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Opinion: Between Zia-ul-Haq and Atatürk | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In this Wednesday, April 24, 2013 file photo, Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reviews honor guards during an arrival ceremony for his U.S. counterpart at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo. (AP/Jim Watson, Pool)

The comparison between Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey does not necessarily have to be confined to the relationship between the army and the society, and the role army commanders are playing in politics, and the relationship between those commanders and religion and the state. Yet, the comparison is attractive, and it may also be revealing. This is despite my full recognition of that fact I have criticized the writings of renowned authors such as Robert Springborg who compared General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to Pakistan’s General Mohamed Zia-ul-Haq in his most recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine.

The remark I have long made is that political regimes are greater than individuals. Yet, my teacher and friend Springborg, in all his writings about Egypt—from his book about Sayed Mar’ei to his book about Mubarak—was always focusing on the individual rather than on the political regime, as if Egypt was empty of variant social forces. Such handling is attractive, for it makes for interesting reading and it makes a researcher’s mission much easier, let alone the fact that a charismatic character must tempt one to study it. General Sisi deserves careful examination owing to his strong presence, something which convinced the Egyptians to take to streets in an unprecedented manner to authorize him to fight terrorism.

General Sisi is not Atatürk or Zia-ul-Haq, yet both are of the political mindset of General Sisi, and so the Pakistani and Turkish models represent the mindset of the coming Egyptian political regime. The Egyptian regime seems to be unable to reach Atatürk’s pure and unequivocal secularism. Perhaps, the Egyptian regime is also detached from that hardliner image of blending religion with politics as is the case with the Pakistani example, despite the emergence of social powers in Egypt, powers whose religious discourse were drawn from Al-Maududi and Islamic groups, and are pushing Egypt hard towards this direction.

Yasser Rizq, the editor-in-chief of Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, having got to know Sisi, said that he was not the religiously hard-line character he was promoted as by the Muslim Brotherhood after he assumed the leadership of the army after Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Sisi is a devout Muslim in the Egyptian style, yet he is a disciplined officer and is loyal to his own country as well as to the military. Yet, there could be similarity here in the relationship between Sisi and former President Mohamed Mursi—who appointed him in this position and promoted him to the rank of Field Marshal—and the relationship between Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Zia-ul-Haq, who was also promoted in the army before Zia ousted Bhutto in the same manner that Sisi ousted Morsi. However, the difference was that in the former case, the ouster came as a result of a classical military coup, whereas the latter came in response to demands of millions of Egyptians who took to streets and squares.

Also in the 1970s, Pakistan was a basic element in the US-Soviet confrontation, something that imposed a US role different from that in Egypt. The Americans are fond of backing army commanders in the third world. Even Nasser himself was backed by the US, as the Americas stood up for him against the Tripartite Aggression in 1956 launched by France, Britain and Israel. Yet, later on, Nasser changed direction and lost his American friends. It was not Nasser alone who changed, because the Israeli pressure on Washington also helped towards distorting the relationship between the US and Nasser. Sisi could be closer to the Nasser case, or perhaps he could be a blend of Nasser and Sadat, in having US support but not knowing for how long it will last. However, indications are that the US prefers a strongman like Sisi to maintain stability in Egypt, rather than the chaos produced by the Mursi and Brotherhood regime. Zia-ul-Haq was the that commander in Pakistan. Contrary to what is being said about Zia-ul-Haq’s religious nature, which Springborg focused on, when Zia-ul-Haq was appointed as a military attaché in Jordan and before returning to Pakistan, he was described by the people who came to know him closely there as a moderate man who was never a hardliner.

General Atatürk appeared in Turkey after World War I when the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. Socially, he was a revolutionary man, as he changed alphabets and forbade women to wear the niqab. Yet, he was not democratic as portrayed by the Turkish mythology, for he was a secular military man who had all the characteristics of despotism. Nevertheless, he left behind a regime that took Turkey forward, creating a model that lasted until Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Islamic current came to power in which the army served as the protector of democracy.

There is a talk today in Washington and in other important capital cities about the role played by Sisi as a new Atatürk, not from a secular perspective, but from a viewpoint that the army now is playing the role of the custodian of the constitution. In this logic, a strongman heads the institution in charge of protecting the state and the constitution and acts as a arbitrator between social and political powers in the country. Such a vision in the West was strengthened by the Egyptian military spokesman who said that Sisi prefers his current position as a commander of the army, which is considered the most important of all positions. Many in the West prefer Sisi in his current position. Yet, the Egyptians, or at least broad categories of them, prefer Sisi as president, especially after the military spokesman left the door open when saying that Sisi, after leaving the armed forces, has the right to be nominated to the presidency just like any other Egyptian citizen.

In an interview with the Washington Post, General Sisi did not completely dismiss the rumor that he will run for the presidency. However, it was striking in the interview that he did not appear as a new Zia-ul-Haq, as his criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood was based on the view that it does not believe in a national state, and that it is an overseas group that seeks to establish a caliphate system that has nothing to do with the Egyptian state. All Sisi’s rhetoric and warnings takes him far away from the Zia-ul-Haq example. This is because Sisi is a man who never mixes religion with politics, as claimed by my smart friend Robert Springborg. Sisi is seen speaking with sadness about the US turning its back on the Egyptian people, as well as the Egyptian army that is proud of its patriotism. Sisi here is not Zia-ul-Haq nor is he Atatürk, rather he is a pure Egyptian example. He is a third example, and he is not also Nasser—he is a blend of Nasser and Sadat. The West must not dread this commander.

Sisi is a natural outcome of Egyptian political culture that differs markedly from its peers in Pakistan or Turkey. It is important that we do not hasten to judge the man by placing him into a fixed mold like that of Zia-ul-Haq or Atatürk. It is even more important that we do not make Egypt as just another example similar to that of Algeria in 1989 or Turkey after World War I or Pakistan in the 1970s.

Let us give Egypt the opportunity to catch its breath, and give that leader an opportunity, for we do not want the example of Turkey or that of Pakistan. Thank God that Sisi is not Zia-ul-Haq or Atatürk, we want him a pure Egyptian, which according to all indications, seems to be so. Do not throttle the man, and just give him and give Egypt a space to breathe.