Rare interview with Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi


Supporters of Egyptian Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi rally at Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 26. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
August 3, 2013

In his first interview since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi last month, Egypt’s commanding general sharply criticized the U.S. response, accusing the Obama administration of disregarding the Egyptian popular will and of providing insufficient support amid threats of a civil war.

“You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that,” said an indignant Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, speaking of the U.S. government. “Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?”

Sissi is widely considered the most powerful man in Egypt, wielding more control than anyone over the country’s direction after a tumultuous 21 / 2 years in which the military has shoved aside two presidents following popular uprisings. He denied interest in running for president but did not rule it out.

Although Sissi gives occasional speeches, he rarely sits down for interviews. But over the course of two hours in an ornate reception room in Cairo’s Defense Ministry on Thursday, he provided his most detailed explanation yet of why he decided to oust Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected president. Sissi also expressed deep disappointment that the United States has not been more eager to embrace his rationale.

Sissi’s comments are a measure of just how thoroughly the Obama administration has alienated both sides in a profoundly polarized and unsettled Egypt, all while trying to remain neutral. Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood regularly accuse the United States of acquiescing to a military coup.

Sissi spoke on the same day that Secretary of State John F. Kerry made the administration’s most supportive comments to date, saying that Egypt’s army was “restoring democracy.”

“The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people,” Kerry said during a visit to Pakistan. “The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment — so far.”

The U.S. government is required by law to halt non-humanitarian assistance when a democratically elected government is forced from office in a military coup. But the Obama administration appears determined to avoid using that term and to prevent a cutoff of the $1.3 billion that the U.S. government sends to Egypt annually. Much of that aid goes to the military.

Since Morsi’s July 3 ouster, U.S. officials have cautioned Sissi and other generals to show restraint in their dealings with protesters, at least 140 of whom have been killed in clashes with security forces. The Obama administration has also encouraged the military to reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood.

That prospect appears distant, with authorities promising a fresh crackdown on Islamist protests and Morsi continuing to be detained in an undisclosed location, unable to communicate with even his family.

Still, the furthest Washington has been willing to go in penalizing the military is to postpone the sale of four F-16 fighters. Most analysts say the delay is purely symbolic.

Sissi bristled at the move. “This is not the way to deal with a patriotic military,” he said.


Heads of state in Egypt

Like many pro-military Egyptians, Sissi appeared angry that the United States has not fully endorsed what he described as “a free people who rebelled against an unjust political rule.” Supporters of Morsi’s removal compare it to longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster, which was applauded in Washington. But unlike Mubarak, Morsi had been elected in a vote widely seen as free and fair.

The Egyptian military has long received critical support from the United States. In return, it has upheld Egypt’s decades-old peace treaty with Israel while serving as a key regional ally.

The ties between Cairo and Washington remain close, although Egypt has recently begun receiving far more aid from regional backers — including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — and American influence in Egypt appears to be waning.

Sissi said that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls him “almost every day” but that President Obama has not called since Morsi’s ouster.

Egypt’s commanding general suggested that if the United States wants to avoid further bloodshed in Egypt, it should persuade the Muslim Brotherhood to back down from the Cairo sit-ins it has maintained since July 3.

“The U.S. administration has a lot of leverage and influence with the Muslim Brotherhood, and I’d really like the U.S. administration to use this leverage with them to resolve the conflict,” Sissi said.

Morsi came to power last year amid Egypt’s first wave of voting after the toppling of Mubarak. The newly elected president received much of his support from the Brotherhood but also won the backing of non-Islamist Egyptians who favored the group because of its reputation for honesty and good works.

Sissi said he had recognized problems with Morsi from the day he was inaugurated. The president, Sissi said, was “not a president for all Egyptians but a president representing his followers and supporters.”

One of Morsi’s first major acts in office was to sweep away an older generation of military leaders and appoint Sissi to command the country’s armed forces. At the time, many observers speculated that Morsi had selected Sissi because he was more sympathetic than other commanders to the Brotherhood, which had been oppressed by generations of military-backed leaders.

But in the interview, the 58-year-old Sissi was unsparing in his criticism of the group, saying that Brotherhood members are more devoted to their Islamist beliefs than they are to Egypt. “The idea that gathers them together is not nationalism, it’s not patriotism, it is not a sense of a country,” he said.

Still, Sissi portrayed himself as reluctant to move against Morsi and said he had done all he could during the president’s year in office to help him succeed. Morsi, he said, had repeatedly failed to heed the general’s advice.

Meanwhile, the economy was badly deteriorating, and law and order had begun to break down. Millions of Egyptians took to the streets on June 30, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, to demand the end of his rule.

Ultimately, Sissi said, he had no choice.

“I expected if we didn’t intervene, it would have turned into a civil war,” he said.

Morsi’s backers in the Brotherhood say it is the military that is trying to foment a civil war, by whipping up anti-Islamist sentiment in the media and ordering security forces to crack down on peaceful demonstrations. In response to Kerry’s Thursday comments, which appeared to back the military, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad said the Obama administration is “supporting tyranny and dictatorship.”

Although the military has dominated this country for six decades — with Morsi’s year in office marking the only exception — Sissi said the generals have no intention of continuing to rule.

Interim Egyptian president Adly Mansour, who was appointed by Sissi, has announced an ambitious timetable for returning to democracy. The road map includes a referendum on a revised constitution, followed by new parliamentary elections by early 2014 and then a presidential vote.

Analysts have cast doubt on the likelihood that political forces in Egypt will be allowed to develop independent of the military’s control, particularly on such a tight schedule. But Sissi said that the elections will go ahead as planned and that international monitors will be welcome to observe.

Asked if he intends to run for president, as previous military leaders have done, Sissi suggested he will not, saying he does not “aspire for authority.” But when pressed, he stopped short of ruling out the possibility.

“The most important achievement in my life is to overcome this circumstance, [to ensure] that we live peacefully, to go on with our road map and to be able to conduct the coming elections without shedding one drop of Egyptian blood,” he said, before adding, “When the people love you, this is the most important thing for me.”

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