Category Archives: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Morsi’s Legacy: Unlikely Democrat, Reluctant Martyr

Morsi surrounded by his minders

Mohamed Morsi (1951–2019) was the fifth President of Egypt (30 June 2012 to 3 July 2013), deposed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in a coup d’état July 3, 2013. In his last words, Morsi accused the government of “assassinating” him through years of poor prison conditions.

Morsi is survived by his wife Naglaa Ali Mahmoud (not “First Lady” but rather “First Servant of the Egyptian people”). Morsi had five children, two are US citizens born in California. His body was quickly buried without an inquest. His wish that he be buried in his hometown Adwa was denied.

Human Rights Watch official Sarah Leah Whitson said Morsi’s treatment in prison was “horrific, and those responsible should be investigated and appropriately prosecuted.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for a “prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into Morsi’s death. Among major world leaders only Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Malaysia and Qatar expressed regret at his death.

Morsi’s legacy is mixed. An engineer who studied at the University of Southern California, he was an unlikely figure to be thrust onto Egypt’s central stage, not a major thinker in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), without any political experience. He was an unconvincing second choice for the MB as presidential candidate, a bumbler, a poor speaker, but brave and principled.

The charismatic, millionaire businessman Khairat El-Shater, a major financier and chief strategist of the Brotherhood, was disqualified at the last minute based on previous trumped up convictions, and Morsi was only allowed a few hours before the deadline to register. He was vilified by hysterical secular westernizers, and undermined by a campaign of lawlessness and planned shortages, but was popular to the end among devout Muslims. The media and the elite were against him and drowned out the Muslim wisdom not to overthrow a ruler as long as you are “not commanded to disobey Allah. If he is commanded to disobey, then there is no listening or obedience.” Ibn Omar (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2796).

The MB, like Iran’s Islamic order, doesn’t fit into western secular thinking. The MB supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan. But they are not the Taliban, they never supported al-Qaeda. They are more in line with Turkey’s Islamists. Or Iran’s Islamists.

A few key moments:

*On 19 October 2012, Morsi traveled to Egypt’s northwestern Matrouh in his first official visit to deliver a speech on Egyptian unity at el-Tenaim Mosque. Immediately prior to his speech he participated in prayers there where he openly mouthed “Amen” as cleric Futouh Abd Al-Nabi Mansour, the local head of religious endowment, declared, “Deal with the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, disperse them, rend them asunder. Oh Allah, demonstrate Your might and greatness upon them. Show us Your omnipotence, oh Lord.” The prayers were broadcast on Egyptian state television and translated and posted by MEMRI, a Zionist media watchdog.

*On 22 November 2012, Morsi issued a declaration which intended to protect the work of the Constituent Assembly drafting the new constitution from judicial interference, until a new constitution is ratified in a referendum. This was blown up as an Islamist coup, but in fact Morsi was just trying to get around the Supreme Court, stacked with anti-MB judges, who would declare the MB’s programs and new constitution as … unconstitutional? Whatever. In the referendum to ratify the new constitution, it was approved by approximately two-thirds of voters.

*The declaration also required a retrial of those accused in the Mubarak-era killings of protesters, who had been acquitted. Additionally, the declaration authorized Morsi to take any measures necessary to protect the revolution.

*Morsi strengthened ties with Iran following years of animosity since the Iranian revolution in 1979. However, his actions were met with Sunni Muslim opposition both inside and outside of Egypt.

*He spoke out for the rights of Christians and emphasized that Islam requires there to be an ethical component in economic affairs to ensure that the poor share in society’s wealth.

Fatal mistake

Like Erdogan, in the heady days after the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, Morsi got swept up into Islamic revolutionary fever, calling for the overthrow of the (Alawite) “infidels”, a kind of belated revenge for the slaughter of the Syrian MB by Hafez Assad in 1980. But then, just about everyone was (and still is) supporting the Syrian opposition, from Obama to most Sunnis, soon-to-be-ISIS, and leftists.

