Egypt: Sisi’s Rule Teetering

by Emile Nakhleh

The recent downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula, most likely due to a bomb, is emblematic of the inability of the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to comprehend the threats facing it and its incompetence in dealing with them. The growing threat from the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), known as “Wilayet Sinai” or the “Sinai Province,” should be even more troubling to the regime. The Sinai IS branch, which used to go by the name of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of the Holy Mosque), is a radical Sunni Salafi group of tribesmen located in northern Sinai and the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The name change occurred after the group declared allegiance or bay’a to the Baghdadi self-proclaimed caliphate.

The group has been battling Egyptian security forces in the area for several years and has had contacts with radical Salafis in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. It challenged Hamas control in the southern part of the Strip, claiming its religious ideology was “purer.” It was subsequently bloodied in a firefight with Hamas in Rafah. After Morsi was elected president of Egypt, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis overran a military post in northern Sinai, which prompted Morsi to wage a military campaign against it.

Since then, the Sisi regime’s scorched-earth military operations against the group have failed to dislodge or defeat it. On the contrary, its influence has grown, particularly since its affiliation with the Islamic State.

If the investigators of the Russian airliner judge that a bomb brought down the plane, then IS and its Sinai ally have decided to target Egypt with an eye toward ending Sisi’s rule and dismantling his regime. By putting Egypt, or what it calls the “near enemy,” in the cross hairs, IS would not only threaten Sisi’s survival but Egypt’s tourist industry and, indeed, its entire economy. By claiming responsibility for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, IS seems to be going after the “far enemy” as well.

The modus operandi of IS and the Sinai group so far seems to involve targeting Egyptian security bases and economic “soft” facilities on the periphery of the Egyptian heartland. If IS decides to carry the fight to the country’s heartland, it would not find it difficult to recruit local Egyptian youth to commit sabotage, murder, assassinations, and destruction. Because of regime repression, corruption, and isolation, many alienated, unemployed youth will find the caliphate’s call for jihad against the Egyptian dictator appealing.

Sisi’s Teetering Future

Sisi is becoming more isolated domestically and internationally. His policies to ensure security and stability at home and to fight the growing threat of terrorism seem to be failing. Opposition to his coup against Morsi and to his draconian repression of all human rights peaceful activists has not abated.

Last week’s arrest and release of the internationally known human rights advocate Hassam Bahgat is yet another sign that the Sisi regime is becoming more precarious and more tyrannical. Sisi is viscerally opposed to any form of democratic discourse, and he’s determined to push his anti-freedom counter-revolution regardless of the cost.

After his release on November 10, Bahgat published a statement in that day’s issue of Mada Masr in which he chronicled his arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment by Egyptian military intelligence. The trumped-up charge against him included “deliberately broadcasting false news that harms national interest.”

What truly angered military intelligence was the article Bahgat wrote on October 13 in the same publication titled “A Coup Busted?” In that article, he discussed the arrest, torture, and conviction of 26 military officers, with ranks ranging from captain to brigadier general, on charges of plotting a coup for “regime change” in cooperation with two civilian doctors from the Muslim Brotherhood. In interviews with relatives of the “plotters,” Mada Masr confirmed that the officers were tortured while in detention. Incidentally, BBC Arabic carried a story in August on the alleged coup attempt. Some of the officers were also charged with belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the regime considers a “terrorist” organization.

Fearing the Sisi regime’s potential implosion and the possible rise in terrorism and domestic instability, some senior officers in the Egyptian military, the institution that has supported Sisi’s power grab, must be wondering whether the Egyptian leader has reached a dead end. If the reported coup is any indication, they might be thinking that perhaps Egypt needs a shift in direction and a new leadership to end the country’s marginalization regionally and internationally and to regain popular support at home. Sisi so far has rejected the prevalent view that a bomb downed the Russian plane. Instead, he claimed in a recent speech at Sharm al-Sheikh that the bomb theory is really a Western “conspiracy” against Egypt. This worn-out claim will not put bread on the table for unemployed Egyptians or bolster Sisi’s credibility.

No civic peace would endure in Egyptian society until mainstream Islamists are brought back into the governing process through free and fair elections. Even Sisi has supported that position in the past. While studying in the United States in 2005-2006, Sisi advocated a partnership between the military and mainstream Islamists as a way to guarantee domestic political stability.

