Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fast becoming the favorite Middle East strongman of American conservatives and Republican presidential hopefuls.
Jeb Bush says he can’t understand why the White House has told Sisi “you’re not on our team” as jihadism spreads like wildfire through the Middle East. Ted Cruz, another GOP 2016 pretender has also praised him, and key conservative media figures are lionizing Sisi.
The rush of affection for the former Army Chief contrasts with the strained relationship between Sisi and the White House, reflected in the Obama administration’s decision not to publicly back air strikes by Egypt on a common enemy — ISIS — in Libya this week.
It’s also the latest manifestation of the decades-long tussle between the U.S. and Egypt, which pits a push for human rights and democracy against the yearning for a stable pro-U.S. partner in a chaotic region, whatever the character of its regime.
The spur for the conservative infatuation for Sisi was a speech in January in which the Egyptian leader warned Islam was being “torn” and “destroyed” by extremism.
“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world,” said Sisi.
Sisi spoke in a highly symbolic venue, the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, one of the most vaulted seats of learning in the Muslim world.
“It’s antagonizing the entire world! Does this mean that 1.6 billion people (Muslims) should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants — that is 7 billion — so that they themselves may live? Impossible!”
Sisi’s speech was a call to cleanse Islam of extremist thought and elements which groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have used to justify jihad. It continues to impress conservatives in the United States amid a fierce political debate about how to contain ISIS’s march across the region.
“He gave this incredible speech about Muslim extremism, and saying it’s the responsibility of the Arab world to step up to fight this; that the first risks are for countries like Egypt,” Bush said in Chicago on Wednesday.
It’s no coincidence that Republicans are praising the speech’s blunt message at the same time as they are accusing President Barack Obama of falling prey to political correctness in his unwillingness to state the U.S. is at war with radical Islam.
That comparison is also frequently being made on conservative talk radio. Cruz also praised Sisi on Fox News on Wednesday.
“What would be far better to see was the kind of courage that was demonstrated just a few weeks ago by President al-Sisi in Cairo,” Cruz said.
“Why don’t we see the president of the United States demonstrating that same courage, just to speak the truth, about the face of evil we are facing right now?” Cruz asked.
Mike Huckabee, another potential Republican presidential contender, said “thank God for President al-Sisi in Egypt” in an interview with NewsMax TV.
Southern Baptist leader Richard Land wrote in The Christian Post that the Sisi speech could be as historically resonant as Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech or president John Kennedy’s declaration : “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Conservative commentator George Will said on Fox News Sunday last month that Sisi may deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since the election, the Obama administration has tried to carefully restore ties with Egypt on the grounds that it remains a vital strategic partner. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo in September and Obama met Sisi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last year. Close intelligence cooperation continues behind the scenes.
But relations have remained strained. After the coup the U.S. temporarily held up a tranch of $500 million in military aid to Egypt and an order of attack helicopters.
The spectacle of Putin getting a warm welcome from Sisi in a visit last week did not go unnoticed in Washington, and was an apparent sign from the Cairo government that if the U.S. does not take better care of its friends, Egypt will look elsewhere.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, said it was not even told in advance about Egyptian air strikes this week on ISIS targets in Libya in revenge for the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian workers by an ISIS-affiliated group.
“It’s a complex relationship that we have with Egypt,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
ISIS’s swift spread in the Arab world has some realists in Washington considering whether it’s time to re-emphasise the stability dimension of the U.S. relationship with Cairo.