Leo Docherty is Director of the Conservative Middle East Council and a former soldier.
The voices protesting against the visit of President Sisi to London this week tend to have one thing in common: they fail to articulate an alternative. That is probably because an Egypt governed by the Muslim Brotherhood is so bleak a thought it doesn’t bear thinking about.
The turmoil that has engulfed Egypt since Mubarak’s fall in February 2011 – the sudden rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the election of President Morsi in 2012 and his toppling by a popular movement backed by the military one year later in June 2013 – ultimately presented Egypt with a choice: stability and prosperity or the chaos and insecurity of Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
Acknowledging this doesn’t mean we should be uncritical of the Egyptian government, and where excesses have been committed, such as the imprisonment of journalists and the passing of blanket death penalties, we must protest. The Prime Minister will surely do so when he and President Sisi meet in Downing Street today. But the bigger point, and what we must be very clear about during a week that shines a spotlight on the British-Egyptian relationship, is the fact that the misrule of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012-13 posed an existential threat to the Egyptian state itself.
Had it continued, Egypt’s slide towards economic catastrophe would have continued to impoverish millions more (some 40 per cent of Egypt’s eighty million people live in conditions of extreme poverty), the Sinai would have become an even greater haven to Jihadi terrorists than it now is, peace with Israel would have been threatened, and Egypt’s new-found potential as a cultural lodestar of the Arab world would have once again been squandered.
Indeed, the unfolding tragedy of the Russian passenger jet brought down in Sinai by what looks likely to have been an ISIS explosive device, should remind us of how high the stakes are. In December 2010, I drove from Cairo through the Sinai to Gaza. Today, such a journey would be unthinkable. The sudden deterioration of security there is sadly, directly attributable to Morsi’s rule. At a time when Syria, Iraq and most importantly Egypt’s neighbour Libya are being torn apart by Jihadi groups and the ISIS death cult, the threat posed to nation states by political Islam and the Jihadist violence it foments cannot be overstated.
To understand Sisi, the importance of this visit and the huge challenges facing Egypt today we must recognise the threat he – and the Egyptian people – face. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were, in the heady days of 2011 and 2012, very good at PR. Their sophisticated, western-educated spokespeople charmed audiences in Cairo and the European capitals with talk of economic reform, political moderation and inclusive government.
But those of us who took the trouble to venture beyond Cairo to speak to the Brothers heard a different message. In a humid, dingy office in Alexandria in 2011, I sat with senior Muslim Brothers of that city, and over the course of our conversation they revealed that what they really hoped for was something much different: a sharia-based Islamic state that would challenge Israel and not necessarily respect the faith of Egypt’s Copts – a minority of some ten million people.
That the Brotherhood went on to do well at the ballot box, both in the parliamentary elections of 2012 and the Presidential elections later that year, was – in a devout country guided by the Mosque – not surprising. What was surprising was the number of secular liberals and urbanites who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. They, like many western politicians were let down. It was those same people that massed back into Tahrir square in June 2013 to initiate Morsi’s downfall, together with the Tamorrod movement of millions of people across the country.
Coupled with the threat of political and radical Islam, the other great threat to Egypt is its astonishing demographics. When Colonel Nasser came to power in 1952 there were 20 million Egyptians. Now there is more than four times that number, and poverty and illiteracy is widespread. According to the UN, 17 per cent of Egyptians faced food insecurity in 2011 (up from 14 per cent in 2009). Malnutrition is rife with 31 per cent of children under five suffering from stunted growth.
The challenges facing Egypt are huge. We must support them at this critical phase in their country’s development – not as a passive bystander but as a friend who is not afraid to be critical and supportive in equal measure and knowing that in the final analysis Egypt’s security, stability and prosperity is inextricably linked to our own.