By Geoffrey Clarfield
May 23, 2014
Not many Westerners know the name of Abdel Fattah Said El-Sisi. But they should. El-Sisi is the Egyptian Brigadier General who was instrumental in the overthrow of the previous government — which was constituted by the Muslim Brotherhood, a political/religious movement that argues that Islam and the Sharia must be the sole basis of modern Egyptian politics and law. El-Sisi’s ascension to Egypt’s presidency will become official later this month.
Opponents of Islamism hope that El-Sisi represents some sort of secular (even if authoritarian) alternative to the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt. In fact, we already know what El-Sisi thinks about politics, democracy, Islam and the future of countries such as Egypt: In 2006, he studied at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. And a document he wrote during that course of study gives us a glimpse into El-Sisi’s thoughts.
El-Sisi’s 17-page “Strategy Research Project,” titled Democracy In The Middle East, is not modelled on the classic academic essay, with a clear thesis, points for and against, supporting facts, authoritative sources and a clear conclusion. It has more of the feel of speaking notes for the kind of vague political speeches that once were common during the Arab socialist period of the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abd al Nasser. These consist of a kind of verbal Arabesque whereby one must get the overall feel of a speech — or in this case, an essay — from the sum totals of its meanderings.
The 30 endnotes, which comprise the bulk of documentation for the essay, all come from sources within the Arab World. There is no reference to any of the major arguments made by international scholars with regard to democracy in the Middle East. Nor is there any reference to any of the historians of Islam and their historiography.
The first part of the essay asserts that the Middle East is a strategic part of the world because it provides oil to the West and because the Suez Canal is an international transport zone. This is complicated by the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, in El-Sisi’s view, comprises one of many reasons why Arabs are suspicious of Western desires and hopes for democracy in the Middle East.
He writes: “The fact that Israel reflects a Western interest raises suspicion among Arabs about the true nature of democracy. This in turn will slow the emergence of democracy in the Middle East.” El-Sisi seems to be saying that since the Arab World is the enemy of Israel and Israel is a democratic client of the West, then democracy as a political system is tainted and suspect. He does not mention that non-Western countries such as India (or Israel for that matter) have adopted democracy, without consideration of (and often in spite of) American interests.
The next section of the essay is called “The Concept of Democracy from [an] Islamic Perspective.” Here, El-Sisi argues, quite rightly, that “Democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith.” He then points out that democracy in the Middle East cannot be understood without understanding the origins of Islam and the desire for the Caliphate.
As he has not defined democracy at this point in the paper, he begins to take large semantic leeway with the concept, and begins to consider what a Middle Eastern democracy could look like. He writes: “Ideally, the legislative, executive and judicial bodies should all take Islamic beliefs into consideration when carrying out their duties … However, to codify the major tenets of the Islamic faith; they should be represented in the constitution or [a] similar document. This does not mean a theocracy will be established. Rather, it means that a democracy will be established … upon Islamic beliefs.”
He then mentions as an example the election of Hamas in Gaza. Unfortunately, he neglects to point out that when Hamas got elected in 2006, they murdered many supporters of the Fatah opposition and violently drove the rest into hiding, or into the West Bank.
In the section titled “The Middle East Democracy Challenges,” he argues that poverty and un-free markets prevent the development of democracy. He also suggests that the man on the street may want America to reduce the amount of money it spent on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and spend it instead on social services in the Middle East. El-Sisi does not mention the trillions of dollars of wasted Arab oil wealth that generally has not been used to address the socioeconomic needs of average Arab people.
Reading El-Sisi’s essay is a frustrating experience, for he is rarely specific and almost always makes broad generalizations. From these, he makes broader analyses and recommendations. Why was his academic supervisor, Colonel Stephen J. Gerras, so derelict in his academic duty? Did politics get in the way of a failing grade, which is what the essay deserves?
El-Sisi suggests that there are three kinds of regimes that will battle for control of the Arab world. The first is “democracies with an extremist bent, like Hamas.” The second “will be in the tradition of the moderates like Egypt or Lebanon where extremist ideologies are not readily accepted.” The third and least likely form, he writes, will be “the Western form of democracy.”
What Does All This Tell Us About El-Sisi?
First of all, it tells us that the old American argument that living, studying and working in the United States is the best way to understand democracy, is just plain wrong. (Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s, also studied in the United States — but the effect of his studies was mostly to elicit disgust at American decadence). The second is that we can be sure that Islamic doctrines, and perhaps Sharia, will provide the legal basis of a future Egyptian state under El-Sisi. So Egypt’s Coptic Christians, liberals and feminists likely can forget their hopes of being treated as equals under the law.
El-Sisi will soon become President of Egypt. For those who hope for democratic change in that country, his own words provide scant basis for optimism.