Egypt’s Sisi Piles on to Hagel’s Fractured Legacy
One day after announcing that Chuck Hagel is being dismissed as defense secretary, his greatest foreign-policy legacy — relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government — seems to be evaporating. Egypt’s interior minister warned on Tuesday, Nov. 25, that police will not hesitate to use deadly force against Islamist protesters during a planned demonstration ...
One day after announcing that Chuck Hagel is being dismissed as defense secretary, his greatest foreign-policy legacy — relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government — seems to be evaporating. Egypt’s interior minister warned on Tuesday, Nov. 25, that police will not hesitate to use deadly force against Islamist protesters during a planned demonstration on Friday, which represents the first serious challenge to Sisi’s government since elections in June.
Egypt was the only country where Hagel had a regular, direct line of communication not just with the minister of defense but also with the head of state (since Sisi was effectively serving as both after ousting former President Mohamed Morsi). Hagel became the Obama administration’s point man in Cairo, calling for a less repressive Egypt. Since Sisi helped lead the July 2013 military coup that ousted Morsi, he and Hagel spoke upwards of 30 times and reportedly bonded over a two-hour lunch. Throughout all their conversations, Hagel’s message consistently pushed Sisi for a more inclusive and less violent Egyptian government.
But there is little evidence to suggest that Hagel’s efforts had even a minimal effect on Sisi and his government’s behavior. The use-of-force warning highlights the deep rifts between Egypt’s secular, military government and the religious segments of its society. The protests are planned by an ultraconservative Salafi movement known as the Salafi Front and are the first demonstrations organized by Islamists in the country since the latest government crackdown in March. One month after Sisi took power, military clashes with pro-Morsi protesters resulted in mass killings, including the worst massacre in decades. Under Sisi’s oversight, government crackdowns have left thousands dead and tens of thousands in prison. The crackdowns extended to secular activists as well, with three leading revolutionaries sentenced to three years in prison. In a symbol of just how much Egypt has slipped, Sisi’s government was one of the few to vote against a U.N. resolution condemning North Korea‘s human rights violations. In other words, Hagel’s rapprochement with Sisi did not go as planned.
Washington has long viewed its military ties with Cairo, backed by more than $40 billion in military aid since 1948, plus annual military exercises and extensive officer exchanges, as an anchor for one of its most strategic relationships in the region. The importance of the military relationship with Egypt explains in large part why the White House, and Hagel, refrained from labeling Sisi’s removal of Morsi as a coup, a term that would force the United States to freeze approximately $1.3 billion in annual military aid and sacrifice its leverage with the general turned president.
Despite its ultimate unwinding, Hagel and Sisi’s relationship, forged during one of the worst spells of violence in Egypt’s modern history, provides a fascinating — and albeit unsettling — window into the strategic drift of U.S. policy in Egypt. Come Friday, that window may well close, and any traces of Hagel’s legacy with it.