23 Feb 2015

‘Down with military rule!’ – Sisi and the realpolitik of today’s Egypt

What do you do when the only person standing up to your worst enemy is a thug and a bully? Not a playground problem but the realpolitik of the Middle East today.


This morning one of Egypt’s best known activists, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, was sentenced to five years in prison for organising a street protest and supposedly assaulting a policeman. Twenty-five others – appearing in the courtroom in Tora prison in a cage – had their sentences for similar offences confirmed.

“Down with military rule!” yelled the defendants’ supporters, a sentiment those who supported the Arab Spring uprisings – including western governments – might be expected to endorse.

Todays’ rulings follow a series of extraordinary judgements including a mass death sentences of 183 Egyptians for allegedly killing 11 policemen in August 2013, in a bizarre trial where many of the defendants were not present and no serious evidence was presented. Even President Mubarak’s courts did not do this.

But the military government of President al Sisi is attacking Islamic State both in its own territory, the Sinai, and across the border in Libya. The US and the UK see IS as their worst enemy and while they’re unlikely to say publicly that they approve of Egypt’s air raids on its neighbour, they know their own policy of dialogue between Libyan factions isn’t working.

“We’re neither condemning nor condoning,” was the best a reporter for the Daily Beast could get out of a US official after Egypt attacked. Nor, apparently, did they know – the Egyptians, who receive some US$1.5bn in US military aid annually, neglected to inform the Americans of their plans in advance.

Winston Churchill was clear about how to deal with such situations. Hitler was the worst enemy so he teamed up with Stalin, a lesser enemy. When WWII was over, Soviet Russia became the biggest enemy and policy was adjusted to fit.

Today such realpolitik is harder to sell, because there is no consensus on who is the greatest enemy, and the threat to western countries is more diffuse and complex. The result is a subtle diplomacy of mixed messages which maybe both President Sisi and Islamic State leaders feel free to ignore.

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