The last straw for the military was when Morsi attended an Islamist rally on 15 June 2013, where Salafi clerics called for jihad in Syria and denounced supporters of Bashar al-Assad as infidels. Morsi announced that his government had expelled Syria’s ambassador and closed the Syrian embassy in Cairo, calling for international intervention on behalf of the opposition forces and establishment of a no-fly zone.

Morsi’s attendance at the rally was later revealed to be a major factor in the army’s decision to side with anti-Morsi protesters during the June 30 anti-Morsi protests. In November 2012, the National Salvation Front (NSF) had suddenly appeared, and overnight, a nationwide petition was signed by 22m Egyptians calling for Morsi’s immediate resignation.

Is it possible Morsi might have survived if he hadn’t broken relations with Syria and called for jihad? The Egyptian military looked at Syria and saw their own future. The Syria army was battling to hold the country together in the face of a dubious coalition of Islamists with lots of support from Saudi Arabia and the US. They decided they had to overthrow their own Brotherhood before it took them on and ended their privileged hegemony. The Egyptian military is trained and equipped by the US. Egypt runs on Saudi dollars. Best to keep the US and Saudis on your side and the message by then was ‘Dump the Brotherhood’.

We will never know, but the plan from the start clearly was for the all-powerful military to give the Brotherhood some rope, and then take charge and hang them (metaphorically and literally) if they actually tried to govern, counting on the vengefulness of the old guard and the screaming liberals if the MB pushed too hard. The liberals were weak, and could be conned into supporting a coup, and then easily brought to heel with a few arrests and massacres.

This power politics isn’t confined to the Arab world. Iran and Venezuela are both targets of western-backed campaigns to destroy any attempt, Islamic or socialist, to escape the clutches of the US empire. Trump welcomed Sisi to the White House in April 2019, after Sisi declared himself president for life (in a referendum which he won with 88.3% approval). Trump: “We’ve never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than we do right now. I think he’s doing a great job.” After the meeting, Trump pushed for the US to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

Overthrowing rulers

Just as Erdogan came to regret his betrayal of Assad (and barely survived a coup in 2016), so Morsi and the entire MB can only regret flirting with militant jihad abroad, from the 1980s on. Even if Assad is an Alawite and you don’t approve of that sect of Islam, you don’t overthrow him as long as he doesn’t commanded you “to disobey Allah”.

But then, 30 years ago it was official Egyptian and US policy to encourage Islamists from Egypt to go to fight in Afghanistan. And the campaign against Assad was/is almost unanimous in the West. So again, I sympathize with bad judgment by the MB.

MB spokesman Dardery said, “The nation elected Morsy to a four-year term and should stand by that. To do otherwise would disrupt the country’s nascent democracy. It is not fair to a democracy.” Lesson from Iran and Syria: If you’re going to have an Islamic revolution, make sure the people and army are on your side.

El-Sisi’s legacy

Sisi clearly models himself on Egypt’s 19th dictator-pasha Muhammad Ali. The parallel is stark between Sisi’s slaughter of thousands of Muslims, and Muhammad Ali’s clever invitation of all his Mameluke rivals to his citadel in 1811. He invited them to the centre of power and proceeded to slaughter a thousand of them to consolidate his rule. Invite your foes into the open and then murder them.

A legend of the pasha was that he had 300,000 street children rounded up and shipped to Aswan where they were taught skills and became assets to his construction of a new Egypt. Sisi launched just such a program “Homeless Children” in May 2017, planning to gather up street waifs and whisk them to an army camp for training.

Then there’s the new Aswan Dam, criticized as a white elephant, even as Egypt hovers on the brink of bankruptcy. (Along with it is a scaled-down version of the MB’s proposed industrial corridor along the Nile.) This nostalgia for the past is perhaps an attempt at taking the wind out of the sails of ISIS, the actual Muslim terrorists, yearning for the caliphate, but is just as misguided.

