Author: Ahmed Eissa, UMBC
As he approached the podium, applause from the world’s leaders and delegates filled the room. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi smiled in return and placed both hands together, offering gratitude for his warm reception.
Shortly after his opening remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Sisi announced the coming of a ‘New Egypt,’ one which “respects rights and freedoms, honors its duties, and ensures the coexistence of its citizens without exclusion or discrimination.”
Sisi, who was initially regarded as an illegitimate military strongman by much of the world after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, sought to reassure world leaders that Egypt is following the democratic road-map. Indeed, he readily emphasized the Egyptian government’s current efforts to enforce the rule of law and guarantee civil liberties (to the tune of more applause).
Sisi did not however devote much time to an issue that was on everyone’s mind; the Islamic State militants operating in Iraq and Syria. The United States has focused on including as many Muslim countries as possible in its coalition against the Islamic State in order to establish legitimacy in the face of the Islamic State’s accusatory rhetoric. Just a day prior to 69th UN General Assembly the United States conducted air strikes in Syria on the Islamic State’s training sites and against supply lines alongside Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar. Naturally Washington is relying on Egypt, the most populous Middle Eastern state, to join the fight. Sisi has openly supported the United States and its coalition in their campaign against IS, but not without criticism.
In one of his first interviews in the United States, Sisi said, “We can’t reduce the danger lurking in the region to [the Islamic State]. We have to bear in mind all pieces of the puzzle. We can’t just limit the confrontation to checking and destroying the Islamic State.” Egypt’s president drew attention to his administration’s attempts to pursue economic development, education, and religious tolerance as important tools in the on-going fight against extremism.
Sisi’s misgivings on the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism are in fact echoed by many. As the Rand Corporation noted in Beyond the Shadow of 9/11, the United States tends to focus on destroying a terrorist organization’s operational capabilities, and not its beliefs. However, military power alone does not always suffice, which Sisi was quick to highlight.
Despite the gratuitous formalities and gestures of good will, Sisi has made it clear that Egypt will not join the coalition against the Islamic State since the United States continues to withhold military aid and deliveries to Egypt. When asked, “Will the Egyptian air force support air strikes against [the Islamic State] in Iraq and Syria?” by American television journalist Charlie Rose, the Egyptian President – without ever really answering the question – used the opportunity to remind the United States of its frozen Apache helicopter and F16 jet deliveries to Egypt.
Though the suspended aid was intended to be conditional on Egypt’s improvement in civil liberties and democracy, it has also had unintended consequences regarding Egypt’s role in the Global War on Terror. In a Cold War-like dynamic, Russia has leapt to meet Egypt’s military and armament needs where the United States could not (or would not), beginning months after the United States chose to suspend military aid and deliveries to Egypt in 2013. Just a week before the 69th General Assembly, Egypt and Russia signed a preliminary arms agreement for Cairo to purchase $3.5 billion worth of arms from Moscow. As Egypt continues to seek the services of other nations to meet its security needs, the United States will have a harder case to make.
Sisi faces domestic considerations as well. When looking at Egypt’s political climate, one thing is for certain – there isn’t much of a honeymoon period for Egypt’s leaders anymore. When Hosni Mubarak was removed from office in 2011, the people of Egypt grew restless and violent as the military failed to quickly host elections and tackle the issues which originally brought Egyptians to the streets. In July 2013, Egyptians had once again come out to Tahrir Square, calling for the removal of Mohamed Morsi after only one year in office.
In the fourth month of his presidency, Sisi is starkly aware of this reality. If he fails to improve the quality of living for Egyptians, he faces the same fate as his two predecessors (One is reminded of the popular protest chant, “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice!”), which makes devoting time and resources to an already wealthy and highly trained coalition all the more difficult. If Sisi puts his words into action and stays true to the betterment of the Egyptian people, progress can be made. Before Sisi engages in assisting against the Islamic State it is vital that he bring his country to stability, and satisfy domestic issues before engaging in international affairs of this magnitude.
Ahmed is a third year undergraduate student studying International Relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County