Pres. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is rapidly resuming Egypt’s role as leader of the Arab world, nosing out U.S. Mideast leadership under Pres. Barrack Obama’s “leading from behind”.
Initially snubbed by Obama after his military coup last year against the Morsi Islamicist government, el-Sissi has moved away from his military predecessor Hosni Mubarak’s all-out alliance with Washington. He has negotiated new arms purchases with Moscow, and taken advantage of France’s cancellation of four warships for the Russians to buy them and new fighter aircraft at discount. By Egyptian standards, his completion of the expansion of the Suez Canal traffic has been a major economic victory.
El-Assi is moving to choke off Hamas in Gaza, the offspring originally of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood. The Egyptian army has flooded the smuggling tunnels from the Sinai through which Iran armed Hamas and where bootlegged traffic has fed its coffers. In tacit cooperation with Israel, he has minimized traffic through Gaza’s Egyptian gateway. And he is doing what he can to break Hamas’ hold, announcing he wants Palestinian Authority’s rule returned to Gaza.
Last week at the UN, he called for an overall Arab settlement with Israel, acknowledging the new tacit alliance among the Mideast Sunni states against the Shia mullahs in Iran. In effect, although their public statements have been supportive, it’s no secret that all the American allies in the region are fearful Obama’s “deal” on nuclear weapons has given Tehran new power.
Nevertheless, El-Sissi threw a bouquet to Washington insisting relations were “improving” after what he admitted had been a two-year “real test of the endurance and strength”. He also tried to disarm his human rights critics with release of two Al-Jazeera journalists, whom his regime had accused of acting as agents of the Islamists – not altogether without merit given the history of the agency as mouthpiece for Osama Ben Ladin.
El-Sissi is pursuing a ruthless campaign against the Islamicists, with a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsular, now linked to Daesh [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL]. And for the first time in living memory, Egypt’s western frontier on chaotic Libya is also facing insurgency. The terrorists have been able to carry out bombings and attacks on police, even in Cairo. El-Sissi has responded with the killing of hundreds of terrorist suspects and a series of trials – questioned by Western human rights groups – condemning his predecessor Morsi and other Moslem Brotherhood leaders to death.
Nor does El-Sisi have an answer to the most critical Middle East question of the moment, what to do in Syria. He hints that he is siding with those – some of whom like German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just changed sides – willing to include Syrian Pres. Al-Assad in any provisional government He acknowledges that the West and the Arabs have a dilemma with the overwhelming dominance of the Syrian regime’s opponents by Muslim terrorists, including Daesh. The Obama Administration is still stuck, at least for the moment, with the argument that any solution in Syria must start with Al-Assad’s departure since it was his refusal to make concessions to then peaceful demonstrators which initiated the bloody four-year struggle.
Cairo and Washington still have their differences what with El-Sisi arguing an Israeli-Arab settlement would revolutionize the Middle East situation, urging a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s formula of no prior conditions. But Kerry is urging the Palestinian President Mohammed Abbas, barely clinging to power after announcing his retirement, to wait for the fallout of the Iranian “deal. Nor do the sympathetic views of the Moslem Brotherhood among Obama’s closest advisers help further Egyptian-U.S. realignment.