We might have a Middle Eastern statesman in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Yes, I mean that in the Burkean sense.
Sisi seized power in a military coup with mass support in July 2013, and his repressive policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood and restrictions on free speech have drawn criticism. On the other hand, evidence is mounting that Sisi has a statesmanlike vision for improving Egypt and the broader Middle East centered on security, economic overhaul, and religious reform.
Sisi has acquired investment from Gulf states and others to build the Egyptian economy, while restraining bloated Egyptian subsidies. He negotiated a Nile deal with Ethiopia and Sudan. He has advocated construction of an Arab military alliance to engage threats from organizations like the Islamic State and Iranian expansionism, which could soon materialize, spurred by the unexpected Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Finally, in interviews with Fox, the Wall Street Journal, and some forums closer to home, he has called for a “religious revolution” within Islam, a reinterpretation less amenable to extremist recruitment. WSJ’s Bret Stephens dubbed him the “world’s most significant advocate for Islamic moderation and reform.”
Daniel Pipes has presented evidence of Sisi's long-term vision, based on a 2006 paper Sisi wrote while studying at the Army War College in Pennsylvania. In “Democracy in the Middle East,” Sisi endorsed gradual reform, with the caveat that democracy “needs a good environment—like a reasonable economic situation, educated people, and a moderate understanding of religious issues.” Pipes is skeptical of Sisi’s competence, and suspicious he is a closet Islamist, but his rhetoric and actions so far seem consistent with this nine-year-old vision.
Yet to Sisi’s credit, doesn’t all this smack of Burkean prudence? He speaks of taking into account circumstances, aiming for gradual and achievable improvements rather than immediate democratic reform. In response to Stephens’s questions about criticism from human rights advocates and Egyptian liberals regarding repressive policies, Sisi remarked:
"My message to liberals is that I am very keen to meet their expectations…But the situation in Egypt is overwhelmed…A country needs security and order for its mere existence [emphasis added]."
The next statement caught me: "You can’t imagine that as an American. You are speaking the language of a country that is at the top of progress: cultural, financial, political, civilizational—it’s all there in the U.S."
Most Americans can’t sympathize with an authoritarian leader in a rough neighborhood like Sisi. Many rightly recoil against his brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, likely to yield dangerous consequences. Yet, there are better and worse authoritarians, as Robert Kaplan argued. Many face more complex and immense challenges than leaders in the West. While not condoning every policy, there are lessons in statesmanship we can learn from embattled leaders dealing with precarious circumstances, and distinctions we can make between malevolent dictators, dangerous radicals, and prudent authoritarians. Others have made the same point about Lee Kuan Yew.
Sisi: Tyrannical despot? That seems unfair, or at least incomplete. Prudent statesman? The jury is still out—but certainly an authoritarian leader worth watching, especially if he continues pursuing security improvement, economic development, and intellectual rejuvenation in Egypt and its rough neighborhood. From a U.S. perspective, Bloomberg is right: "Arming Egypt is a Necessary Evil."