Egypt’s de facto ruler urged President Obama to restore the military aid suspended last year after Egypt’s armed forces ousted the country’s president and warned that America’s unwillingness to combat Islamic extremists in strife–ridden Arab states was endangering the U.S. and its European and Arab allies.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military commander behind the ouster of ex-President Mohamed Morsi, and who holds the title of field marshal, is widely expected to win the country’s presidential elections scheduled for late May. He said that U.S. military aid was badly needed to help Egypt combat Islamist terrorism in the Sinai peninsula and jihadi training camps in Libya near Egypt’s border. America’s unwillingness to help Egypt battle what some have called the largest militant Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s history and to help contain ongoing civil strife in Iraq, Libya and Syria, he said, had created “fertile ground for religious extremism” that would be “disastrous” for both the U.S. and the Arabs.
“The only thing they know is destruction,” he said, speaking of the militant jihadis now battling for power in Syria and other Arab states. “Usama bin Laden was only the first.”
By refusing to deploy western forces to help stabilize Libya after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization overthrew longstanding dictator Muammar Qaddafi in late 2011, he said, the U.S. and other NATO members had created a political vacuum that had left Libya at the mercy of “extremists, assassins, and murderers.” “History will judge you severely,” he declared.
Yet during most of this rare, two-hour meeting with a small group of American national security specialists and journalists in Cairo last week, Sisi repeatedly stressed Egypt’s desire for strong ties with, and support from Washington. America and its allies, he said, had an interest in avoiding further chaos in Egypt and in helping restore political stability and economic growth in the Arabs’ most populous nation. Egypt, whose population totaled 94 million people in March and which adds one million new Egyptians to its ranks every nine months, needs “substantial” economic support to overcome “monumental’ challenges, he said.
The field marshal’s conciliatory tone and frequent repetition of his desire to mend relations with Washington contrasted sharply with his harsh rhetoric last summer about President Obama’s decision to cut $240 million of Egypt’s $1.5 billion in annual military aid and suspend shipments of some military equipment and spare parts in response to the army’s overthrow of the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood government. The administration announced the suspension after Sisi, whom Morsi had chosen as Egypt’s defense minister, ousted Morsi when more than 30 million Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo and other cities to demand that Morsi end the Muslim Brotherhood’s chaotic, year-long rule either by stepping down or calling early elections.
Last August in an interview with Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post, Sisi sharply criticized America’s response to the army’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, and accused the Obama administration of ignoring the Egyptian people’s will. By suspending aid and criticizing Morsi’s overthrow, he said, President Obama had betrayed Egyptians and “turned your back on Egyptians, who “won’t forget that.”
Last week, by contrast, Sisi spoke fondly of his days at the U.S. Army’s war college and expressed hope that Egypt would evolve into a democracy similar to that of America and Great Britain. Morsi’s removal, he argued, was not the result of a military coup, but of a popular uprising against extremist Muslim Brotherhood rule – what Egyptians call their “second revolution” after the Arab Spring protests which forced President Hosni Mubarak from power in early 2011.
Sisi said that while he understood why Washington had suspended aid, many Egyptians did not. They felt “offended and hurt” by Obama’s suspension of aid in the midst of an insurgency, especially since President Obama himself had pledged that counter-terrorism funds and equipment would not be affected by the suspension, he said. As a result, ordinary Egyptians were asking: “Why did our friends do this to us?”
He told the visiting Americans that Egypt desperately needed military and economic aid. But no matter how the current dispute between
Cairo and Washington evolved, he added, Egypt’s army would remain grateful for the more than $73 billion in assistance that America has provided between 1948 and 2012, much of which was earmarked for military procurement and training. “We won’t be ungrateful and we won’t turn on you,” Sisi said.
He stressed that American political and economic support was crucial to Egypt’s economic and political recovery. Since Hosni Mubarak forced resignation in early 2011, tourism and other sources of revenue have plummeted. While Egypt’s birth rate has increased, economic growth has stalled, official unemployment has risen to over 12 percent, and shortages of heavily subsidized fuel and electricity plague the economy. Egypt has depleted its reserves of hard currency and has managed to pays its bills thanks partly to over $12 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf supporters.
Sisi said that the violent insurgency sparked by Morsi’s ouster has enraged ordinary Egyptians. The Egyptian people’s repudiation of Morsi, who was narrowly elected in May, 2012 by 51.7 percent of the popular vote, was a rejection not just of the Brotherhood, but of political Islam as well. While Sisi did not specifically endorse secular government, he said that Egyptians did not want to be “forced into a mosque or a church.” Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10 percent of the population, have bitterly complained that under Morsi, the police failed to respond to widespread attacks on their churches and institutions. Similarly, many Egyptian women chafed under the Brotherhood’s efforts to deny them longstanding legal and social rights, “Women should be free to wear, or not to wear a veil,” Sisi said. A constitution approved by Egyptians after Morsi’s ouster guarantees equal rights for Egyptians regardless of gender or religion.
Sisi urged Americans to be patient as Egypt struggled to develop the institutions and culture essential to democracy. Democracy was still new to Egypt, he said and should not be judged by the same standards of America and other mature democracies.
Ordinary Egyptians, Sisi said, no longer feared the Muslim Brotherhood. And they would demand that any future elected government meet their political and economic demands and expectations.
Asserting as do so many Egyptian officials that the military and Egyptians have an alleged “special bond,” Sisi said that Egyptians had been particularly enraged by Islamists’ attacks on Egyptian soldiers and security forces, 500 of whom have been killed in the past two years, according to government statistics. A tally kept by the Long War Journal shows that Sinai-based militants have staged over 300 attacks there since Morsi’s ouster on July, 2013 in addition to over 100 attacks on Egypt’s mainland.
In addition to refusing to deliver Apache helicopters and spare parts – Egypt’s fleet of 35 Apaches provide close air support against Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the Sinai, Egyptian officials say – the Obama administration has been withholding deliveries of F-16 jets, M1A1 tank parts, and Harpoon missiles.