Sisi and Poroshenko: Two inaugurations and the White House’s response
by Abdallah Schleifer
If I were writing with the detachment of objective journalism, I would have listed the recently elected president of the Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, ahead of Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
I would do this since in chronological time - which is about as detached and as objective as one can get – there is no margin for personal whim or even a driving sense of conscience. Rather, you either get chronology right or you get it wrong.
But, I am putting Sisi first because this is an opinion column and in my opinion his past history – first as a field marshal in the last months of his nearly two years as commander of the Egyptian army, and now as president of Egypt.
For in Egypt the majority of people, far more overwhelming a majority than that indicated by the numbers voting in the recent Egyptian presidential election, feel that he has the posture and the makings of a strong popular leader potentially capable of restoring stability and restoring the public services and state institutions that are of great importance to the welfare of the poor and in particular the unemployed working classes.
Now, these two issues are clearly related – the restoration of stability and the restoring of those public institutions of great benefit to the poor such as fixing the poor quality of state education ( particularly at the primary and secondary levels) and public hospitals, where conditions have greatly degenerated over the years and most particularly over the past decade, in the last most indifferent years of Mubarak along with the social lassitude of those various political forces that claimed the right to govern after Mubarak.
And in particular the failure since the January 25 Uprising of all of the “revolutionary” political forces in play, from the Left to the Muslim Brotherhood Right to tackle these two issues along with the need for a vast public works program that will generate many more jobs that are now available.
This is still another related task which Sisi, to his credit, has already begun even before his election to deal with signing off with an incredibly vast project of creating affordable housing for Egyptians in the low income bracket.
Unlike Poroshenko, Sisi’s virtues are apparent. He helped save Egypt from a bloody civil war; if the armed forces had sat out there would have been an inevitably nasty clash between Muslim Brotherhood members and their sympathizers on one hand and everybody else on the other. Sisi led the army in swift intervention after Mursi rebuffed his last appeal to come to terms with the massive opposition by participating in a gathering of all the relevant parties, at Sisi’s Ministry of Defense.
As for Poroshenko, his major accomplishment as a new oligarch is to have made his millions stuffing the Ukrainian people with chocolate. Indeed Poroshenko brings to office the inspiring title - not of general or field marshal - but of Chocolate King of the Ukraine.
Global journalists, and even worse pundits thousands of miles from the Egyptian reality, complain that as a candidate Sisi has offered no program.
Now, Sisi did not have a party behind him which could derive a systematic campaign program to make things easier for journalists and pundits who could have had to invest time and energy to read in depth and with an open mind (that is to say, not minds closed down by the tempting ability to come up with a quick, simple-minded, frequently wrong and invariably lazy narrative in reporting on Egypt).
Sisi has been the consistent victim of that sort of thinking because to the foreign press - not to the Egyptian people – Sisi, by virtue of his military career, is -by simple-minded standards Egypt’s “latest military dictator.”
If one read with diligence Sisi’s occasional public statements and interviews over the past year one would know, even before his inaugural speech, that his top priorities were first to restore stability and a sense of law and order that the working classes crave more than anyone – and in particular, far more than young, comfortable middle class liberal intellectuals – since the working classes are the first to suffer from criminality and unemployment, as shops and factories close down as has been the case here for the past three years.
Secondly, his priorities include undertaking vast public works which will immediately generate employment , improve the infrastructure and as his project for the state to build a million new homes in comprehensive new communities- this has already been signed off, locations determined, initial financing secured from the UAE and construction is soon to start.
One of the false dichotomies that is often offered up by the global press is that of an Egypt polarized between Islamist fanaticism and a secularism utterly disconnected from any attachment to Islam.
To his credit, Sisi’s opponent in the recent election, Hamdeean Sabahi, tried to override that simplistic assumption by simultaneously denouncing the Islamist politicized version of religion and his own photo opp, appearing at prayer in a mosque. Perhaps that is an unstated aspect of the refusal of many liberals and leftists to rally in support of his candidacy.
No one since Sadat
But no one is recent political life, at least since the death of Anwar Sadat, has more effectively shattered that false dichotomy than Sisi. Well before the almost immediate popular call for Sisi to run for president that followed the military intervention that deposed Mursi, and well before Mursi was deposed, Sisi had a reputation for personal piety.
In his speeches he would invariably invoke the Name of God, and pledge to that God to carry out his responsibilities as Egypt’s leader; all of this in a style befitting of traditional mainstream Egyptian Islam, without the fanatic flourishes of Muslim Brotherhood religious rhetoric that became so obvious to anyone with an ear to really listen in the speeches of the now imprisoned MB leadership at the height of the pro-Mursi Raaba al-Adawiya sit-in last July and August.
The appearance at the inaugural ceremonies of Sisi’s wife and daughters dressed in an elegant yet conservative manner also dramatically undermined that false dichotomy of a country that is either Islamist or militantly secularist.
And I would refer, if pressed, quite specifically to what the more fashion minded Egyptian journalists described as “the Spanish Hijab” favored by the president’s wife and daughters.
None of these nuances figured to any degree in the coverage of the inauguration in contrast to the buildup of the winner of the Ukrainian presidential election that also followed in the wake of what could be described as a coup, but one carried out by the paramilitary vanguard of a civilian mob, and not by the military, as if in the eyes of the American media a mob is a virtue and the rectitude of the military a vice.
Turning to Europe
Suddenly, we awaited details of Poroshenko’s “peace proposal” which Putin, after a brief private meeting with Poroshenko, described ( in a very conciliatory tone) that he found encouraging.
That expression of his willingness to further negotiate with Poroshenko, as well as the gradual drawn down of Russian forces along the border with the Ukraine, were rewarded with still more sanctions against Russia. And still more sanctimonious, aggressive rhetoric directed against Putin by the American secretary of state and the European head of NATO who has been noticeably excited if not ecstatic that NATO was suddenly back in high appreciation and a scheduled soon-to-be recipient of increased funding and expansion of American armed forces into the states bordering Russia.
Promises of increased American arms funding for some of these border or near-border states has, needless to say, delighted the military-industrial complex that manufactures these arms - direct beneficiaries of the new Cold War.
Poroshenko also declared that Ukrainian would remain the sole official language, but then in response to the shock at such lack of empathy for the ethnic Russian citizens of Eastern Ukraine, he backtracked a bit alluding to his plan for “new opportunities for the Russian language,” whatever that means.
As for the peace plan, one would think involved the opening of negotiations with the Separatists (which is not quite accurate since many in the ranks of the pro-Russian militias would settle as Putin appears to be advocating, with a return to a significantly federalized Ukraine). Putin’s own vision of a federal Ukraine, denounced immediately by the powers in Kiev, amounts to little more than establishment of a federal system not that much different than the one created by the union empowered American states that make up the United states.
So it was to be that President Obama dispatched the vice president of the United States accompanied by the ever confrontational Senator McCain to Kiev for the Ukrainian inauguration, and the a low grade delegation to the Egyptian inaugural ceremonies despite a clear invitation from Egypt to the White House.
Cross published on Al Arabiya News and TAM with permission of the author.
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.