John Kerry’s Wishful Thinking About Egypt

Sisi will likely change his military uniform for a suit and run for president, but that won't make the country more stable

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Posters of Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are seen as supporters of the army protest against ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo's Nasr City district, on October 6, 2013.

Last week, in the midst of his latest trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry told Egypt’s ruling military junta to keep up the good work. The Obama administration wants General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who removed Muslim Brotherhood affiliated president Mohamed Morsi from office in a coup on July 3, to return Egypt to civilian rule as quickly as possible.  And that road map, said Kerry, “is being carried out to the best of our perception.”

In reality though, it looks as though Egypt is heading in exactly the other direction.

The committee tasked to write Egypt’s new constitution is debating whether the document should grant the military special privileges, like the right to try civilians in military courts. That issue seems especially relevant at present with Sisi determined to stamp out the Brotherhood once and for all. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members are under arrest and hundreds are being tried in military courts. Egypt’s highest profile court case, former President Mohamed Morsi’s trial on charges of incitement to violence and murder, began on Sunday until chaos prompted judicial authorities to postpone the trial until January.

(MOREMorsi Hearing Adjourned Amid Courtroom Chaos)

If it’s difficult to imagine that Egypt’s political institutions will be any more prepared in two months to handle the Morsi case, there’s little doubt that Gen. Sisi will have further consolidated his power.  As various press reports and Middle East experts argue, it seems likely that Sisi will exchange his military uniform for a suit and run for president. Already 9 million Egyptians, or more than 10% of the population, have signed a petition to draft the career military man as Egypt’s next civilian ruler. Secretary of State Kerry’s inaccurate description of the situation on the ground in Cairo seems to suggest that the White House would have no problem signing off on a Sisi presidency, even if he was the architect of a coup toppling the country’s first elected leader.

And why not? The way the White House likely sees it, Sisi becoming a civilian to lead Egypt’s military regime would mean a return to the stability that came crashing down with the fall of Hosni Mubarak February 2011. In other words, it’s Mubarakism, but without Mubarak.

(MORE: Away From Egypt, Bahrain’s Own Arab Spring Uprising Heats Up Again)

Mubarak was often derided as a dull, stolid figure who kept Egypt in stasis for 30 years. But now that we know what a dynamic Egypt looks like—political chaos and bloodshed in the streets—there’s another way to see Mubarak’s legacy, as a pragmatist whose reach seldom exceeded his grasp.

Mubarak kept the peace with Israel, thereby cutting against the grain of popular Egyptian sentiment, for the sake of keeping both his country out of war and the American aid package flowing.  He alternately cut deals with domestic rivals like the Muslim Brotherhood and at other times tossed its leadership in prison. Perhaps, as critics say, it’s because Mubarak wanted to use the Brotherhood as a scare tactic to keep Washington off his back. Or maybe it’s because Mubarak understood that neither he nor anyone else was capable of stamping out the Middle East’s oldest and most prominent political movement.

Sisi has no qualms about possibly tearing up his country by alienating the millions of angry Egyptians who elected Morsi president because he believes he has a popular mandate to uproot the Brotherhood. In other words, the general who is riding a wave of massive street support is a populist. The issue then is that populists must tailor their policies to fit the preferences of those they lead.

The Obama administration seems to have overlooked the fact that two and a half years of street protest have shown the population of Egypt to be broadly anti-American and more dangerously yet anti-Israel. If Sisi doesn’t want to wind up out of power, his leadership will amount to him having to follow the crowd, whichever way it’s going. The signs are already there for the White House to see: this is not a return to the stability of Mubarakism, because Abdel Fattah Sisi is no Hosni Mubarak.