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Is Al-Sisi a diplomat extraordinaire or a puppet?

June 9, 2015 at 11:31 am

On 3 June, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to Berlin. In typical Western fashion she met a military dictator who carries out and justifies executions under a corrupt judiciary as a matter of routine by condemning him half-heartedly for PR’s sake before granting him international recognition by telling the world that “speaking to each other and trying to cooperate in fields which are important can be successful.”

This bold move by Merkel sparked a global reaction. From activism to analysis, the focus was not on the deals to boost economic ties, but on Al Sisi’s identity. He’s constantly being compared to his predecessors, especially Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, in terms of his foreign and domestic policies. In many ways, this comparison is not only futile, but also noxious to competent policy analysis. The nature of Al Sisi’s domestic policies is militarism, brutality, sickening levels of state propaganda and totalitarianism, which is simply a continuation of the pattern of typical Egyptian presidential characteristics. With the exception of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only genuine democratically-elected president, the rest have been tyrants who ruled at the expense of the blood of their citizens.

To understand the futility of using comparisons to give Al-Sisi an identity, you need to understand the origins of these comparisons. When he first came to power, Al-Sisi initiated the comparative rhetoric by telling Egyptian state TV that he aspires to be the next Nasser. “Abdel Nasser is not only framed on the walls of Egyptian homes, but also in the hearts of Egyptians,” he explained. His aspirations don’t only extend to the fact that Nasser is seen as a nationalist and legitimised his ruthless domestic and foreign policies in the name of pan-Arab propaganda; both leaders came to power through a coup. He wants to remove the violent connotations that come with being a coup leader and replace them with being a nationalist who took tough decisions for the greater good of his country.

In terms of his foreign policy, his growing friendly relations with Israel are compared to Sadat’s, while his relations with Russia are compared to Nasser’s. Though reducing Al-Sisi’s foreign policy to simultaneous diplomacy with Russia and being pro-West to perpetuate an analysis that’s rooted in Egyptian state propaganda, this only feeds him with the analytical discourse he desires as it makes him seem like a diplomatic mastermind and doing the work of two presidents with contrasting policies. This methodology is also shallow and takes such relations out of their political context in a way that glorifies him, undeservedly so.

It’s impossible to deny that Egypt’s role on both regional and international platforms has expanded during Al-Sisi’s rule, but it’s important to understand why. Currently, Egypt is the go-to country for world powers as the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region is becoming increasingly unstable and unpredictable; having a diplomatic foothold in a country with a leader whose brutality towards any opposition and powerful military backing makes Al-Sisi the most sustainable puppet to utilise for outside powers to exert foreign influence. Each of the countries that have been pursuing diplomatic relations with Al-Sisi has vested security and economic interests in doing so.

The Egyptian leader’s visit to Germany should not be a surprise to anyone. Already in March, Al-Sisi signed memorandums of understanding with German company Siemens worth $11 billion. On 3 June, Siemens received their first order from the agreement, worth $9 billion of gas steam power plants and wind parks that will be built near the Suez Canal. Described as the largest order the company has ever received, Al-Sisi has secured himself and his illegal regime more legitimacy by securing German interests.

Al-Sisi is being perceived as a pioneer in the War on Terror with his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Libya’s post Arab Spring insurgencies and starving Palestinians in Gaza, all in the name of defeating what he refers to as “Hamas terrorists”. With his militarism at home and in Yemen and Libya, Al-Sisi is also in need of sustaining his military, a gap that another major foreign player in the MENA region has recognised and pursued.

Russian interests in the region have been threatened with its main allies facing increased instability. The Syrian regime, which may not be on the verge of collapse just yet, has nevertheless suffered severe losses to ISIS recently. Bashar Al-Assad’s international legitimacy is decreasing and although Russia does not usually care about the legitimacy of the parties it backs, a lack of international support perpetuates the sensitive situation the dictator is in.

Although Russian-Iranian relations are still good, with almost mirroring interests in the MENA region, Russia cannot afford to rely solely on one player, especially one which for the past year and a half has also been trying to improve relations with the United States. Not long after the 2013 coup, Al-Sisi announced a new form of military co-operation with Moscow, the first of its kind since Gamal Abdel Nasser. Commenting on the issue, Ruslan Pukhov, a Russian ministry of defence advisor, explained that this deal is not only to ensure sales of military equipment, “but goes hand in hand with a broader co-operation, including on foreign policy goals.” Currently, the mutual interests between Cairo and Moscow in Benghazi are of significance, as it is crucial to both parties to ensure the security of the Tobruk government, which is supported militarily by Cairo.

This military relationship is showing increasing signs of strength. In September last year, Russia and Egypt signed an infamous deal for Al-Sisi to purchase $3.5 billion worth of arms from Moscow. On 6 June, Russian naval units arrived in Egypt to carry out joint naval drills at the Alexandria Marine Base.

Even when it comes to regional alliances, the same principle applies. Israel’s alliance with Al-Sisi is only strong because of his role in ensuring optimum Israeli success in the 2014 war on Gaza, by closing down the Rafah border crossing, destroying tunnels, providing Israel with intelligence and assisting in the campaign to dehumanise Palestinians.

Al-Sisi also managed to capture a political alliance with Gulf States last year when they believed that the biggest threat to their security was the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the attitude in the Gulf about the movement has changed in recent weeks as the threat from Tehran is now more significant than it has been in decades, Riyadh still enjoys a military alliance with Cairo.

It is clear that Al-Sisi is not trying to carry out the legacy of any of his predecessors. He is not combining two contrasting policies that followed each other, nor is he a skilled diplomat. He realises that he is treading on thin ice as an illegitimate leader with threats on all of his borders. Both regional and global powers see this and have not shied away from taking advantage of his position in exchange for security and legitimisation. His tactic of being a one-size-fits-all puppet internationally, along with exercising the politics of fear at home, may be the only two factors preventing the crumbling of his dictatorship and military rule in Egypt.

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