Mind-boggling: Sisi in Moscow, not in Washington
by Abdallah Schleifer
Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recently made first trip abroad in his capacity as Egypt’s deputy prime minister as well as defence minister and head of the Egyptian armed forces. That this visit was to Moscow and not Washington - which one would think in light of 40 years of close Egyptian-American relations should have been the natural course of things – discredits U.S. President Barack Obama.
The United States continues to withhold a portion of previously pledged military assistance to Egypt. Additionally, although it is rarely if ever mentioned in global media, Washington has not filled the vacant post of U.S. Ambassador to Cairo since mid-August last year and that, to my mind, is at least if not more of an insult than holding back on a portion of military aid, which Congress has voted to continue.
That aid is not some gratuitous gesture inspired by a great hearted government - it has always been described by U.S. spokespeople as an investment in regional stability, which in large measure and to everybody’s understanding alludes to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Sisi is accompanied by Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and it is understood that he and the field marshal will be meeting with their counterparts, Russia’s defense and foreign ministers to resume talks that began in Cairo last November about “bilateral relations and aspects of cooperation.” Everyone here assumes this will mean a major arms deal on most generous terms, with Russia. And that the purchase will be bankrolled by Saudi Arabia.
What an extraordinary accomplishment President Obama will take with him when he retires from office - the same Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which provided Anwar Sadat with both moral and financial backing to break with the Russians in the early 1970s and turn towards the United States - may now finance an Egyptian arms deal with the Russians. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union and the cold war is over; though given the U.S. and EU adventures in the Ukraine that border upon the open subversion of a democratically elected president and parliament, one begins to wonder.
And how this reminds one, but still, fortunately at a much lesser level of confrontation, of that blunder in the earliest years of the revolution when the U.S. refused to sell Egypt arms: weaponry that would have posed no threat to “the stability” of the region - according to the CIA advisory which was ignored by the then U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, thereby propelling Nasser to turn to the Soviet bloc for arms.
But I would be greatly surprised if the trip does not also involve a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin this morning’s Cairo-based daily al-Ahram is now reporting that it will take place.
But one indication of that probability has already been made in a visual “statement” at the moment of departure - the Egyptian delegation striding across the tarmac at Cairo International Airport yesterday led by Sisi, but appearing in civilian clothes - white shirt and tie, blue blazer, charcoal grey trousers - a startlingly civilian as well an informal but utterly correct way of dress for an academic leader, think tank scholar or high ranking political figure on a long tiring official flight the field marshal is flanked to his left and right, by senior officers in military dress.
Since Sisi is commander of the Egyptian armed forces as well as a cabinet member holding two portfolios, it would have been equally appropriate for him to travel in uniform.
So if Putin were to reasonably think of Sisi as nearly a president-elect, the appearance of the field marshal in civilian dress would certainly reinforce that perception and no doubt inclined the Russian president to meet with Sisi even though such a meeting is not on the official agenda or even hinted at until the day after departure.
Sisi has not yet announced whether or not he will be a candidate for the presidency and it is understood by both friends and enemies that as a candidate he would win by an overwhelming margin, whoever might oppose him. With that in mind, some local journalists have repeatedly written that running for office or serving as president would require that he resign from the military.
What is certain is that as president he would no longer hold a cabinet or an active duty posting in the army.
Gamal Abdul Nasser would occasionally appear in military dress, particularly in the earliest years of the revolution, as did Anwar Sadat at moments of high occasion. But whatever the constitutional requirements of what still remains at this moment (and at least in formal terms, hypothetical), the field marshal in this photo demonstrated at Cairo International Airport that he is quite comfortable, and taking the lead so-to-speak, in civilian dress.
Finally, a disclosure to readers of younger generations. When I write “the revolution” I mean the events of July 23, 1952 when King Farouk was overthrown by the Free Officers, which began as a coup but would certainly in quite rapid time meet all the classic definitions of a revolution.
Cross published on Al Arabiya and TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”