By attempting to destroy the MB, the legitimate Islamists, Sisi gives fuel to the ISIS fires. That was what the MB could have tackled, not a secular dictator persecuting devout Muslims. On the contrary, terrorism has increased dramatically since 2013, with at least 500 deaths.

The Ministry of Education have decreed that the revolution of January 25, 2011, and the uprising on June 30, 2013 will no longer be mentioned in high school history textbooks. The ‘Arab Spring’ didn’t happen.

President Morsi is dead, assassinated. El-Khater and other MB leaders are on death row. Sisi is dictator for life.

The end of history? Hardly. As for Morsi, he enters the realm of legend, a kind of foil for bin Laden, as a true martyr to Islam.

Gaza-Sinai State a Possibility for Palestinians?

Gaza has been the focus of intense talks behind closed doors in recent weeks as disquiet has risen among Arab states at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the coastal enclave.

Palestinians there are enduring a scorching summer with barely a few hours of power a day, after Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) has refused to finance essential services. Abbas is trying to weaken his Hamas rivals who rule Gaza and assert his own authority.

In the background, an ominous deadline is rapidly approaching. Gaza is expected to be “uninhabitable” within a few years, according to United Nations forecasts. Its economy has been broken by years of Israeli military attacks and a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade, its population is mostly destitute, and its aquifers are increasingly polluted with sea water.

Gaza’s rapidly growing population of two million is already suffocating in a tiny patch of territory. In May, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Gaza was on the brink of “systemic collapse”.

Israel has good reason to fear the future. Another round of fighting with Hamas, and heavy casualties among ordinary Palestinians, will further damage its image. And sooner or later, ordinary Palestinians are likely to rise up and tear down the security fences that imprison them.

For that reason, Israel and its patrons in Washington – as well as the Arab states – are desperately in search of a remedy.

It is in this context that Palestinians have been pondering the significance of a series of recent secret meetings between Egypt, Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan, an exiled Fatah leader and enemy of Abbas. Are they paving the way to a permanent solution for Gaza – and one that will be largely on Israel’s terms?

Pressure on Egypt?

One possibility – known to be much-favoured by Israel – would be to engineer the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and then pressure Egypt to allow it to expand into the neighbouring territory of northern Sinai.

According to this plan, not only would most of Gaza’s population end up in Sinai, but so too would potentially millions of Palestinian refugees.

Atef Eisa, a journalist in Gaza City, told Al Jazeera that the meetings between Egypt, Hamas and Dahlan were the main topic of discussions in the enclave: “People understand that Israel wants Gaza permanently separated from the West Bank. They wonder whether Sinai might be a way to achieve it.”

Suspicions of a Gaza-Sinai state are not new. In fact, there is strong evidence that Israel has been pushing aggressively, along with the United States, to create a Palestinian state in Sinai since it withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip more than a decade ago.

Now rumours are circulating that the Sinai plan is being revived. Are the stars aligned for Israel? The US administration of Donald Trump is openly on its side, Hamas is at its weakest point ever, and Israel is increasingly close to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“There is no doubt that this is what Israel would like to see happen,” Shawqi Issa, a Palestinian analyst and former government minister in the PA, told Al Jazeera.

Issa believes Israel is now firmly set on turning Gaza into the Palestinian state, as part of a regional solution that might also see the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, currently in Abbas’ charge, ultimately falling under Jordanian responsibility.

But such a regional solution – what Israel calls its “outside-in” strategy – hinges on Egyptian help. “The chief difficulty with the Sinai option is allaying Egyptian concerns,” said Issa. “Israel and the United States can manage it only as part of a dramatic reshaping of the entire Middle East.”

‘Greater Gaza’ plan

The plan requires Cairo to accept a humiliating compromise of its sovereignty by surrendering territory in Sinai, possibly in a swap for Israeli land in the Negev. It would also undermine long-standing Arab demands that a Palestinian state be realised in historic Palestine.

