Sisi and the Strong Man

Is Egypt's president-in-waiting turning back the clock -- to the Nasser era?

As I walked down Talaat Harb St., a main drag off Cairo's Tahrir Square, a group of men and women stood on a balcony above a giant banner of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser's face, flashing victory signs at the people on the street below. As they waved flags and cheered, a set of aged speakers blared a nationalist song from the 1960s. The headquarters of Egypt's Nasserist Party was bursting with jubilation.

It was July 3, 2013, and the streets of downtown Cairo were heavy with anticipation. Two days earlier, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt's armed forces, had issued an ultimatum: Unless President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood reached an agreement with their opponents, the army would lay out a "roadmap" for the country's political future -- which everyone knew meant Morsi's ouster at gunpoint.

Nasser was suddenly everywhere. A man sat on a curb selling Nasser headshots, while throngs marched through the streets, holding posters of Nasser and Sisi side by side, and chanting "Sisi is my president!" For decades, Egypt's Nasserists had been a marginal opposition force. That day, it seemed their time had come. By nightfall, the army had placed Morsi under arrest and an assortment of national leaders from the military, the clergy, and various political parties unveiled a new interim government.

Six months later, a successful presidential bid by Sisi now seems inevitable. A new constitution blessed by the military passed in a referendum this month with a whopping 98 percent of the vote -- a level of support that Sisi's supporters described as a popular mandate for his candidacy. Of course, it helped that the new government brooked no opposition -- security forces arrested political activists who passed out fliers calling for a "no" vote. And on Jan. 27, Sisi's presidential candidacy took another step forward when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the country's highest military body, announced it was backing Sisi's candidacy.

Supporters of Nasser, meanwhile, have continued to cheer on the new strongman in Cairo -- perhaps hoping he will follow in their hero's footsteps not only by crushing the Islamists, but also by restoring Egypt's international prestige. Nasser's daughter, Hoda, a political scientist and historian, published a fawning op-ed in one of Egypt's leading newspapers imploring Sisi to run for president, saying that the army chief had "achieved in less than two months what politicians cannot achieve in decades."

Since the July 3 coup, Sisi has repeatedly been likened -- by both allies and enemies -- to Egypt's most influential president. At first glance, the similarities are rich: Both Sisi and Nasser were military leaders who came to power on the back of a coup, and who began by crushing the Muslim Brotherhood before seeking to quash dissent from the left. At a more fundamental level, however, the comparison is spurious. Nasser was a transformative leader, while Sisi appears to be a conservative who holds more in common with Hosni Mubarak. Nasser's popularity rested on his promises to change Egyptian society; Sisi's comes from promises of stability.

Sisi has claimed that he dreams about former President Anwar Sadat, but the public image that he has crafted for himself also harkens back to Nasser. Three weeks after ousting Morsi, he used the anniversary of the 1952 coup that brought Nasser to power to call for a pro-military, anti-Muslim Brotherhood protest. Last September, he visited with Nasser's family at the former president's tomb. Pro-Sisi media draws the comparison between the army chief and Nasser frequently -- something that would be unlikely if it wasn't an image the general was actively seeking to cultivate.

It's not hard to see why many Egyptians would yearn for a return to the Nasser era. The years between 1956, when Israel, France, and Britain embarrassed themselves in the Suez Crisis, to 1967 when Egypt embarrassed itself in the Six Days War, were in many ways Egypt's last golden age. Cairo's cultural and political influence was at its zenith: From Casablanca to Baghdad, millions of Arabs tuned in to Sawt al-Arab ("Voice of the Arabs"), a Cairo-based radio station that featured hours-long concerts from the legendary Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum and anti-imperialist, pan-Arabist propaganda put out by the Egyptian government. The Nasser years also brought unprecedented class mobility to Egyptians, with a rollback of the feudalism that existed under the monarchy and universities and middle-class jobs suddenly open to the poor.

At the same time, Egypt under Nasser's leadership was the undisputed political center of the Arab world. The Egyptian president spearheaded anti-imperialist movements throughout the region: His opposition to the Baghdad Pact, an anti-Soviet regional defense agreement dreamed up in Washington, helped sink the agreement, and he soon became the bête noire of America's allies in the region. In 1958, his popularity was so high that Syria voluntarily merged with Egypt, in a move that pan-Arabists hoped was a prelude to the unification of the entire Arab world. Politicians from Lebanon to Baghdad courted Nasser's support -- a kind of regional influence no Egyptian leader has come close to exercising since. Saïd Aburish, an Arab journalist and Nasser biographer, wrote that the colonel was "the most charismatic leader since the Prophet Muhammad." It is little wonder, thus, that Sisi embraces the comparison.

