“Out of Egypt…”

by J. Tortorici


Egypt is smoldering toward new civil unrest. The components are in place for a crisis with global implications. In many ways, it is only fitting in this ancient and eternal place.

It has always been there. The Nile Delta, the Crucible of Civilization. The pyramids were completed more than a thousand years before Tutankhamun’s birth in 1300 BCE. Egypt was a bane in the Old Testament, and shelter to the protagonist of the New Testament. “Out of Egypt…” Makes you wonder what the Jesus legend picked up in Egypt as a young Palestinian refugee.

This place stands astride a unique geography: the Isthmus of Suez and the fertile Nile Delta. Here humanity converged on one of the many river deltas across the globe, the Indus, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Yellow, slowly and steadily took on the work of inventing civilization. The whole of Africa and Asia traffic this bridge of land. It is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. For many thousands of years, there is Egypt.

A waterway connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas is a part of that history. The earliest ideas planned for an east-west canal to the Nile headwaters.

The mid-nineteenth century brought a confluence of steam technology, an expanding world economy, new national interests, and political willpower. With steam propulsion, transcontinental shipping was no longer a slave to the winds. The Suez Canal would cut a cool five-thousand miles from maritime commerce for the civilized world. France would design and contract the job, Egypt would supply the labor, and Europe would handle the finance.

At stake was the existence of a new Egypt, a common recurring theme for this culture. A socially progressive regime of moderate Muslims. The new influx of money would be reflected in modernization, infrastructure, and education. Aggressive spending and questionable lending terms would eventually take their toll with creditors. Once the canal proved successful, the British government jumped at the chance to buy off the Egyptian ruler’s shares in 1875 when he needed cash. It came to pass France and England took complete control of Egypt’s finances, much to the chagrin of the Egyptian military.

In 1882, the British invaded and conquered Egypt to put down a revolt of Egyptian army officers, and never left. The Colonial Empire would manage affairs in the Suez for decades to come. Even as Gamal Abdel Nasser advocated, once again in the 1950’s, for a contemporary Egypt, he received only a thin veneer of civility from Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and eventually another armed conflict. Control of the Suez was on everybody’s mind.

On January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, demanding an end to the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Eighteen days later, Mubarak stepped down. In Tahrir Square, the crowds cried, “Lift your head high, you’re an Egyptian.” “We can breathe fresh air, we can feel our freedom,” Gamal Heshmat, a former member of parliament, told The New York Times. “After 30 years of absence from the world, Egypt is back.”

–         Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations

After decades of Mubarak repression, the seeds of self-determination took root in Tahrir Square. One of the era’s finest documentary films, “The Square”, from director Jehane Noujaim, will keep you on edge with a first-person perspective of passion and chaos. Throughout the film, it is notable to watch the level of social media communication driving information in real-time. A revolution in the digital age.

In 2012, Mohamed Morsi made history when he was elected the new president-elect of Egypt. He was the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history, the first Islamist to lead an Arab country, and active in the Muslim Brotherhood for thirty-five years. In place of a revolutionary coalition, Morsi began a power-grab the moment he entered office. Within a year, his regime fell apart.

The West had its man in place.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was born in Cairo and after joining the army in 1977, held a post as military attache’ in Saudi Arabia then enrolled in the Egyptian Army’s Command & Staff College. Sisi trained at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in the United Kingdom, and then in 2006 trained at the United States Army War College in Pennsylvania. Abdel el-Sisi was groomed in the Commonwealth mold from an early age.

He was the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) during the 2011 revolution, serving as the Director of Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Department. His finger was on the pulse of the information artery. This knowledge would serve him well in the coming year. Morsi’s appointment of Sisi was praised by revolutionaries, who later pitted the young army leader against his president.

Then came the military coup d’état. Sisi was the defense minister in the government that was formed after the army-led ousting of Morsi, but resigned and announced his decision to run for the presidency in Egypt’s elections. He was declared Egypt’s president after winning a stunning 96.9 percent of the vote in the presidential election.

Since then, almost all independent political activity has been brutally suppressed, including that of liberal and left-wing organizations. Women’s rights have been violated across the country.

Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been arrested. There was a fierce crackdown on public expression throughout the capital. The internet is heavily censored. Authorities forbid demonstrations, shut down street theater and outdoor concerts, erased graffiti, raided cafés, and harassed cultural venues such as art galleries and publishing houses — anywhere that people (particularly young people) might congregate. The new president is the former intelligence chief for the “revolution” who knew the inroads of modern media.

As first the Muslim Brotherhood and then Sisi’s military regime rose to power, dreams of a better Cairo were lost. Tahrir Square became dangerous. Protesters there were killed by army and police, and women were assaulted. The organs of civil society are too busy defending basic rights, and their own existence, to focus on anything else.

President Obama and Hillary Clinton raised the issue of human rights and called for the respect of rule of law when communicating with Sisi. Donald Trump decided to look at it another way. The White House loves tough leadership. For the same respect shown Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, the military regime of Farad el-Sisi exhibits “strong leadership” and is “a fantastic guy.”

The US may or may not cut the $1.3 bn in annual aid it supplies to the Egyptian military. The budget is yet to come. This military aid is consistent with almost four decades of U.S. support for the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty. If no budget, what then?

Egypt has returned to the kind of police state which the revolution aimed to remove.

Today, such pride and hope are a distant memory. Once again, a former military official turned dictator rules the country. But President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has established an even more harshly authoritarian regime than the one Mubarak oversaw. By almost every measure, conditions in Egypt are worse now than prior to the revolution. The Egyptian pound has collapsed, and the government has begun rationing dollars.

–         Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations

Egypt…once again at the crossroads of historic change in the Middle East. Will the interests of Great Britain and the West prevail against the powers of self-determination? What are the consequences of limits on passage through this vital area?

And once again is the refrain of a national dream: a contemporary and progressive society. Egypt remains an unfinished drama.