But most importantly, the military regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is concerned about an expansion of Hamas’ influence into Sinai, strengthening support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ sister organisation and the main opponents of Sisi’s rule.

However, the extent of Egypt’s opposition is far from clear, especially given that it may be facing stiff pressure from the Trump administration and the Saudi-led Gulf states to alleviate Gaza’s problems.

In fact, Israeli media reports in 2014 suggested that Sisi may have agreed to cede 1,600 sq km in Sinai to Gaza, expanding the enclave’s size fivefold. This would have realised Israel’s vision of a demilitarised Palestinian state it calls “Greater Gaza”.

Abbas is reported to have rejected the plan outright.

Not surprisingly, both Egyptian and Palestinian officials publicly denied the reports. Nonetheless, Abbas and his officials subsequently appeared to corroborate some aspects of the story.

At a meeting of Fatah loyalists in August 2014, Abbas reportedly said that a “senior leader in Egypt” had told him: “A refuge must be found for the Palestinians and we have all this open land.”

A week earlier, he told Egyptian TV that the Israeli plan had “unfortunately been accepted by some here [in Egypt] … Don’t ask me more about that. We abolished it.”

Abbas was unclear about whether these were references to Sisi or his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, who briefly headed a Muslim Brotherhood government before being removed by the Egyptian military.

At the same time, a report in the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat indicated how long the Sinai plan may have been gestating. An aide to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president until he was toppled in 2011, quoted the former leader as saying: “We are fighting both the US and Israel … In a year or two, the issue of Palestinian refugee camps in Sinai will be internationalised.”

Netanyahu ally’s hints

Indications that the Sinai plan may have been revived at a high level have come from Ayoub Kara, a government minister and ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In February, shortly before Netanyahu and Trump met in Washington, Kara tweeted that the two leaders would “adopt the plan of Egypt’s Sisi. A Palestinian state in Gaza and Sinai”.

Kara added that this would provide a regional solution of the kind Netanyahu and Trump officials have recently been talking up: “This is how we will pave a path to peace, including with the Sunni coalition [of Arab states].”

Egyptian officials again issued hurried denials. But Kara’s statements prompted so much alarm that a group of prominent Egyptian lawyers filed a suit against any moves by Cairo to resettle Palestinians in Sinai.

In what could be seen as a territorial precedent, the Egyptian parliament approved last month the transfer of two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in return for billions of dollars of investments in Egypt’s ailing economy.

Regional solution

There are good reasons why Israel may believe all the pieces are falling into place to realise a Palestinian state mostly outside the borders of historic Palestine.

Hamas is at its lowest ebb ever, with Israeli officials speaking of the movement “fighting for its life”. After Egyptian and Saudi-led moves to sideline Qatar and Turkey’s support, Hamas is now all but friendless.

The carrot for Hamas of a Greater Gaza would be the chance to rule a much more substantial piece of territory, solving the enclave’s humanitarian crisis and rehabilitating the Islamic movement in the eyes of the international community.

Naji Shurrab, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told the Jerusalem Post newspaper that the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza would be the first step. But he believed territory in Sinai would be included too, once Egyptian security concerns had been addressed.

Israel has all but gone public with its close security ties with Egypt and the other key regional Arab state, Saudi Arabia. The two share Israel’s concern about curtailing Iran’s influence in the region and appear to be prioritising that alliance over the Palestinian cause.

Indications are that the White House is engaging in vigorous shuttle diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to help with what Trump has called the “ultimate deal” for peace.

Dahlan pivotal figure

What of Abbas, who has previously rejected the Greater Gaza plan?

He is much weaker than he was a few years ago and has alienated Saudi Arabia and Egypt with his continuing bitter feud with Mohammed Dahlan, his key rival within the Fatah movement and the man the Arab states would like to see succeed him.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a former Israeli intelligence officer, told Israel’s Channel 1 earlier this month that Sisi intends to bring down Abbas.