Sisi may also be drawing on Nasser's legacy to justify the repression of his Islamist rivals. After an assassination attempt in 1954, Nasser banned the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its leaders in jails, and had some of its members tortured and executed. But Sisi's crackdown on the movement has been even more ferocious: While Nasser arrested some 1,200 members of the group in 1954, today there are 1,200 alleged Brotherhood members facing trial in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya alone. And nearly 1,000 people were killed when security forces cleared Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo this summer, while countless thousands still languish in jails across Egypt.

But looking beyond Sisi and Nasser's shared military background and atrocious human rights records, the comparison between the two men starts to fade. "The parallels are not well founded," said AbdelAziz EzzelArab, a professor at the American University in Cairo who studies the Nasser era. "It appears to me that this recalling of Nasser and the Nasserist sentiment was a calling back of Nasser, the repressive part of him, as a strong statesman or a strong ruler who managed to repress the opposition and totally ignore the better side of Nasser, which were his social and economic policies that restructured the class relations in Egypt."

A pillar of Nasser's rule was anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity: He backed national liberation struggles with arms and propaganda, and allied himself with leaders from India and Indonesia to create a bloc of states that rejected the dichotomies of the Cold War. For Western leaders, he was a wily and threatening foe: "I have never thought Nasser a Hitler.... But the parallel with Mussolini is close," Britain's Foreign Minister Anthony Eden wrote in 1956 to President Dwight Eisenhower.

Sisi dabbles in anti-Americanism, but he's no Nasser. The current Egyptian military chief has accused the United States of "turning its back" on Egypt, but he maintains regular contact with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, talking with him more than 25 times since the July coup. When it comes to foreign policy, "the Nasser analogy is a bit of a stretch," said Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. "There's nothing to suggest Egypt is pulling out of the U.S. orbit any time soon."

Sisi's nationalism is avowedly focused more on the domestic front than Nasser's, and involves far less solidarity with the oppressed of the Arab world. He has taken a hands-off approach to the Syrian uprising, currently the Arab world's bloodiest conflict, and has indicated that he does not intend to upend the peace treaty with Israel. While Nasser's government was the scourge of Israel, a top diplomat in Sisi's Egypt attended the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- the controversial head of state and Israeli military commander who played a key role in defeating Nasser's army during the 1967 war. Moreover, the government under Sisi depends on the support of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia -- Nasser's biggest regional rivals. "It's not very Nasserist to be dependent on the retrograde conservative monarchies of the Gulf," Cook says.

It's not only the two leaders' international postures that differ, it's their contrasting visions of society. In Nasser's Egypt's Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution, a 1953 pamphlet explaining his goals for Egypt, the colonel harped on the need for two simultaneous revolutions. One was political, removing the monarchy and expelling foreign influence. "The second revolution is social, in which the classes of society would struggle against each other until justice for all countrymen has been gained and conditions have become stable," he wrote.

Nasser's rhetorical and intellectual commitment to "social revolution" was backed by action: His government instituted a series of land reforms that distributed roughly half a million acres of land to peasants in the first four years of his rule. The colonel-turned-president directly challenged the status of old guard elites, expropriating wealth from the urban monarchists and nationalizing industries.

Sisi, on the other hand, calls for stability, not revolution. In "Democracy in the Middle East," a paper he wrote while a student at the U.S. Naval War College, he explains why Arab societies are not quite ready for democracy -- because of a lack of education and the attendant instability of creating new democracies. Many of his supporters now likely agree: After three tumultuous years and Morsi's disastrous presidency, stability seems appealing.

"The wants and desires of the countries' populations themselves need to be considered," he wrote. "Do they really want democracy and are they willing to change their ways to establish it and make it work?" Democratization in the Middle East would inevitably be a slow process, noted Sisi in his War College paper, adding that militaries and security services would need to get on board.

While Nasser never created the Arab Socialist utopia that he conjured in speeches, he undoubtedly succeeded in placing the military at the heart of the state and the economy. Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali provides a telling example of this shift in his autobiographical novel, Beer in the Snooker Club: In one scene, the upper-class narrator engages in the classic Cairene pastime of chatting with a taxi driver. "Before the revolution you could only pick up a fare in the posh districts," the taxi driver says. "Now the army people also ride in taxis; that means we have the posh people and the army."

Sadat undid much of Nasser's socialist policies during a wave of liberalization in the 1970s, but the military remained in the driver's seat. And even today, it controls vast swaths of the economy -- as much as 40 percent of Egypt's GDP, according to the high-end estimates. Retired generals are given preference in institutions from the national airline to governorships to various public-private companies. "Loyalty raises them into higher ranks within the army and then prestigious civilian positions afterward," the historian Zeinab Abul-Magd wrote in Foreign Policy ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Sisi is the product of the Egypt that Nasser created: He rose through the ranks of the old system and has seen his friends and colleagues reap the rewards. If he were to undertake the sort of sweeping reforms of his predecessor, it would require seizing assets not just from wealthy landowners, but from the military itself. For this reason, his instincts have so far tended to be conservative -- not revolutionary.

