The best of weeks and worst of weeks for Sisi

The biggest blow to Egypt and President Sisi was that Human Rights Watch was accusing Egyptian security forces of carrying out mass killings

Abdallah Schleifer
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First came Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s formal visit to Saudi Arabia, during which he was accompanied by his foreign minister for a meeting with King Abdullah in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia has been a strong supporter of Sisi and of Egypt from the moment the armed forces deposed Mohammad Mursi. The king appointed Sisi the Oder of King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, which is the kingdom’s highest honor. The resulting communiqué stressed the common political concerns related to the region – Libya (which remains at crisis point) and the advance of extremists.

It would certainly have been valuable - for that part of the global audience that is thoughtful but often misinformed - for major Arab leaders to directly name those who deserve blame. It would have been better for Arab leaders to have come right out and condemn ISIS unequivocally.

The biggest blow to Egypt and President Sisi were the front page stories that Human Rights Watch was accusing Egyptian security forces of carrying out mass killings

Abdallah Schleifer

The battered Egyptian economy, mentioned in the briefest of words, was also a major concern. King Abdullah has taken the lead in coordinating with the UAE and Egypt a ”Friends of Egypt” conference for heads of state to substantially increase financial aid to the government and still more direct investment into the Egyptian economy.

Shortly after his visit to the Kingdom, Sisi was in Russia, at President Vladimir Putin’s invitation. Putin and Sisi and their respective military commands have already signed on to a massive arms deal. This time around, the talk was mostly about trade and economic relations, including the prospect of an Egyptian-Russian free trade zone within the protocols of the Russian led Custom Union that already includes two former states within the old USSR. That means a big market for Egyptians fruits and vegetables to fill the void created by the U.S. and European ban exporting agricultural produce to Russia as one of the most recent escalations in the American (and NATO’s) apparent New Cold War against Russia.

There was more good news for Sisi. The head Egypt Air (Egypt’s national carrier) has carried out an efficient and humane rescue mission and air lift for thousands of Egyptian workers stranded on the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia who were trying to get out. It came in dramatic contrast to the often cavalier treatment by Egyptian diplomats of Egyptian citizens with problems stranded in a foreign land.

Bad news for Sisi

But there was also some very bad news awaiting Sisi – the problem of insufficient generation of electricity, particularly when it peaks in what are now oppressive summers in which heat waves roll in like waves upon a distant shore. This past week’s black outs were occurring at an average of five times a day, according to what I experienced. More and more people began muttering phrases like “things were better under Mubarak.”

And that muttering goes beyond increasing levels and lengths of power failure, soaring prices of all commodities because of the decision to sharply reduce subsidies. In the eyes of poor and middle class Egyptians, the government has little to improve the economic conditions for the impoverished millions upon millions of Egyptians.

The extremes in repression of real or imagined opposition this past year, compared to the reign of Mubarak, must also be addressed. There is a curious symmetry to the open expression of sentiments not even thought of three years ago, and unsaid a year of half a year ago given that Mubarak and his minister of interior are now defendants in a retrial that began last week, following the successful appeal of their previous sentences of life imprisonment for their role in not preventing the killing by security forces of protestors during the January 25 Uprising and during the months of skirmishes that followed.

But the biggest blow to Egypt and President Sisi were the front page stories in leading global newspapers and online news sites that Human Rights Watch (HRW) was accusing Egyptian security forces of carrying out mass killings of anti-government demonstrators in Cairo last August and demanding that President Sisi be investigated, to quote the Washington Post’s summary of the Report, “for his role in the atrocities.”

I have not read the 188 page report but I have read several serious reports on the it and so I suspect there is no mention of the firing, looting and destructions of churches, the harassment of Christian clergy, and the raids on police stations and murder of policemen staged by pro-Mursi gangs that flared up across the country, but most intensely and most obviously well organized in Upper Egypt - the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and their even more radical allies. These incidents were barely reported by the global media at the time and they occurred in two waves – on July 3rd when then minister of defense and head of the armed forces Sisi announced that Mursi and his Brotherhood-dominated government had been deposed and on August 14 when security forces cleared the massive sit-ins. Indeed the 60-year-old feud between the security forces (Ministry of Interior) and the MB reminds one of the “tar” – blood feuds between Upper Egyptian tribes that can go on for decades – revenge killing, upon revenge killing, upon revenge killing -- which on occasion led to massacres. On Aug. 14, 2013 the security forces took their revenge.

I also do not think that the HWR mentioned the cases of murder and torture inflicted by Brotherhood members upon anti-Mursi demonstrators, again barely reported at the time (except notably by The New York Review of Books correspondent Yasmine el-Rashidi in her reports from Cairo through 2012). Perhaps they also did not address the Upper Egyptian tribal feuds that at times result in killings.

Nor can there be much reference to marching columns sent out from the sit-ins to seize ministry buildings, and refuse to even negotiate much less evacuate the massive sit-ins unless Mursi and his ministers were immediately restored to power. I touched on this in my column last summer, Misinformation about a “Massacre,” and other relevant columns in the weeks that followed. But my columns are just that –Opinion. Instead I would refer the reader to an Associated Press report by-lined by four AP journalists who engaged in their own very serious and protracted report, saying that what happened was far more complicated, that it was police and a paramilitary force form the Ministry of Interior –not the army – that opened fire on the protestors, some of whom dispersed throughout the crowds and began firing back.

Frankly, in general I trust the reporting of dedicated journalists over that of Human Rights activists when dealing with something like a massacre. Human Rights activists, while often quite brave, quickly identify sides consisting of heroes/ good guys vs. villains/bad guys, and accordingly tend to cherry pick the evidence. They see the world in terms of black and white. But seasoned and dedicated journalists who are writing for news agencies , not overtly partisan media, tend to see human action in the world as a long continuant of grey, growing lighter at the margin of decency and compassion and darker at the opposite margin of raging intolerance and cruelty. And somewhere along that continuant, will be the truth.


Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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