Dahlan has been living in exile in Dubai, in the Gulf, reportedly channelling money from the United Arab Emirates into Gaza and the occupied West Bank to buy popularity and political influence. There are long-established suspicions that Dahlan is close to officials in Washington, too.

In fact, Dahlan is rapidly emerging as a pivotal figure, promoted by Riyadh and Cairo. Could he be the key to unlocking the Greater Gaza plan?

Over recent weeks, a series of secret, three-way meetings between Dahlan, Hamas and the Egyptian security figures have been trying to devise a new power-sharing arrangement in Gaza.

Reports suggest that Egypt will agree to reopen Gaza’s Rafah crossing into Sinai if security is overseen by Dahlan loyalists rather than Hamas. According to some reports, Dahlan may even become prime minister of Gaza, with Hamas leaders serving under him.

Hamas reassure Cairo

Hamas has been trying to prove its good faith by creating a buffer zone inside Gaza to prevent fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), who have targeted Egyptian soldiers in northern Sinai, from using tunnels to find sanctuary in the enclave. “These measures serve as a message of assurance to the Egyptian side,” Tawfiq Abu Naeem, Gaza’s head of security services, told reporters.

What is slowly emerging looks suspiciously like a “Gaza state” project.

This arrangement could reassure Egypt and Israel that Hamas’ influence can be contained and that the movement may even be able to help in the fight against ISIL. A strong Dahlan would be expected to restrict Hamas efforts at arming, prevent rocket fire on Israel and block any alliance with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Assuming the model is successful, and with Abbas likely to be out of the picture soon, the Sinai plan could be properly unveiled with Dahlan and Hamas maintaining order in a Palestinian state in northern Sinai, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

All of this could be sold to the watching world as a supremely humanitarian gesture – to end the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the region.

The question remains, however, whether Israel and the US can pull it off.

• First published in Al Jazeera

Pope and I in Cairo

In Cairo, Pope Francis, once again, did what he usually does best: he snapped at the state of immorality and selfishness, which is governing the world, particularly in the West. The message to Egypt’s priests could actually be directed at the population of the European and North American cities:

The first temptation is to letting ourselves to be led, rather than to lead… The second temptation is complaining constantly… The third temptation is gossip and envy… The fourth temptation is comparing us with those better off… The fifth temptation is individualism, ‘me, and after me the flood’… the final temptation is ‘keep walking without direction or destination’…

Pope Francis gave speeches, and met the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El Sisi. He appealed to Egypt to “Save the world from famine of love”. The Egyptian Gazette, an official English language newspaper, carried a headline with a photograph of Pope Francis and the President (and ex-general El Sisi), smiling at each other, as if this odd couple could truly become the entity capable of returning both love and passion to the world.

“Although the Pope’s speeches were good, I have a big problem with anyone meeting the murderer El Sisi,” one of my friends wrote to me from exile in Paris, one of the ‘revolutionary doctors’, a man who used to be imprisoned and tortured here in Egypt.

And El Sisi he did meet, and they grinned at each other for the camera lenses.

*****

There is one point that is hardly made in the local and international media: the Christians in Egypt fully embraced the military coup of July 2013, during and after which allegedly thousands of people were massacred (some in the poorest slums of Cairo), tens of thousands tortured, and more than a million imprisoned.

At Hanging Church in Cairo

In 2012 and 2013 I was filming in Egypt for Telesur, directing and producing a documentary film about the end of the Arab Spring and the crashing of all hopes for a better, socialist Egypt. After witnessing the horrors of El Sisi’s crackdown on Morsi’s supporters, as well as on the Egyptian left, I went to the famous ‘Hanging Church’ in Coptic Cairo and asked the believers about the coup. They refused to even use the word ‘coup’, and expressed their unconditional support for the military junta.

