Who to watch in 2014 — #4: Egyptian army chief al-Sisi. He’s set to announce presidential bid in 72 hours.

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Photo: Reuters)

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Photo: Reuters)

(Washington, D.C.) — This is the fourth in a series of columns on key leaders in the epicenter we should be keeping an eye on in 2014.

1) The first leader on my list was Jordan’s King Abdullah II — a fascinating Arab Reformer, the son of a bold Reformer, actively trying to lead his small, resource-poor, but vitally important nation towards progress and freedom, tolerance and modernity in a very tough neighborhood. The Big Questions: Will he play a key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2014? Will he also continue to protect himself and his nation from the Radical forces that want his head?

2) The second leader was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a cruel dictator, the son of a cruel dictator, who is massacring his people as he presides over the implosion of a country engulfed in civil war. The Big Questions: Will he survive through  2014? Or are we seeing the end of his regime and the Syrian geopolitical state as we have known it?

3) The third leader was Ayman al-Zawahiri — a fanatical, Radical leader of al Qaeda who is Hell-bent on eradicating Jews, Christians and other ”infidels” in the epicenter and establishing an Islamic state throughout the Middle East, no matter what the cost in blood and treasure.

4) The fourth  leader on my list is Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — he is Egypt’s military chief who is reportedly now set to run for the president of Egypt in the April national elections.

In recent months, Al-Sisi has:

  • boldly toppled the Radical regime of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood on July 3, 2013
  • outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and jailed many of its leaders
  • fought the Brotherhood in the streets of Egypt
  • declared a ferocious war on the lawless jihadists operating in the Sinai desert
  • shut down many of the smuggling tunnels connecting the Sinai to the Gaza Strip
  • committed himself to cutting off the arms and money flowing to the Hamas terror group operating in Gaza

It’s still not clear to me what al-Sisi’s long-term goals and motives are. It remains to be seen whether he will prove to be a true blessing for the people of Egypt over the long haul, a friendly and useful partner of the U.S. and the Western alliance, a peaceful neighbor to Israel, and a counterweight to an aggressive and hostile rising Iranian regime. Only time will tell.

But let’s be clear: though it was not pretty (indeed, it has at times been quite bloody), al-Sisi’s actions saved Egypt from being suffocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and inasmuch as he has declared war on Radical Muslim forces in the Sinai, he has — so far, at least — been a force for security and stability in the Egypt-Israel relationship.

President Obama strongly condemned al-Sisi and his military forces when they liberated Egypt from the cruel grip of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. The administration also severely cut military aid to Egypt, which totals $1.3 billion annually.

I believe the President was wrong. Yes, I, too, am not generally comfortable when a military steps in to overturn a democratic election. Yes, I, too, want to see a healthy, fair, functioning Jeffersonian democracy in Egypt, along with a vibrant, growing free market economy that is creating millions of jobs and growing the wages of average Egyptians. Like many Christians, I want to see Egyptian believers protected from persecution, and to see the Church growing and strong. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab was not going to achieve any of these things. Egyptians knew the Brotherhood was hijacking their country. That’s why in 2013 22 million of Egyptians signed petitions demanding Morsi and his cronies leave at once.

At this stage, the U.S. should continue to work closely with al-Sisi and the Egyptian military. Several vital U.S. national interests are at stake, and returning power to the Brotherhood is not one of them.

John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., did an excellent job explaining our interests in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last August. Excerpts:

The U.S. should support the military because even with its obvious flaws, it is more likely to support the palpable U.S. interests at stake. Three are basic.

  1. First, it is in the U.S. interest to have an Egyptian government committed to upholding the Camp David Accords with Israel, the foundation of U.S. Middle East policy since 1979. The Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981 for negotiating Camp David, and it has never accepted it. Mr. Morsi foreshadowed abrogating or gutting Camp David as soon as practicable during his presidential campaign. With Iran nearing its long-sought nuclear capability, America and Israel would be worse off than before 1979. The U.S. is doing little to stop Iran, but we can still save Camp David. Backing Egypt’s military is the best bet.
  2. Second, and closely related: If the Sinai Peninsula slips from Cairo’s control, terrorists like Hamas (a Brotherhood subsidiary) and al Qaeda will use the area as a haven and a highway for smuggling arms to Gaza for use against Israel and to both sides in the Syrian civil war. Egypt’s army is far more likely to prevent this nightmare scenario than the Brotherhood.
  3. Third, for purely economic reasons, the Suez Canal must remain open. Annually, some 14% of global shipping and 30% of oil supplies pass through the canal. The Brotherhood is far more susceptible to suicidal impulses if it means harming the West. Egypt’s military does not prize martyrdom.

For these reasons and more, the U.S. should continue providing military assistance, which hopefully still provides some measure of continuing leverage. Three decades of affording Egypt’s office corps with military training has created powerful connections that cutting off aid would irreparably damage. America’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid is minimal compared to what the Saudis could provide in the U.S.’s absence, but its political symbolism remains important. Moreover, the U.S. should worry about an opportunistic Vladimir Putin stepping in to fill its shoes, eager to reverse Moscow’s historic setback when Sadat expelled the Soviets from Egypt.

As 2014 begins, then, al-Sisi is a man to keep an eye on.

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RESOURCES:

To that end, here are a few helpful articles that have been published recently:

Excerpts from a Reuters report:

  • Judicial sources from the High Elections Commission said that Egyptian presidential elections are likely to be held in mid to late April.
  • Regarding the possibility that army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will run for president, he should resign before the High Elections Commission calls on voters to go to the polls, the sources said according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Youm on Sunday.
  • Egypt’s military council has given the army chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a green light to run for president, a security source told Reuters.
  • “The top army officials all okayed Sisi running for the presidency,” said the source. Sisi is expected to announce his candidacy within days.
  • Sisi deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July, triggering political upheaval and street violence in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
  • Since then he has become hugely popular among Egyptians, who see him as a decisive figure who can stabilize the country which has lurched from one crisis to another since a popular uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
  • Hours before the top generals approved Sisi contesting the election, the presidency announced he had been promoted to field marshal from general, in what security officials said was a sign he is about to declare his candidacy for the presidency.
  • “The decision was expected and it is the first step before the resignation of the general and his candidacy announcement which is now expected very soon,” said a security official.
  • On Sunday, Interim President Adly Mansour issued a decree, stating that presidential elections would be held before parliamentary ones, chaining the political roadmap set out by the interim government.
  • Sisi is set to announce his candidacy in the next 72 hours, likely on Wednesday, the Saudi newspaper Okaz reported.
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