Since the Egyptian revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011, the military's priority has been the preservation of its status. Under a year of military rule and then through compromises with the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals have looked to protect their paychecks and privileges. Now, it seems, the most effective means is one that was tested in the 1950s and 1960s: A demagogue in fatigues.



Foreign Staid

State and USAID need an overhaul, but you won't hear it from Obama.

During his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, President Barack Obama will likely talk about his administration's ambitious diplomatic agenda for the year: negotiations aimed at democratic transition in Syria, troops in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran's nuclear program, as well as complex multilateral trade negotiations across the Atlantic and Pacific. Military efforts, most certainly, will be a discussion point, but that won't be the case for the efforts of U.S. diplomats and aid workers abroad. What will make it to the president's teleprompter, of course, will be the issues that are seen as funding priorities. And if you think that civilian foreign-policy efforts even come close to making this list, think again.

Over recent months, Congress has postponed sequestration constraints for the Department of Defense that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have already met. That's despite the fact that diplomacy is a relative bargain -- civilian foreign affairs spending totals under 10 percent of the Pentagon's budget and less than 1.5 percent of total U.S. government spending. For the past 50 years, foreign aid has been steadily dissipating. While half of Americans think it represents 25 percent or more of the federal budget, it is in fact well under 1 percent.

Sure, taking a hint isn't always easy. But it's time for the State Department and USAID to do so and start asking some tough questions on whether these civilian institutions, in their current state, are worth funding. Are they configured to meet present and future needs, or are they trapped in the past?

America is a young country, but it has an old governing system. When created in 1789, the State Department was originally the Department of the State -- that is, the grab-bag department that handled everything the other three (War, Treasury, and the Attorney General) did not. Much has changed since then. Today, State is a traditional, 19th-century-style foreign ministry running several hundred missions abroad. USAID, founded to help fight the Cold War, focuses on poverty alleviation and economic development. How those missions contribute to American national security requirements -- except in the most general sense that a more prosperous world will be safer for everyone -- remains foggy.

This isn't to say that State and USAID are unnecessary. WikiLeaks demonstrated that U.S. diplomats are paragons when it comes to reporting. Their incisive descriptions of foreign leaders and careful parsing of their conversations were widely admired among foreign diplomats -- in fact, their reports of corruption and abuse of power may even have helped precipitate the 2011 Arab uprisings.

But these traditional reporting and assistance functions are no longer enough. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the challenge posed by terrorists worldwide have strained State and USAID, which struggled to deploy the expertise needed in a timely way. Meanwhile, the architecture of these institutions has remained static. American diplomats are still deployed as individuals (rather than teams) for several years to large fixed diplomatic missions that house dozens of government departments in Rome, Sarajevo, Baghdad, and other capitals that are no longer the nation's top priorities. The budgets of these sprawling embassies are difficult to fathom, because they are obscured in the agencies other than the State Department that provide most of their staff. An embassy of 800 people in Rome (half Americans and half Italians) -- the same number as before the end of the Cold War, before the delegation of many sovereign functions to the European Union in Brussels and before the stationing of U.S. forces much farther east -- is clearly excessive. Even when I served there as deputy chief of mission more than 20 years ago, there were hundreds of people tackling projects and assignments that could have been handled from Washington, D.C., or during short visits.

Relations between states are still important, but so too are America's relations with foreign publics. Nonstate actors such as private voluntary organizations, think tanks, religious institutions, and universities are now important players in international affairs. Wars between states have become rare, while wars within states are now much more common.

Traditional diplomacy focuses on communicating with sovereign governments, while 21st-century diplomacy focuses on ensuring that governments represent their people. Today, conventional diplomatic and foreign assistance institutions in the United States have fallen short in six specific areas that are vital in a world in which states are less important and publics more important.

1. Preventing war. The sloppy and hesitant American reaction to the Arab awakenings, in particular in Syria and Libya, left U.S. diplomatic agencies vulnerable to violence and extremists. Too often, State waits too long to respond to situations -- thinking it is playing it safe -- when, in fact, proactive diplomacy could have been the solution. For example, earlier action to bolster the nonviolent opposition in Syria and to help Libya establish law and order after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi could have enabled more orderly transitions to democracy.

2. Reforming foreign security forces. The Egyptian Army learned nothing about its proper role in a democratic society, while Washington sent it more than $1 billion annually for decades. It would be surprising if the Yemeni forces that are getting lots of U.S. counterterrorism training and equipment were learning much more, even if human rights protection is included in their training. When the U. S. military provides military assistance to foreign governments, it should include training (like that run by the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces) for parliamentary and executive officials in maintaining oversight, restraining security forces from involvement in politics, and ensuring that they respect human rights.

