Any hope for an exit from the current Middle East chaos lies with the efforts of Gen. Pres. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to stabilize its politics and rebuild the Egyptian economy.
With its 90 million people and traditional role as the intellectual leader of the Sunni Arab world, el-Sisi’s efforts to move out of the collapse of four years ago is critical not only for his own country but for the region as a whole. There is general acknowledgement in the area of Egypt’s overwhelming importance and leadership – except in the pro-Iranian elements dominant in Damascus, Lebanon-Hezbollah, Gaza-Hamas, and Yemen-Houthi, and increasingly in Baghdad.
Egypt’s importance brought thirty country leaders, dozens of financial companies– more than 1,000 potential investors— including non-Arab states for his conference at Sharm el-Sheikh in mid-March. The Gulf States alone pledged $30 billion in loans and investments. That’s in addition to larger earlier Gulf emergency loans to Cairo after el-Sis’s takeover.
El-Sisi has laid out an ambitious economic agenda: he has launched a second, wider Suez Canal, proposes to build a new capital linking Cairo to Suez, and invites a massive inflow of foreign investment.
His political agenda is even more ambitious. He has declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic radicals, imprisoning thousands of activists of the previous regime. He proposes to lead a strengthened Arab alliance against ISIL, now controlling large sections of Iraq and Syria. When the Islamic terrorists murdered 30 Copt Christian Egyptians in Libya, he immediately struck with air raids and is pushing his Arab allies and the Western powers to come down militarily on the Libyan Islamicists.
Perhaps his most important contribution to the current scene, however, has been his courageous attempt to address the traditional Muslim origins of the current outbreak of terrorism. He went to al-Azhar University, the fountainhead of Sunni theology, to personally to call on the Muslim clergy there for a reformation of Islamic thought. . He said that without such a revision of traditional Muslim thought, the basis of the present terrorism will not be eradicated. In effect, he has turned his back on Western apologists– including Pres. Barack Hussein Obama—who identify Islam as “a peaceful religion”. He made a demonstration visit to a Coptic church at Christmas, acknowledging that this 15% of the population has been under traditional persecution and particularly recently by Muslim extremists.
El-Sisi’s undertaking cannot be underestimated. Three-quarters of Egyptians are under the age of 25, one of the most youthful populations in the world. This demographic bulge drives an additional 4% of the population into the workforce annually, with a formal unemployment figure estimated at 14%. Unemployment among college graduates is even higher.
Although his 2013 military overthrow of the previously elected Brotherhood government of Pres. Mohammed Morsi was generally popular, and despite his brutal efforts to smash its remnants, el-Sisi may be facing a growing insurgency. Islamic terrorists have controlled parts of the Sinai peninsular for several years. He has broken with Hamas in neighboring Gaza because of its terrorist activities and its flirtation with Tehran. But individual urban terrorist acts threaten a full revival of Egyptian tourism which at its peak employed about 12% of Egypt’s workforce as well as contributing more than 11% of GDP and 14.4% of foreign currency revenues.
Although the U.S. was officially represented by Sec. of State John Kerry along with American firms at the investment conference, the Obama Administration still flirts with remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood whom some of its leading lights believe represents “moderate” Islam. The cutoff of $1.3 billion annual American military aid after the 2013 coup— especially delivery of F16s needed in the Sinai campaign– has sent el-Sisi searching for other suppliers, including a recent initialization of a French fighters deal and negotiations with the Russians.
El-Sisi’s relations with the Israelis remain formally cool. The Israelis, despite their request, were denied entry to the investment conference. But there are reports of frequent personal contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And there is obvious on the ground collaboration in further isolating the Hamas regime in Gaza, a common Egyptian-Israeli concern.
Despite repeated public and private appeals by el-Sisi for a resumption of the U.S.-Egyptian alliance, the Obama Administration— bending to its leftwing human rights critics and pro-Palestinian sympathizers – has refused. The danger, of course, is that as el-Sisi’s project becomes more intense and difficult—and with outside support for the Islamic terrorists—he will move further away from Washington toward a more independent position. Washington risks that, particularly, with its present attempt to find a working arrangement with the Tehran mullahs despite their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
* A version of this column will be posted Monday, March 16, 2015, on the website http://yeoldecrabb.com/