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Sisi's Student Paper Lifts Lid on Egypt's New Regime

By Mehdi Chebil, Eric Trager, and Tom Bowman

Sisi’s student paper lifts lid on Egypt’s new regime

By Mehdi Chebil (text)  

France 24, August 11, 2013

The Washington-based Judicial Watch foundation released on August 8 an academic paper penned by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his 2006 studies at the US Army War College. The paper reveals the strongman’s views on democracy in the Middle East.


One month after the ousting of Egypt’s first freely elected president Mohammed Morsi, an American pro-transparency group has obtained a 2006 academic paper penned by Egyptian army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The document gives clues to to the secretive personality of Egypt’s new de facto ruler - and his troubled relationship with Morsi.

Written by the leader of the July 3 coup during his time studying at the US Army War College, the 11-page essay presents the author’s views on democracy. The document also helps explain why Morsi appointed Sisi military chief last year instead of more senior and better qualified candidates.

“Ideally, the legislative, executive, and judicial bodies should all take Islamic beliefs into consideration when carrying out their duties”, wrote the student Sisi in 2006, while warning that democracy in the Middle East “may bear little resemblance to a Western democracy”. Musing about the Caliphate of early Islamic history, Sisi also argues the importance of a non-secular form of government that should respect people’s religious beliefs.

What several experts described as Sisi’s “radical views” must have been music to the ears of a freshly-elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi’s adherence to conservative and Islamic values helped tip the balance in his favour in August 2012 when Morsi appointed him Minister of Defence.

But speculation over a possible alliance between Egypt’s new military chiefs and the elected Islamist leaders was firmly put to rest when Sisi seized the mass anti-government protests as an opportunity to overthrow Morsi.

Closet Islamist or Mubarak-era diehard ?

In retrospect, several pro-Islamist statements in Sisi’s academic paper appear tragically ironic. The brigadier-general, who complained in March 2006 about “religious leaders (…) often sent to prison without trial (sic)”, has since overseen the brutal killing of over 200 pro-Morsi protesters since July 2013. Since the July 3 coup, Egyptian security forces have also jailed officials linked to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood while the deposed president himself is being held incommunicado.

Still, this dramatic about-face is almost foreseeable when reading thoroughly Sisi’s early paper. Eric Trager, expert of Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute, wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine that the views expressed in the thesis echo the Mubarak regime’s argument against democracy, ie, favouring “stability” over the risks of liberalising the political system.

Sisi already showed contempt for ballot box legitimacy in his essay, going so far as to argue that there are “valid reasons” for autocrats to be wary of "relinquishing control to the public vote”. Sisi cites “security concerns both internal and external” and the necessity “to educate the population” as the foundation for these beliefs. After the coup, the education argument was recycled by some liberal leaders, who blamed their repeated electoral defeats on Egyptian voters’ “lack of education”.

However, one of the most prophetic parts of Sisi’s academic paper is when he highlights the threat posed by security forces “loyal to the ruling party” rather than to the government: “If a democracy evolves with different constituencies, there is no guarantee that the police and military forces will align with the emerging ruling parties”. As Morsi found out on July 3, electoral legitimacy doesn’t necessarily translate into loyalty from the state security apparatus.


Text of the Sisi Paper, "Democracy in the Middle East," at the US Army War College in 2006:


Portrait of the General as a Not-So-Young Grad Student

By Eric Trager

Foreign Policey, August 7, 2013

Egypt's army chief isn't an Islamist -- in fact, his work at the U.S. Army War College suggests he may be a Mubarak clone.

What does Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi really think about democracy in the Middle East? From the moment President Mohamed Morsy promoted Sisi as Egypt's defense minister in August 2012, rumors have swirled about his supposed Islamist leanings. The army chief was said to be particularly devout, and the fact that Morsy passed over more senior generals in selecting him fueled claims that Sisi was a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. Even after he deposed Morsy, observers of Egyptian politics have wondered whether he hopes to use his newfound power to implement an Islamist agenda.

A 2006 paper Sisi wrote while studying at the U.S. Army War College, titled "Democracy in the Middle East," has garnered much attention in this regard. Naval Postgraduate School professor Robert Springborg contended in Foreign Affairs that the document "reads like a tract produced by the Muslim Brotherhood," and "embraces a more radical view of the proper place of religion in an Islamic democracy."

This view of Sisi as an Islamist may prove accurate, because little is known of the sunglass-sporting general who is now Egypt's de facto leader. But after thoroughly examining Sisi's paper -- which you can download here -- I found little evidence of Islamism. If anything, the paper reflects the boilerplate, nationalistic rhetoric of Mubarak-era Egyptian officials -- not the theocratic rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The paper is not a strident manifesto, but rather reads like the sort of work graduate students routinely produce when a rote assignment is due. It weighs in at 11 loosely-spaced pages -- less than half the length of the paper that his deputy Sedki Sobhy wrote for the same assignment -- and is quite disorganized.

Sisi penned this paper just as President George W. Bush's "Freedom Agenda" peaked. The previous year witnessed successful elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon, while Washington also successfully pushed Hosni Mubarak to hold Egypt's first-ever multi-candidate presidential elections (sham though they were). But in 2006, much of this progress was reversed: The Iraq War's violence derailed hopes the country would quickly emerge as a stable democracy, and Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The Mubarak regime highlighted these failures to resist further pressure to liberalize, arguing that America's attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East were not only intrusive, but undermined the very stability that democracy required.

