Intolerance in Sisi's Egypt
There is ample reason to be disturbed, as are Senator Patrick Leahy and some others, about any resumption of military aid to Egypt at this time. Adherence to U.S. law regarding what is supposed to happen to such aid after a military coup is part of the reason. The mass death sentences that have been pronounced lately in Egypt have captured attention but are not even among the leading reasons for tailoring policy toward the regime of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, because there always has been some uncertainty about how the Egyptian judiciary relates to whoever is in power in Cairo. Rather, what is disturbing is an entire campaign of other forms of harsh repression that clearly does have the top leadership's approval.
Sisi has considerable popularity right now and will almost certainly be elected in the coming Egyptian presidential election with little or no rigging being necessary. He is popular because he has charisma and political skill and because he projects the image of a strong leader who can impose some order on an Egypt that has been quite disorderly for more than three years. But his election can hardly be said to be the result of a fair democratic procedure when what would have been the strongest opposition has been banned and repressed.
An interesting additional dimension of life in Egypt today was recently reported by David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times: that an officially enforced religious intolerance prevails. Coptic Christians who thought they would enjoy more religious freedom when the military coup deposed the president from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, have yet to see improvement on that score. They as well as Shiites and atheists are getting jailed on charges of contempt of religion.
Much of this has to do with the culture of Sunni-majority Egypt rather than with any one leader. But Sisi has set an unhelpful tone. He recently was observed on state television listening attentively to an imam who is an ally of his and was spewing inflammatory rhetoric that seemed to justify killing political opponents in the name of religion.
Not a lot is known about Sisi's private life and inclinations, but he has had a reputation for being a religious man. Morsi was the one who appointed him defense minister and head of the military. At the time this was seen as a sign of accommodation between the military and the Brotherhood. An important point to bear in mind in making sense of subsequent events is that, just as in Saudi Arabia, strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood need not have anything to do with opposition to injecting heavy doses of Islam into public policy. Indeed, as with the Saudi royal family, those who rely on religion in their own way to enhance their legitimacy are all the more likely to see the Brotherhood as a threat.
The situation in Egypt starts to bring to mind Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the military officer who ruled Pakistan for a decade, executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and introduced the most sweeping Islamization of that country's history. Sisi probably will not push sharia to the same extent, but we don't know.
Besides thinking about the challenges of making policy toward Egypt today, we ought to consider how we think about Islamists who are gaining, or on the brink of gaining, political power. The traditional fear has been that of “one man, one vote, one time.” It has never been apparent why this fear should be attached to Islamists in particular. It in fact is easier to think of political leaders of other stripes who have treated their particular ideologies or objectives as more important than observing democratic principles. As for Sisi, he seems on his way to following in the footsteps of his Egyptian military predecessors who left power only through natural death, assassination, or deposition by other generals. And with him Egypt might still get Islamism.