- - Monday, September 28, 2015

Good news is not an export from the Middle East, but sometimes there’s a nugget of something not so bad for the patient. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is resuming Egypt’s role as leader of the Arab world. He has had no particular help from President Obama, who prefers to “lead from behind.”

Initially snubbed by Mr. Obama after his military coup last year against the aggressively Islamist Morsi government, the el-Sisi government has moved away from Hosni Mubarak’s all-out alliance with Washington. Mr. el-Sisi has negotiated arms purchases from Russia, taking advantage of France’s cancellation of an agreement to build four warships for the Russians. Egypt bought them, and new fighter aircraft, at discount. His completion of the expansion of the Suez Canal has been a major economic boon.

Mr. el-Sisi is moving now to choke off Hamas in Gaza, the offspring originally of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian army has flooded the smuggling tunnels from the Sinai through which Iran armed Hamas. In tacit cooperation with Israel, he has minimized traffic through Gaza’s Egyptian gateway. He is trying to break Hamas’ hold, and says he wants control of Gaza to be taken from the Palestinian Authority and returned to Gaza.

He told the United Nations last week that he endorses a Muslim settlement with Israel, acknowledging the new tacit alliance among the Mideast Sunni states against the Shia mullahs in Iran. Although their public statements have been supportive, it’s no secret that America’s allies in the region are fearful that President Obama’s deal with the mullahs on nuclear weapons has given Tehran new power in the region.

Mr. el-Sisi threw a bouquet to Washington, insisting that relations are “improving” after what has been a “real test of the endurance and strength of the relationship.” He disarmed his human rights critics with release of two Al-Jazeera journalists, whom his regime had accused of acting as agents of the Islamists — a reasonable accusation given the history of Al-Jazeera as a reliable mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden.

Mr. el-Sisi is pursuing a ruthless campaign against the Islamists, who have been a growing insurgency in the Sinai, and is now linked to the Islamic State (sometimes called ISIS or ISIL). For the first time in memory, Egypt’s western frontier on chaotic Libya faces an insurgency. The terrorists have been able to carry out bombings and attacks on police, even in Cairo. Mr. el-Sisi has responded with the killing of hundreds of terrorist suspects and a series of trials, which have been criticized by Western human rights groups. Mr. el-Sisi has condemned his predecessor and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders to death.

Like everyone else, Mr. el-Sisi has no firm answer to the most critical Middle East question of the moment, what to do about Syria. He hints agreement with others that Syrian President Bashar Assad should be included in any provisional government in Syria. He acknowledges the dilemma of the West and the Arabs — that the opponents of the Assad government are dominated by Islamic terrorists, including ISIS. The Obama administration is stuck with the argument that any solution in Syria must start with the departure of Assad; yet it was his refusal to make concessions to peaceful demonstrators that set off the bloody four-year war.

Egypt and the United States still have large differences. Mr. el-Sisi argues that an Israeli-Arab settlement would dramatically change things in the Middle East, with a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks on the basis of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s formula of talks with no prior conditions. But Secretary of State John Kerry urges Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, barely clinging to power after announcing his retirement, to wait for the fallout of the Iranian deal. The views of the Muslim Brotherhood held by some of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers hardly help. But change is clearly afoot.

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