3. Supporting democratic transitions. America has long preferred democratic friends and allies because established democracies rarely go to war with each other and prove reliable partners in pursuing a more peaceful and prosperous world. Latin America and main U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region have moved in a democratic direction in recent decades. But in the Middle East, the United States became reliant on secular autocracies that have betrayed the aspirations of their people for dignity and prosperity. The nation's excellent government-funded but nongovernmental organizations that support democratization -- the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the United States Institute of Peace -- suffer excessive micromanagement by the State Department and USAID. (This is also the case for many of the private voluntary organizations that contribute vital government-financed programs to establish the rule of law and strengthen democratic institutions, like those of the American Bar Association and Partners for Democratic Change.) These should be the nation's first line of defense in today's world, not the last.

4. Countering violent extremism. Local communities, not drones, are the best way to fight extremism. But the United States has been slow to empower moderates who could inspire young Muslims and non-Muslims before extremists do. More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the United States should be cooperating with and financing community-based efforts domestically and abroad to strengthen rule of law, promote tolerance, and prevent violent conflict. Recent American support for the creation of a Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, which will use public and private funds to support community-based programs to prevent the radicalization of at-risk individuals, in part through counseling by religious leaders and former militants, is a step in the right direction.

5. Encouraging citizen and cultural diplomacy. The failures of American "public diplomacy" to endear non-Americans to U.S. government policy are well documented. The considerable successes of its citizen diplomacy in building bridges to foreigners are ignored. Take, for example, Kiva, which helps Americans invest amounts as small as $25 in entrepreneurial ventures in poor countries. Total funding now amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars raised from individual U.S. citizens. Then there are the Americans who go abroad: There are 1,400 American organizations engaged in citizen diplomacy abroad, and American volunteer efforts overseas are valued at more than $3 billion. The Center for Citizen Diplomacy needs all the encouragement it can get to reach its goal of doubling the number of Americans engaged in citizen diplomacy by 2020.

6. Break from "fortress diplomacy." All these less traditional diplomatic functions require a far more agile, expeditionary, and engaged diplomatic establishment. Diplomats and aid workers should deploy to prevent conflict and instability before it all cascades into war. But when it does, they should also be trained to deploy with soldiers and Marines -- not for days or weeks, but for months and even years. There are risks inherent in this approach -- there are already many security threats to U.S. diplomats abroad, and these won't be lessened by integrating their work more closely with the military -- but having a forward-deployed diplomatic corps is necessary to U.S. national security, even if that puts them in harm's way.

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Mobilizing new diplomatic action early in crises, reforming security forces, and conducting on-the-ground diplomacy require leadership from U.S. government agencies. But the rest -- countering violent extremism, promoting democracy, and citizen and cultural diplomacy -- should be the mission of nongovernmental organizations working with U.S. government financing but without excessive government constraints. And all these functions need to be done cooperatively with international partners in friendly, democratic countries that share American values.

So what would U.S. civilian foreign affairs agencies look like if they were designed to meet America's future national security requirements? The answer is simple: a single integrated foreign office, as opposed to the duplicative and wasteful division between two inadequate and sometimes competitive institutions -- plus a much-enhanced partnership with nongovernmental organizations. The combination should be agile, flexible, and proactive.

The idea isn't novel. In fact, George W. Bush brought this concept to life in 2009 when he created a "civilian nation-building corps" with a budget of close to $250 million. Two years later under Obama, the corps reached 1,000 active-duty and standby government employees from nine different agencies. Its members deployed to Afghanistan to beef-up civilian planning and training capabilities and to Kyrgyzstan for conflict prevention and reconciliation efforts, as well as to South Sudan. But since then, budget pressures have led the State Department to de-emphasize and reduce the corps, which did not fit well with State's reactive bureaucratic culture. To save money, people are hired only when needed and deployed without the extensive experience and training once envisaged.

This is sad because the United States needs an experienced and practiced team of people with an array of missions -- overseeing police forces, setting up courts and prisons, governing an open society, managing a free market economy, reconciling people who share a violent past -- to help transitioning countries to become well-functioning states.

Funding should come from shrinking supersized embassies and redirecting the money to this more readily deployable corps, which would not only work closely with, but be deployed with, the U.S. military. Canada has already folded its aid agency back into its Foreign Affairs Department. The U.K., Norway, the Netherlands, and others are trying to coordinate their civilian assistance more closely with their military forces.

This is the way forward.

For those worried about American decline, the cheaper and better way to slow it is more effective civilian foreign policy. It is a vital complement to a strong military.