Today, almost 4 years later, I went back to the same church, and confronted two leading Orthodox Christian clerics of Egypt, Father Jacoub and Father Samuel (they claim that in their mind there is “no difference between the Catholics and Orthodox Christians).

“Now that Egypt is bleeding and people are pushed to the edge, do Christians still support the military government?” I asked point-blank.

First, Father Samuel replied:

Yes, now it is the same unwavering support as before. The church was behind the President, El Sisi from the very beginning, and it is with him now.

Then Father Jacoub joined the litany:

El Sisi protected us; he saved our country.

Then Father Samuel again:

President Sisi came to power during the difficult time for Egypt. He’s doing well, changing the country.

“Isn’t it all sectarian, religious?” I wanted to know. “ Aren’t you supporting El Sisi because he attacked the Muslim Brotherhood?”

Another honest answer followed:

Yes it is religious… Yes, it is one of the reasons for our support.

*****

I spoke to people in slums and on the street. Almost all of them were desperate. Food prices were skyrocketing and periodically, there have been shortages, even of some basic food.

A person with whom I used to work before, during the ‘days of hope’, was subdued, frustrated, and angry:

Now people are really furious. Everything is getting more and more expensive. But currently, people don’t even dare to protest: the police and the army closely monitor everything. You dare to go to the streets, and they disappear you; you get immediately arrested. There are some 2 million people in our prisons now… Perhaps one or two more years and things will explode again. It really cannot continue like this forever.

Egyptian people are well informed, but frightened and fragmented. They clearly comprehend what is taking place, but they are waiting for the right moment to return to the streets. I personally know those who were imprisoned and tortured in Egypt, after the coup. Every trip back here reminds me of extremely close calls, when I could have been killed myself, be it in Port Said, in Alexandria, and in Cairo. But Egypt is ‘addictive’: once you begin writing about it, it is extremely difficult to leave forever.

Coup in Egypt

“The military is everywhere,” I’m told inside the monumental Citadel built by the great Sultan Saladin, who fought against the European crusaders, defending vast areas between Egypt, Syria and Iraq:

The military and the police; they are paid by the West, particularly by the United States. For decades, they were corrupted; they control Egyptian businesses, from A to Z. It would be suicidal to criticize them openly. And they love the West. Many of our people also have no choice but to ‘love the West’, because the economy of this enormous country has already collapsed. You are either miserably poor, or you are part of the armed forces, or in the tourist industry, or the few other services which are all somehow intertwined with the West.

The same pattern as in Afghanistan, I realize. Endemic corruption mostly injected from outside, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of treasonous families, the elites, who produce nothing tangible but live well from selling their own country to the imperialist Western rulers. And then there are, of course, the army, the police, and dozens of their branches with complicated and proud names.

And countries are going to the dogs, while the Western mass media is busy demonizing Syria, Venezuela, the Philippines and North Korea.

*****

This is an S.O.S. written to me a few months ago by one of the left-wing “revolutionary doctors”, with whom I was working on my Egypt film:

The counter revolution has triumphed… Sisi dictatorship strengthened… All opposition parties and organizations squashed… thousands of revolutionaries imprisoned… Hundreds executed by court orders or liquidated by the police… Media suppressed and directly controlled by the regime… The military economic investment in the country has soared… Neoliberalism is taking hold… People are suffering.

Is the Pope blind? Or is there perhaps some other, more complex game, which is being played?

Pope Francis is, after all, from Argentina, and his own country is deeply divided about his role during the military dictatorship there.

“Pope of Peace, in Egypt of Peace”

“POPE OF PEACE, IN EGYPT OF PEACE” one reads from the thousands of posters hanging on the electric poles of Cairo.

Really? Egypt of peace…

“The famine of love!” He and the General (currently President), together, are now ready to tackle it, heroically, hand in hand, while millions are rotting in prisons, and the country is gradually collapsing.

• Photos by Andre Vltchek