Hilsman: Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general who upended Egypt

Posters showing Egyptian Army Chief Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah

Posters showing Egyptian Army Chief Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi with Arabic that reads, " Egypt over all", center, are displayed between posters of late Presidents Anwar Sadat, left, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, right, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. (Aug. 8, 2013) (Credit: AP)

Those who call the death of Egypt's democracy inevitable are absolving those responsible. Egypt's politics are more complex than any blanket assertion about democracy being impossible in the Arab world.

Mohammed Morsi and Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's coercive actions, which include Morsi's systematic harassment of journalists and opposition protesters before the coup last month, and el-Sissi's subsequent shutdown of media outlets and violent assaults on pro-Morsi protesters, have kept this tired sentiment alive in the era of change in Egypt. But the unrest has more to do with petty politics and lust for power than any cultural flaw in the people of that nation.

Since taking power July 3, el-Sissi has played American insecurities like a fiddle. The violence against the pro-Morsi camps was deliberate -- and unnecessary. The United States shouldn't be scammed into compliance. Secretary of State John Kerry's statements early this month about the army "restoring democracy" were naive and among numerous other missteps that have hurt U.S. interests.


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The recent image of a woman protecting a wounded protester from an American-built armored bulldozer is now cemented in history. Allowing Caterpillar to sell D9 bulldozers to Egypt, at any time, was negligent. Their presence has implicated America, even if we do not support the bloodshed.

Meanwhile, el-Sissi threatens America with regional chaos, and every provocation he commits is intended to jeopardize stability in his absence. Exploiting America's true desire for peace is not genuine friendship. The leaders of Egypt's new military state feign interest in cooperation with Israel while violently polarizing Egypt. The position precludes peace between Israel and Egypt as a nation.

The charges filed against Morsi by a pro-Sissi judge, related to aiding Hamas, seem intended to gain the support of an American government understandably weary of Hamas. But conspicuously absent are charges related to Morsi's abuse of power -- the junta knows that this would set a precedent, holding it accountable for crimes which in two months far surpassed a year of Morsi's awful leadership.

Egypt's military understands U.S. politics well. El-Sissi took military courses in the United States and is playing on perceived American insecurities. Saudi Arabia's vow to deliver whatever funds America withdraws is a thinly veiled threat against U.S. interests. Reading between the lines reveals a clear message: El-Sissi stands ready and willing to betray Egypt's alliance with the United States if doing so will benefit him.

It's time the United States said "no." The Obama administration should move beyond half-measures, like reducing aid, and demand the resignation of Gen. el-Sissi in favor of an inclusive caretaker government that will negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood. Failure to do this will drive the Brotherhood underground and result in years of bloodshed.

The peaceful protests preceding the coup were the will of the majority; the subsequent pro-Morsi sit-ins, the will of another faction. By contrast, el-Sissi has incited mob tactics so long as they benefit his position, encouraging violence against the opposition.

Saving Egypt from Morsi's foolish mistakes and authoritarian tendencies may have required his removal, but not the extermination of his political base. This crackdown has not only killed hundreds and pushed the country to the brink of civil war, but it has disintegrated the civilian facade of the interim government with the resignation of Mohamed el-Baradei.

El-Sissi's junta has chosen violence, not to preserve secularism or stability, but for the sake of power. It was Morsi who appointed el-Sissi as the chief of the armed forces because, it was thought, he would support Muslim Brotherhood policies. After seizing power, el-Sissi quickly allied with the Salafist Al-Nour party, whose outlook is far more medieval than the Brotherhood's. El-Sissi's secularism is an act of convenience -- lip service for the purpose of resurrecting the military state with himself at the helm. El-Sissi sees himself as the savior of the Egyptian nation.

He is not.

Patrick Hilsman is a freelance journalist who specializes in the Middle East.

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