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General Sisi: An enigma without a dogma

Palestinians burn a poster of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a rally in support of Egypt's deposed Islamist Presiden
Palestinians burn a poster of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a rally in support of Egypt's deposed Islamist Presiden

By John Lloyd

CAIRO — The man who presently rules Egypt, General Abdel Fattah Said al-Sisi, is an enigma. He's even more inscrutable because he is not — to misquote Churchill — an enigma wrapped in a dogma. He's too slippery to be filed under any kind of label. Depending on where you sit, that's either alarming or reassuring.

A devout Muslim, he deposed a devoutly Muslim president. The boss of a military that slaughtered some 1,000 Egyptians in the past few days, he gave a speech on Sunday in which he said there was "room for everyone" in Egypt. Having smashed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, he appeals in the same speech for its supporters to "help rebuild democracy." He isn't even officially the ruler of Egypt — he retains his old post as defense minister, and is "only" first deputy prime minister. But the president, Adly Mansour, is "acting," and the prime minister, Hazem al-Beblawi, is "interim." Sisi put them there, sustains them there and as head of the armed forces, he's as close as you can get to permanence. He's the government Egypt has.

The short thesis he wrote while at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2006, called "Democracy in the Middle East," has been much commented on for its view that democracy can only be developed in the Middle East using a Muslim model. He makes clear, though, that it would be a "moderate" kind of Islamic government, requiring support from the West, with the mission both to sharply raise educational standards and to liberalize the economy. He thinks that properly elected governments, even of extremists, should be allowed to govern — a savage irony in light of his recent actions. In another ironic observation, he wrote that the media should be free to publish diverse points of view. Does he still hold to any of this?

He has stunned the Egyptian capital into a temporary stasis — what we journalists call an "uneasy calm." The curfew, beginning at 7 p.m., has been largely observed. The squares from which the Islamists were cleared are now littered with wreckage, stained with blood and largely deserted — except by the army. So, too, is Tahrir Square, where the anti-Mursi oppositionists rallied; the nearby metro station is closed, the tanks are in place. The big rallies on Sunday - a working day in a Muslim country — were outside Cairo, as were the most recent slaughters. Thirty-six arrested militants likely (accounts varied) choked to death when police threw tear gas into the prison van, perhaps after a riot. Elsewhere, 25 police officers were executed by militants in Sinai as they were going off duty.

Because we in the West, and especially in Europe, see political evil though our own experiences, we tend to label regimes like Sisi's "fascist" — a label the New Republic tried at length to make stick.

Some years ago, the famed Egyptian novelist, Alaa al-Aswany, wrote a column warning against the twin "fascisms" facing Egypt — the religious and the military (it was written during the reign of President Hosni Mubarak, whom he put in the second camp). Aswany now believes that the deposed Mursi was in the first camp, seeing him as the leader of a religiously inspired fascism. But, as with many intellectuals and secularists, Aswany does not believe that the army coup, and the army-appointed government, is anything like fascism. On the contrary, he told Italy's Corriere della Sera on Sunday, "if the army had not intervened, the Islamists would have destroyed the country…it's the people that want the skin of the Brotherhood."

In the same article, his fellow novelist, the Islamic scholar Youssef Ziedan agreed, saying, "The army is doing its duty in protecting the country from barbarism; had they not been stopped, the Muslim Brothers would have wiped out the whole country and its thousands-of-years old culture." This isn't the view of a few out-of-touch writers: it's common, even after the massacres.

Fascism isn't a word to be thrown around: it can't just be a synonym for nasty. Those who led the fascist movements in the first half of 20th century Europe did have a dogma. It was composed of extreme nationalism, imperial conquest and (more in Adolf Hitler's case) racial purity — with these ends justifying all means. Their speeches and writings were clear on their views and on their likely policies. Neither had much time for religion; they saw their job as remaking their peoples into new men and women, inspired by nationalism, by conquest and, of course, by their supreme leaders.

Mursi was an incompetent politician who also had a dogma — that of a caliphate inspired by Allah's teachings and laws, uniting all Muslims, or at least Muslim Arabs. But neither he nor the Brotherhood had any notion of how to achieve it. Left in power, he would have continued to try to Islamize the state, but his inability to reform the economy and its continued collapse would have stimulated a revolt from below. The Brotherhood was, to be sure, a hierarchical organization contemptuous of moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But the Nazi Party it wasn't.

Sisi acts brutally but talks sweetly. His "room for everyone" quote sends, hopefully, a message to the embattled Christian Copts that the burning of dozens of their churches and the killing of as yet uncounted numbers will not be protected in the future. In the meantime his remark "we (the army) are cautious about every drop of Egyptian blood" is nauseating. There is too much evidence of the contrary. Security forces have at times abandoned any attempt to contain the protests without violence. He may yet, in the future, have to be arraigned for his stewardship of the military at its time of murderous shame.

But for now? Which Sisi — the brutal or the sweet — is the future Sisi? Has the brutality been a sign of more to come, and of a military dictatorship at least as repressive as that of Mubarak? Or will Sisi still be impelled by the ideals he laid out seven years ago while at war college? Back then he claimed, "It is important that these democracies demonstrate a better way of life through representative government."

Everything that comes next depends on whether he still believes that — now that he has the power to see it through.

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.)

(Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.)

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