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Why Al-Sisi should not be appeased

Western appeasement of Egypt’s former army chief is as reckless as it can get. European leaders should know from their own history that appeasement only whets the appetite of despots, wherever they may be. In the case of Egypt’s Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, he did not relent after he got away with the military coup and the 2013 massacres in Cairo.

Whether as a temporary policy or a long-term strategy, appeasement is neither good for Egypt nor the region. Cairo’s repressive policies under Nasser and then Sadat, which gave rise to a first generation of takfiris (Muslims who pronounce other Muslims to be infidels), have returned with all their ferocity. It is now only a matter of time before the consequences are manifested in the emergence of a 21st century generation of takfiris.

The chances are that they may prove to be the most violent and extreme than any other the region has seen, a rating held currently by ISIS, whom adversaries label as “takfiris”. Already, observers attribute the extremism of ISIS to the ill-treatment of its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi at the hands of his American jailers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. On his release, he told them, “I will see you in New York.”

The flood of condemnation at the jailing of three Al-Jazeera journalists seems to have been too little too late. Despite the stark warnings about the danger to press freedom after last year’s coup, western officials placated the Egyptian military. From day one TV stations and newspapers were closed; journalists were detained, press offices were ransacked; and broadcast equipment was destroyed; Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau is a case in point. From July 3 to date, 14 journalists have been killed and 90 remain behind bars; that’s what Al-Sisi’s Egypt means by press freedom. Its descent into this despotic state was both predictable and avoidable; its cheerleaders and apologists, in Egypt and abroad, now stand indicted.

As for former army chief Al-Sisi himself, he continues to espouse ideas that, at best, betray symptoms of megalomania; at worst they reveal messianic tendencies. His well-publicised dreams about holding a sword with the words “there is no God but Allah” inscribed in red still prompt debate. Under normal circumstances, that and the outlandish claims of his media and religious entourage would have been dismissed in the western media as lunacy. On 11 May, for example, the Egyptian newspaper ElFagr ran an article under the headline, “Sisi has met God twice.” That coincided with the appearance of a video clip of the preacher Saad El-Din Al-Hilali speaking before a large crowd at what appears to be an Interior Ministry function saying: “As God sent two prophets on a mission before, Moses and Aaron, here came Al-Sisi and Muhammad Ibrahim [the interior minister].” One only need to recall how Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was pilloried mercilessly whenever he referred to the coming of the Mahdi and the end of time to see the double standards of Western journalists and politicians alike in their dealings with Al-Sisi.

More recently, the Egyptian president has claimed that the security of the whole region lies on his shoulders. It would do western leaders good to interpret this claim correctly. Under the usual pretext of fighting “extremism” and “terrorism”, Libya’s failed coup leader General Khalifa Haftar announced recently that he was willing to cooperate with Egypt in this struggle. Such statements must sound like mood music to some western officials, especially the likes of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told a TV interviewer: “Right here in Egypt I think it is fundamental that the new government succeeds, that we give it support in bringing in this new era for the people of Egypt. And, you know, we can debate the past and it’s probably not very fruitful to do so, but right now I think it’s important the whole of the international community gets behind the leadership here and helps.”

With friends like these fully behind him, Egypt’s former army chief may well feel encouraged to intensify his campaign to suppress freedoms at home and embark on regional adventures. Since these will inevitably be geared towards the reversal of democracy and bolstering of dictatorships across the Middle East the consequences are predictable: more destruction, mayhem and chaos. The events in Iraq bear ample testimony to this likelihood.

At the heart of today’s turmoil across the region is Western preference for Middle Eastern “strong men”, the code word for despots and tyrants. After the democratic uprisings of 2011 this option has become discredited and wholly untenable. It is only by support for genuine democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights that the region will enjoy stability and progress.

This week’s jailing of journalists in Egypt was both shocking and instructive. It was a sharp reminder of all that can go wrong when despots are appeased. They not only turn against their own people but also their friends and supporters. There are Egyptian journalists who now languish in jail even though they supported the coup. Egypt’s descent into this state of tyranny was avoidable; if only the cheerleaders and apologists had realised their folly and withdrawn their support. It is still not too late for them to do so.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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