The definitive sign that Egyptian politics had spiraled out of control — or rather back into control — came last August when the former head of the IAEA, the often anti-American Mohammed ElBaradei, unexpectedly gave up his relatively new national ambitions and hurried back to his home in Vienna. He had broken his decades-long self-exile when he thought there might be a chance for him to become a compromise presidential choice. Baradei has always been a barometer of international politics and his flight back to European security told a clear story.
The White House has been confused in recent years regarding Egypt. The “dethroning” of Hosni Mubarak, a strong-headed but consistent ally, had forced the United States to pretend it really wanted the will of the Egyptian people to prevail. After Cairo’s “Arab Spring” and the later clear victory of the Muslim Brotherhood at the polls, the Egyptian military had made clear they expected trouble — and they got it. Washington was befuddled by the dictatorial direction of the newly elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. The totalitarian Islamist character of the Muslim Brotherhood and its figurehead political leader put paid to the expectations of evolving democracy on which the American administration had counted.
The Egyptian military recognized that Washington was either too naïve or too stupid to realize what was going on, and in early July of this year ousted Morsi. Essentially Egypt was back in the hands of the same military class that had ruled since the early 1950s. The Pentagon remained aloof, but was now quietly pleased with the evolution back to the old days. The White House was completely confused because its natural instinct to stand up for democracy had been completely blind-sided by the results of just that democracy — or at least the Egyptian version of it. The Obama NSC was particularly chagrined as it had wanted to show that the United States really could get along with a radical Muslim government.
Demonstrations against the return of “military law” have been repeated lately at an alarming rate. The participants range from secular youth groups to hard-core Brotherhood street fighters, each with their own agenda. At least that’s the view of the military leadership who once again are in charge of enforcing the law promulgated by the new junta-backed government. Severely restricting all protests is the order of the day.
Security police, in their easily recognizable black uniforms, have not hesitated to use their traditional weapons — truncheons, canes, and water cannons — to disperse protesters and then arrest any who haven’t been able to flee. From the police standpoint the system works rather well, and their supporters insist these methods are far more restrained than the weeks of the bloody crackdown on Brotherhood demonstrators after Morsi’s ouster.
The picture changes, however, when there are major protests by Brotherhood street groups intent on destruction rather than demonstration. When these Islamist gangs come out to use violence as a political tool, they are met by police who do not hesitate to supplement their own weaponry with copious clouds of tear gas. Unfortunately, it is also true that the secular youth sometimes get caught up in fighting the police at the same time as the black uniforms want to concentrate on the Brotherhood gangs. At that point everyone gets gassed.
Recent reports indicate that about 2,000 of the Brotherhood leadership have been detained, along with 6,000 rank and file supporters. In addition to Morsi, the actual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, is in custody as is the main operational chie (and original Brotherhood choice for Egyptian president) Khairat el-Shater.
There is no question that General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s control over Egypt’s political and military life is complete. It is ironic that Morsi is the one who appointed him to replace the longtime Mubarak military chief, General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. General el-Sisi has created his own lines into Washington and appears to be on his way to reestablish the dominance of the Armed Forces originally created by Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The reaction of the Obama Administration definitely has been muted. The Pentagon has cancelled a scheduled shipment of jet fighters. Tanks and other big ticket hardware items have been “delayed.” Supposedly these actions are in protest over the harsh crackdown on pro-democracy protestors, including, according to the State Department, the Muslim Brotherhood. None of this seems to have bothered General el-Sisi who avoids the limelight as much as a powerful leader can do under the circumstance. He holds simultaneous positions as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Defense Minister, and Deputy Prime Minister.
In the judgment of human rights lawyers in Cairo, the prosecutions of the Muslim Brotherhood members and Mohamed Morsi will set the tone for the future governance of Egypt. Pleas to American and international rights personalities have tended to fall on deaf ears while the White House has its hands full with domestic politics. No one wants to admit it in Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh, but they all seem to be at ease that Cairo is back in the hands of “the old crowd.”