Yesterday, Egypt’s ruling authorities made two symbolic yet important decisions. The first is that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, detained since the February 2011 coup that toppled him from power, is to be freed. The second is that the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, is heading in the other direction. He’s going to jail, where he’ll join another former President, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected Commander in Chief who was deposed last month by Defense Minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the man who now calls the shots in Cairo.
Perhaps al-Sisi believes he is following Machiavelli’s advice to rulers, that people must either be caressed or crushed. However, showing leniency to Mubarak and baring his teeth at the Brotherhood, along with other decisions al-Sisi has taken over the past 40 days, give us an insight into the nature of the man and suggest a character deeply flawed, rash and dangerous.
We don’t have many biographical details about al-Sisi. The 58-year-old general was born and raised in Cairo. He received his commission in 1977, so he fought in none of Egypt’s wars. He trained in the U.K. in 1992, served as military attaché in Saudi Arabia and in 2006 attended the U.S. Army War College. The fact that he regularly consults with Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the 89-year-old Egyptian journalist who was a close confidante of Gamal Abdel Nasser, perhaps the greatest Arab nationalist hero, suggests al-Sisi is ambitious. A profile in the Daily Beast reveals little about al-Sisi that couldn’t be said of much of Egypt’s, or indeed all of the world’s, male population — he’s religious, conservative, keeps his own counsel and believes he is born to lead rather than follow. A professor who taught al-Sisi at the Army War College recalls that among all the Arab officers still reeling from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Egyptian officer exhibited more self-control than the rest.
Self-control is hardly the first attribute that comes to mind to describe a man who during his brief tenure as de facto ruler of Egypt has already killed hundreds in the streets. That is, it is not the raw data of biography that shows who someone is — rather, it is the choices one makes and the actions taken that draw the lineaments of character. Here, al-Sisi is wanting.
If the White House still refuses to call al-Sisi’s July 3 coup by its proper name and much of Egypt rationalizes it as an intervention to save democracy backed by a large part of the population, the reality is that the army took sides with one half of the country against the other. The 2012 election that put Morsi in the presidential palace showed that the Muslim Brotherhood had broad support. How many people may have changed their mind about Morsi over the course of a year when he proved incapable of governing or how many people the anti-Morsi forces put into the streets to demand his exit is immaterial. Al-Sisi failed to comprehend the obvious consequences of reversing the outcome of the country’s first free vote — he was taking on not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also running roughshod over the political will of millions of Egyptians. The first move Egypt’s new ruler made was to create the conditions for civil war.
Al-Sisi’s campaign against the Brotherhood, including the arrest of Badie, shows that he is keen to decapitate them. Whether or not he’s capable of putting down a political movement born in 1928 and steeled by more than 80 years of violent repression remains to be seen. He certainly can’t crush all the many millions of Egyptians who support them.
As for Mubarak, yes, he deserves better than prison. He kept Egypt stable and at peace for 30 years and the young tech-savvy revolutionaries who helped topple him in 2011 owe their advancement and privilege to him. However, to release him now sets the revolutionaries against al-Sisi, the man they thought had come to restore the revolution that Morsi derailed. In freeing Mubarak, al-Sisi may well have further divided Egypt — the army and the Brotherhood and the revolutionaries against each other.
The Middle East is not like Norway or Denmark, as one Middle East leader famously said, referring to the region’s ruthless and often bloody political ethos. However, the Middle East is also not the lowest circle of hell. Rulers may at times find violence a useful tactic to achieve certain ends, but it is not a strategy, not the endgame, unless they wish to govern only rubble and flames. That’s where al-Sisi is leading Egypt.