Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Is Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi the reincarnation of Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet? And if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
The Pinochet comparison has been in the air since Sissi came to power in the July 2013 coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected president in 2012. The Wall Street Journal wrote then that “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.” The following February, the New York Times’ Roger Cohen noted Pinochet’s “success in transforming the Chilean economy, . . . achievements a democratic Chile has been able to build on to become the most prosperous country in the region,” and wondered if perhaps Sissi “will turn out to be a brutal modernizer in the Pinochet mode who will bequeath a nation that proves capable of sustained democracy.”
Pinochet is thus remembered as a brutal dictator — but also as an economic reformer who led his nation to democracy. The expressed hope is that while Sissi may be a bit too repressive for our taste, if he does for Egypt what Pinochet did for Chile, everyone will benefit. In the long run, and maybe even the medium run, it will be a worthwhile trade-off.
But this picture is wrong, for four reasons.
First, Sissi is far more brutal than Pinochet already. In his 17 years in power, Pinochet appears to have presided over the killing of about 3,000 people and the imprisonment of about 40,000 for political crimes. Sissi and the Egyptian military have nearly reached those numbers in less than two years: About 2,500 have been killed, with more than 40,000 behind bars. In Chile, the repression diminished over time, and perhaps half the abuses took place the year of the coup. One can hope that in Egypt the numbers will likewise grow more slowly under Sissi in the years to come. But even if they do, Sissi will still end up with considerably higher numbers than Pinochet.
Second, Sissi is far less of an economic reformer than Pinochet was. He’s no socialist, but the capitalism he appears to have in mind is the corrupt cronyism of the Mubarak era. Fundamental free-market reforms are not yet visible. Sissi has, to his credit, taken courageous steps to reduce fuel subsidies. But Pinochet went much further. He vastly reduced the size of the state; for example, in his 17 years the number of public employees shrank by 75 percent. Under Sissi, Egypt’s public sector appears to be growing.
Third, the Chilean army under Pinochet, for all its crimes, also had a reputation for professionalism and financial integrity and never tried to become a permanent ruling class. The Egyptian army has been Egypt’s real ruler since Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in 1956, and nothing Sissi has done suggests that he plans to change that. Reuters reports, for example, that retired Adm. Mohab Memish, the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, has said that the army should help develop a huge industrial and logistics hub planned alongside the new canal being constructed. “The military already manufactures a vast range of products and assets,” the International Business Times explained, “from oil to Fiat cars, TV sets and baby incubators, owns extensive real estate and land across Egypt, and acts as the contractor in road building projects.” There is zero evidence that Sissi plans to shrink this empire.
Finally, those who call Pinochet the midwife of Chilean democracy and want Sissi to follow his path have that wrong, too. After 15 years in office, Pinochet wanted eight more. The constitution he promulgated called for a referendum in 1988. If a majority voted yes, he would have the eight additional years; no would mean a contested election. Pinochet lost, but on election night he wanted to annul the results and declare martial law. Only strong pressure from the United States and Britain (I was serving as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs at that time), plus the refusal of some members of the military junta to go along, stopped him.
Pinochet was hardly the midwife of Chilean democracy; it would be more accurate to say Chile returned to democracy despite him. Let’s hope Sissi does not follow this path, or he will be president of Egypt in 2029 — and seeking to remain as president until 2037.
Sissi has been president for only 10 months, and he did not create the gigantic problems Egypt faces. Moreover, he no doubt must contend with enormous pressures from the army, big business, various political movements and the violent Islamist extremists who commit acts of terror and murder regularly. Finally, Egypt 2015 is not Chile 1973, when Pinochet launched his coup: Chile was a more advanced country with a lengthy history of democracy.
Still, the Sissi-Pinochet comparison is enlightening, though it is not encouraging. Thus far, Sissi appears to be doing everything Pinochet did wrong and little that Pinochet did right.