In 1869, France’s Empress Eugenie led a flotilla of European royalties in the ceremonial opening of the Suez Canal, developed by her cousin, Ferdinand de Lesseps. To impress his guests, Egypt’s ruler, Khedive Ismail, ordered the rapid construction of a new European-style district in Cairo, with a flamboyant opera house to be opened with a spectacular new opera. The delayed result of the Khedive’s commission was Verdi’s Aida.
On Thursday, Egypt’s latest ruler, former field marshal and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, celebrated the opening of a new channel to the canal, which will nearly double its capacity. Singing local schoolchildren replaced the visiting royalties, but, like his predecessor, Sisi had also commissioned a giant new building project in Cairo. The celebrations inspired a new narrative with an Egyptian setting.
The author was Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. His version was as much a fantasy as Aida, but far less beautiful.
In a special op-ed article for Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram, Fallon described the new channel as a “modern wonder” and a symbol of Egypt’s ambitions for a “more secure, more stable and more successful future”.
He casually endorsed the Sisi government’s wildly optimistic forecasts of increased revenue from the canal. But more importantly, he praised Sisi’s “vision of a more prosperous, more democratic society” and promised to stand shoulder to shoulder with him against Islamic terrorism. He hailed Britain’s military relationships with Sisi’s Egypt and its record as Egypt’s largest inward investor.
Making the most oblique reference to human rights, Fallon told Al-Ahram’s readers: “We’re continuing to encourage the government to implement the rights guaranteed by the 2014 constitution.” The same kind of language was used by Stalin’s admirers about the rights guaranteed by the model Soviet constitution of 1936.
Clearly fearful of offending his host, Fallon proclaimed: “Egyptians have rejected both extremism and authoritarianism. There is a viable alternative: a responsive and accountable government, founded on rights, freedoms and the rule of law.” The clear implication was that Sisi was leading such a government.
Fallon is one of the most approachable and articulate Thatcherite survivors in British politics. Serving two Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers under the recent coalition government, he managed to implement Thatcherite policies without strident confrontations. As defence secretary since July 2014, he astutely exploited cross-party concern about the stress on the UK armed forces to secure Chancellor of the Treasury George Osborne’s commitment to keep defence spending at 2 percent of UK GDP.
However, lately he has shown an unfortunate tendency to say bad and foolish things at the behest of his prime minister.
During the general election campaign, he gave then Labour leader Ed Miliband one of his few good days with a crass personal attack, suggesting that having stabbed his brother in the back Miliband would do the same to the country to become prime minister.
But this was a quickly forgotten election stunt. Fallon’s script on Sisi relies on massive distortion and suppression of the truth, and cements Britain’s relationship with a thoroughly unreliable partner, whose methods are becoming a greater and greater gift to the extremist and terrorist groups that the UK is currently combatting.
One would not imagine from Fallon’s article that Sisi had gained power in the wake of a military-led coup which overthrew Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood Islamist government had made errors, both presentational and practical. The condition of most Egyptians had deteriorated, particularly because of growing power shortages, and the mass protests against Morsi’s government in summer 2013 were at least in part genuine.
But Morsi was not a dictator or even a proto-dictator. The democratic constitution he introduced was approved by nearly 64 percent of voters in December 2012. At the time of his overthrow, there were no fewer than 40 active Egyptian political parties.
Fallon’s praise of Egypt’s “responsive and accountable government, founded on rights, freedoms and the rule of law” would sound hollow to the dozens of journalists imprisoned on trumped-up charges of abetting terrorism, in reality for not reporting events as the Sisi government wishes. Under a newly introduced law, they face two years in jail for contradicting any official statement about terrorist operations by any government agency.
Fallon’s account might puzzle the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which remains Egypt’s single most popular political movement, or the NGOs arbitrarily denied registration and stripped of their property and assets, or the 41,000 or more Egyptians imprisoned by the new government, mostly for political reasons, or the families of the 2,600 people killed by Egypt’s police or security services, including more than 800 killed at Rabaa in one single protest against Morsi’s overthrow.
In the past year, more than 500 people were sentenced to death, including Morsi himself. Even apologists for Sisi are nervous that his sentence might be carried out.
In the famously cynical words of Napoleon’s police minister, Joseph Fouche, this would be “worse than a crime, a mistake,” giving Morsi the halo of martyrdom and perhaps driving some of his followers to seek revenge through terrorism.
Sisi’s increasing repression has not increased security in Egypt. According to analysis by the Washington DC-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the incidence of terrorist attacks in the two years since the coup against Morsi is 15 times greater than in the two years before.
Recent attacks by terrorists in Cairo and northern Sinai have been bolder and more destructive than ever before. In June, Sisi’s leading prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, was assassinated. The perpetrators are as yet unknown, but it showed that the regime could not protect one of its key agents. Sisi’s Suez Canal celebrations were marred when the Islamic State terrorist organisation threatened to execute a Croatian hostage.
After showing some instant improvements under Sisi, particularly on energy, the economy is showing the same failings as under previous regimes. In spite of huge injections of aid, mainly from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, the economy cannot grow fast enough to boost living standards for a growing population of at present around 90 million.
Sisi’s government made an early attack on the huge public subsidies for basic foods and fuel. This reduced stress on the budget and eased distortions in the economy - but it left millions of Egyptians worse off. Meanwhile, the regime quailed at increasing taxes on landowners and businesses.
Fallon’s fantasies have been supported, at least publicly, by the UK’s ambassador to Cairo, the increasingly more compromised John Casson. In June, he remarked helpfully that “Security is a vital foundation for the more secure, prosperous and democratic Egypt we all want to see. That means tough security measures, countering extremist ideology, and progress on the economy, democracy and human rights, which are essential for long-term security.”
Significantly, this short passage contains four references to security.
Casson, like the wretched Fallon, has become a Sisi apologist. His comments were incoherent. Sisi’s government is not in the least secure. It presents exactly the same lethal combination of factors - economic failure, repression, and violent extremism - which brought the collapse of the Mubarak regime.
The collapse of Sisi will have much worse consequences for the West than Mubarak’s. This is partly because Libya has ceased to be an organised state and has left a huge, uncontrolled space on Egypt’s borders for terrorist groups.
But it is also because Western governments, especially Britain’s, have sent a fatal message to the Egyptian people. They will be allowed democracy only if they choose governments of which the West approves. That message is a terrible gift to Islamic State as it seeks to recruit the millions of disillusioned supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Peter Oborne was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He recently resigned as Chief Political Columnist of the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class; The Rise of Political Lying; and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye
Photo: An illustration of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that ran on the front page of state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper this week (Twitter/@ahmaui8)