Sisi's paper echoes the Mubarak regime's arguments. It primarily lays the blame for the persistence of Middle Eastern autocracy at the feet of outside powers. Given the region's "huge oil and natural gas reserves," the general writes, "the Middle East is under constant pressure to satisfy multiple country agendas that may not coincide with the needs or wants of the Middle Eastern people."

Sisi argues that the Arab-Israeli conflict and U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also undermine the prospects for democracy in the region. "[T]he existing conflict and tension needs to be resolved before democracy can be more fully accepted by the people of the area," he writes. U.S. foreign policy, Sisi argues, has only enhanced Middle Easterners' skepticism about democracy, due to concerns "that the Global War on Terrorism is really just a mask for establishing Western democracy in the Middle East." He also highlights American support for non-democratic regimes, and proceeds to list them -- without, of course, mentioning Mubarak's Egypt.

What, you may ask, does the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have to do with whether Egypt holds fair and free elections? Sisi never really says. At one point, he tries to link these conflicts to socio-economic factors: "Poverty in the Middle East is driven by a number of factors that include war, for example, Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran-Iraq war, Morocco-[Western] Sahara conflict and Syria-Lebanon, to name a few," he contends.

But Sisi doesn't really flesh out in any detail how such conflicts have contributed to the region's poverty. And the inclusion of the rarely mentioned Western Sahara conflict -- as a cause of regional poverty and thus autocracy, no less! -- suggests Sisi is trying to satisfy a grad school paper word count, not offering a meaningful view into his ideological outlook. Moreover, the very notion that democratization cannot occur until all the region's conflicts are solved is a classic Mubarak-era can-kicking strategy.

Sisi does not only focus on war and poverty -- he also lists a host of internal factors that undermine democratization in the Middle East. Some of these are particularly interesting in light of recent events: Sisi notes, for example, that "many of the nation's [sic] police forces and military forces are loyal to the ruling party," and that "there is no guaranty [sic] that the police and military forces will align with the emerging ruling parties" in nascent democracies. That latter argument may be the only point on which Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood can now agree.


Egypt's Top General And His U.S. Lessons In Democracy

by Tom Bowman

NPR, August 08, 2013 3:33 PM

Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the man at the center of the military takeover in Egypt, is the latest in a series of American-trained foreign officers to oust a civilian government.

Just seven years ago, he was a student at the Army War College in rural Pennsylvania. At a recent military graduation ceremony in Alexandria, Egypt, el-Sissi talked about his ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.

The army was forced to take that step, the general said, in the wake of mass protests against the elected government.

"Don't think I betrayed the former president," el-Sissi told the audience. "I told him the Egyptian army belongs to all Egyptians."

Half a world away, retired U.S. Army Col. Steve Gerras watched in amazement. Gerras served as the general's faculty adviser at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and helped him write a paper back in 2006.

The name of the paper? "Democracy in the Middle East."

"Pretty relevant," Gerras says now, laughing.

A 'Quiet And Serious' Student

The U.S. colonel and others remember el-Sissi as a fairly quiet and serious Egyptian brigadier general, not the kind of personality who would mount a military coup — although the U.S. has not called it that.

"My conclusion was, and my inference was, 'Wow, things must really be bad there because I just don't think he was the type of person who would pull a, not a coup, but a quasi-coup there,' " Gerras says. "You think of Saddam Hussein and [Moammar] Gadhafi and [Hugo] Chavez, or people like that. He's not one of those guys."

Sherifa Zuhur, a former research professor at the Army War College, attended the same small, local mosque with the general and his family.

El-Sissi, she recalls, like other Middle Eastern officers, thought America's war on terrorism at the time was becoming a sweeping attack on Muslim communities.

"And I think that our officers, as well as many American Muslims, began to talk about a war on Islam," Zuhur says.

El-Sissi debated such issues in class with American officers, but in a quiet, respectful manner.

"He's the opposite of bombastic, aggressive, not a showoff at all," she says.

But el-Sissi did oust a democratically elected government. And he's not the first American-trained officer to do that. There have now been five since the early 1990s. Others were in Haiti, Gambia and Honduras.

The most recent occurred last year in West Africa, when Capt. Amadou Sanogo took over the government in Mali. The captain studied at several military schools and received intelligence training at the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca in Arizona.

Training Foreign Officers

Gordon Adams, a defense analyst who worked in the Clinton administration, says that in the United States, the military is asked to play a lead role.

"It's a very double-edged sword," he says.

Training foreign officers allows the U.S. to forge relationships that might pay off later, he says. But it also helps build up foreign militaries as the strongest institution, one that can threaten democratic governments.

Adams says that other U.S. government institutions, like the State Department, are not focused on this type of training.

"They are not particularly well-trained for helping other countries [on] how to govern, how to control their own militaries, how to prevent corruption," Adams says. "All of those are concerns of the 21st century, but our civilian institutions here in America are not well set up to deal with them."

So it falls to the U.S. military and to people like Gerras, the Army War College professor. He recalls el-Sissi telling him about the difficulties of establishing democracy, saying it would take time and not resemble the Western model.

"My recollection was he thought whatever the government structure was had to pay attention to religion. You know he's thinking: You guys have a secular view, and that will never work in the Middle East," Gerras says. "I remember almost that exact sentence coming out of his mouth."

But Gerras said he can't share the general's research paper on democracy. El- Sissi checked a box on a release form that read: "Release only to government authorities."




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