Is anti-jihad Sisi the Arab Churchill?

March 05, 2015 12:35

It is the great security challenge of our time: fighting radical Islam and the soldiers of jihad. The latest Arab politician to take it on is Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. In recent weeks, Mr el-Sisi has been here, there and everywhere making Egypt the most visible Arab country fighting back against jihadism. And at least some fellow Arab rulers are showing their appreciation.

Last weekend, the Egyptian President flew to Saudi Arabia to meet its new ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In what was seen as a mark of respect, the King greeted him personally on the tarmac.

A few weeks ago, after an Islamic State (IS) group in Libya beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had been captured while working on farms in the country, Mr el-Sisi took no time to deliver a response, sending jets to bomb IS weapons depots and training camps inside Libya.

Meanwhile, his government is tightening the screws on Hamas. A few weeks ago, an Egyptian court ruled that the armed wing of Hamas was a terrorist organisation. Last Saturday, another court ruled that Hamas's political wing was a terrorist outfit as well.

It's not just Arab leaders who are showing appreciation of the Egyptian leader: Avi Issacharoff in the Times of Israel labelled Mr el-Sisi "Churchillian".

It may be a little soon for such accolades. Close observers of the Egyptian political scene are not sure that he is interested in leading an Arab fightback against the extremists. They see his concerns as more local.

Wendell Steavenson, who covered the Egyptian revolution for The New Yorker and whose book on it, Circling the Square, will be published in the summer, says: "Sisi is not anti-Islamist, he is anti-Muslim Brotherhood, because they are the only force that can possibly threaten the army's hegemony in Egypt." Ms Steavenson adds: "He doesn't really care what they are except for the fact that they are in opposition to him."

Mr el-Sisi and co have been brutally effective in suppressing the Brotherhood, the Islamist party that won free elections in the wake of the 2011 revolution and the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak.

After seizing power, police raided a Brotherhood protest camp. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 800 people were killed. Subsequent mass trials of Islamists have seen up to 1,400 people tried together and condemned to death together. Journalists trying to cover these events, like Peter Greste and his team from Al-Jazeera English, have been thrown into prison.

On Mr el-Sisi, Ms Steavenson says: "He was calling the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists way before IS, and now it's a perfectly easy brush to tar everyone with. This is the case even though the Brotherhood has nothing to do with IS and have not used violence in decades."

But with one IS snuff video worth a million words, Mr el-Sisi is likely to be given plenty of leeway by the West and his fellow Arab leaders to practise his brand of authoritarian rule.

Whether this is a long-term solution to the problem of jihadism is open to question. But for the moment, in Jerusalem, Riyadh and capitals further West, Mr el-Sisi is the man.

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and author

March 05, 2015 12:35

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive