, whom they see a part of the same Islamist strain. Since taking power, the Egyptian president has continued the tradition of former leader Mubarak, in doing Israel's bidding.

This was evident when he tightened travel restrictions during the Israeli onslaught in Gaza in 2014 that killed over 1,400 Palestinians. His one-sided mediation efforts largely pushed resistance factions to accept all of Israel's demands, an overture that made Mubarak seem relatively moderate.  

During Morsi's short stint in power, the US had raised objections over his increasingly defiant stance towards the Israelis. Sisi's public embrace of Israel would have eased any concerns the US might have had over a breakdown of relations between the two Middle East neighbors, whom it helped reach a historic peace deal in the late 70s. 

While the democrats and the republicans may have varying levels of enthusiasm for Sisi and his iron fisted ways, he remains a key a player in the region dominated by American hegemony for the past several decades – a man who it is of better use siding with, than warring against.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.