Abdel Fattah al-Sisi represents an opportunity to advance American interests in the Middle East—a neglected opportunity.
The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt brokered by the United States in the late 1970s provided a bedrock for Middle East stability that has lasted for 40 years. For four decades, every American administration maintained that peace by supporting both Egypt and Israel. However, the current U.S. government has neglected, scorned and sidelined both nations. Washington’s debasement of Israel is well documented, but its treatment of Egypt under the leadership of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been similar: shameful neglect of a longtime ally.
This rough treatment is astounding considering the fact that not since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 has there been a closer alignment between Egypt’s interests and the traditional interests of the U.S. But that’s the point: This American administration is anything but traditional.
Here is a look at a few of Sisi’s exploits that would have made any previous American administration eager to work with him.He recognizes the danger of political Islam. Sisi has boldly warned against the dangers of political Islam, whether of the Islamic State or the Muslim Brotherhood. In a country of 90 million mostly Muslims, Sisi has blamed religious leaders for not doing enough to counter militant Islam. In a watershed speech before Egypt’s religious leadership at Al-Azhar University on January 1, Sisi challenged: “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible! … I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world—I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move.”He opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In October 2014, Sisi’s government outlawed Hamas and designated it a terrorist group. In February, an Egyptian court upheld that decision. It was the first time an Arab regime defined a Palestinian terrorist organization as such. Since taking office, Sisi has taken the fight to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At great cost to the state, he created a 1-mile buffer zone on the edge of the Gaza Strip, relocating its inhabitants and bulldozing the houses to try to stop smuggling into Gaza. He also called on Hamas to terminate its terrorist training and arming. In this, Sisi has gone further than former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ever did. “Mubarak was old, he was frightened by public opinion and he didn’t dare,” said Eyal Zizzer, Tel Aviv University dean of faculties—“but Sisi doesn’t care, he’s fighting. It’s a war, and he knows who is the enemy.”He understands Israel’s security concerns. In a number of recent interviews, Sisi has revealed his support for Israel’s fight, not just against Hamas, but also against a nuclear Iran. “We have to understand the Israeli concern,” Sisi told the Washington Post (March 12). He revealed he talked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a lot.” Egyptian Maj. Gen. Sameh Seif Elyazal (Ret.) has explained, “We have a mutual understanding between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and, it is not a secret to tell you, with Israel as well!” (Wall Street Journal, March 18). Current trends led Jerusalem Post deputy managing editor Caroline Glick to proclaim, “Today Israel’s closest ally is Egypt. Under Obama, the U.S. is a force to be worked around, not worked with” (February 5).He defends freedom of maritime trade through the Red Sea. Earlier this year, Iran used its Houthi proxies to dismantle the government of Yemen in order to control trade through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the southern tip of the Red Sea. Egypt, the gatekeeper of the Suez Canal at the northern reach of the Red Sea, reacted strongly, warning that it would defend freedom of traffic through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority chief, Mohab Mamish, said Egypt “will not accept” the closure of the waterway. Sisi also invited ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi (historically a U.S. ally) to the Arab summit in mid-March, showing that he rejected the legitimacy of Iran’s takeover of Yemen.He promotes religious freedom within Egypt. While much of the Middle East suffers from religious helotism, Sisi actively promotes the equal rights of all religions. He visited a Coptic church on Christmas, the first Egyptian president ever to do so. He “has positioned himself as a defender of the country’s Christians,” reported the Wall Street Journal (February 16).He supports an Arab coalition to fight the Islamic State. American geopolitical analysts have long mentioned the need for Sunni states to come out in the fight against the Sunni Islamic State. Egypt is doing exactly that. The Associated Press reported on February 18, “Beyond fighting militants in its own Sinai Peninsula, [Egypt] is trying to organize an international coalition against the Islamic State in Libya and helping Saudi Arabia defend its borders.”
These policies would have made any former U.S. government willing to team up with Egypt under Sisi. However, the current administration, citing Sisi’s “human rights abuses,” has done nothing to strengthen ties, and even held back much-needed military aid. In contrast, when the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood took power in 2012, American financial support for Egypt continued to flow. Also, undermining Sisi’s rule, President Obama recently hosted the Muslim Brotherhood at the White House. “The United States is squeezing [Egypt’s] government on the military aid it needs to fight [the Islamic State] and the Sinai terrorists,” wrote Jonathan Tobin for Commentary (March 12). “As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.”