Sisi’s Wobbly Rule

The recent parliamentary elections—which had one of the lowest participation rates in recent history and in which the Muslim Brotherhood did not participate— clearly showed that Sisi’s claims of a democratic transition are disingenuous and no longer believable at home and abroad. Until the country’s leadership wins the hearts and minds of its people on the basis of dignity, fairness, and inclusion, it won’t be able to pursue a coherent strategic policy that promotes economic growth and job creation and guarantees personal security and freedoms. Sisi has already discovered that brutality might win him obedience in the short term but will not bestow legitimacy and respect on him regardless of the ubiquity of his security forces and their undercover (shabiha) thugs.

Sisi has surrounded himself with sycophants—both civilian and military—pliant and parroting media, hangers-on from the old regime, and academics, advisers, former diplomats, think tankers, and domestic and foreign consultants eager to maintain their access to the government. Patriots and human rights activists like Hossam Bahgat are rapidly becoming an endangered species in Egypt. Freedoms of thought, speech, and expression were more tolerated and even exercised, albeit under strict state regulations, during the previous Mubarak regime.

Muzzling all forms of dissent, no matter how repulsive, might create a facade of normalcy, which carries the regime only so far. In time, however, regime-messaging devoid of substance becomes stale and unappealing to Western governments whose support Sisi desperately needs.

Since deposing the freely elected president Muhammad Morsi in 2013, Sisi has bolstered his personality cult using all elements of state power and propaganda to enhance his prestige and to convince his Gulf and Western supporters, including the United States, of his centrality to regional stability. Although former dictator Hosni Mubarak played a similar “autocracy or chaos” game, he could not save his regime. If he proceeds along this path, Sisi too will fall.

In addition, Sisi has brandished his credentials as the champion of counter-revolution against the democratic aspirations of the Arab popular revolts of 2011. In appreciation of Sisi’s commitment to tyranny, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and other Gulf states showered him with billions of dollars, ostensibly to shore up Egypt’s sagging economy. In reality, much of that money went to fund his bloody campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition activists.

As the Saudi, UAE, and other Gulf regimes become more entangled in the conflicts in Yemen and Libya, and as disagreements grow between them and the Sisi regime over Assad’s fate and over the handling of the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamists, the Egyptian president’s counter-revolution will begin to fade and his image will become tarnished.

The Way Forward

Assuming Sisi escapes being toppled by a military coup or another popular revolution, he will have to pursue new and creative policies to put Egypt on a promising path. Even if he contemplates taking such a step, he will have to remain mindful of the potential key dangers he faces. They include a growing terrorist threat to him personally and to his regime; a dissatisfied public; and a stagnant economy. Furthermore, he cannot take the loyalty of his senior military officer class for granted.

Addressing the first challenge, Sisi must realize by now that the military approach to the rising threat in Sinai and potentially in the Egyptian heartland has not worked. He also must conclude that mainstream Islamists, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza, could be valuable allies in the fight against Salafi radical ideologies. To recruit the two groups, Sisi should make peace with the Muslim Brotherhood by taking two steps: remove the “terrorist” label and include them in the governing process.

He should also drop the charges against Morsi and release him from prison, and then call for new and free parliamentary elections. Going after Morsi was first and foremost a political act driven by Sisi’s counter-revolutionary posture. It’s time for this charade to stop.

On the Sinai front, the Sisi regime should make amends with Hamas, if he expects the group to join the fight against Wilayet Sinai and IS. Although blowing up the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza has hurt the business interests of the region’s tribes that support the IS affiliate, it has destroyed the economic base of Hamas and of Gaza more generally. Hamas could be an effective partner in the fight against the Sinai jihadists, as could the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian heartland.

Opening up the Egyptian political system, reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood, and calling for new elections in a new atmosphere of freedom would go a long way toward mollifying the Egyptian public. Even more daring, Sisi should embark on a national effort of reconciliation. Sisi must know that the Muslim Brotherhood is the face of civic Islam in Egypt and could be the agent of change in turning Egypt around.

Forming a unified domestic bloc against Wilayet Sinai and IS is necessary to blunt the threat to the economy and to the country’s commercial, business, and transportation “soft” targets. When this happens, tourism would pick up and economic stagnation would begin to diminish.

Muzzling his security services, releasing thousands of political prisoners—Islamists and secularists alike—from Egyptian jails, ending torture and repression, and allowing his citizens to exercise rights of free expression, thought, and assembly would help restore civic peace in his beleaguered country. Sisi’s actions in the next six to 12 months will determine his own survival as well as how the region will deal with IS and its local affiliates.

Photo: Ansar Beit al-Maqdis

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.