“General al-Sisi at the U.S. Army War College” by Sherifa Zuhur

1 Aug

I gave the following interview today to Evan Hill of the Economist. Originally, he said he would post it on his own website but I don’t think that’s happening now. Please see the end of this piece for some explanation.

–What was your role vis-a-vis General Sisi at the War College? Did you teach him? Which classes and when? Were there other Egyptian officers present?

I was a research professor of national security affairs (and later Islamic and regional studies) at the Strategic Studies Institute within the Army War College. The SSI is the Army’s think tank focused on strategy. My primary duties were research but a colleague had a stroke that year, so I took on more teaching duties. Al-Sisi was one of 38 or so International Fellows in the year-long Master’s program in strategic studies who along with 300 US Fellows are organized into groups of 12 or 13 (that’s called their Seminar). They meet in that seminar covering leadership, some military history, intro. to strategy, do a full-scale strategic exercise & take electives. I taught Regional Studies of the Middle East (different professors lectured) I gave 4 1/2 of the 10 lectures, also in a counterterrorism seminar in which General Barno and I were guest speakers, and in a course on the media (covering the Arab press). Observed al-Sisi in the Regional Studies course and his seminar and in a course on center of gravity (Clausewitzian) theory.

There was only one Egyptian officer per year. Sedky Sobhi, now Army Chief of Staff earlier. The year after al-Sisi, the Egyptian officer who I agreed to sponsor, complained that he did not want a “woman” to sponsor him.  So please don’t think I would hesitate to tell you something uncomplimentary if it were true.

Al-Sisi and the other Arab officers would sometimes delegate one of their number to respond if they objected to the discourse, tone or approach or other students’ comments. They often did this assigning the spokesperson to the most senior or experienced among them, or to the person who communicated best in English. Al-Sisi was the spokesperson on occasion. al-Sisi like his predecessor, Sedky Sobhi, made clear in his comments that he felt the U.S. had bitten off more than it could chew in Iraq and in the War on Terror as then conceived. He was more diplomatic, but less funny and more introspective than Sedky Sobhi. We had numerous extremely interesting discussions on the role of culture (as impacts women in the region), economics, conflicting national interests and he was interested in certain hot-button topics like Iran’s and Israel’s aims in the region as well as “American” topics like jointness (coordination of military & other governmental services).

Internat’l Fellows each have Barracks and community sponsors, seminar leaders and Strategic Research Project advisors. My sponsoree that year who I saw constantly was COL Taiseer Saleh, the nephew of Pres. Saleh and so I also saw al-Sisi socially with Taiseer and other Arab officers. Additionally, al-Sisi and his family attended our tiny local mosque, donated by the state of Qatar.

AWC is the most senior of the Army service colleges, the foreign officers selected are usually well thought of and well-connected in their own military. They are slated for advancement as was al-Sisi who rapidly climbed from about 2008 to regional commander of the Egyptian Army for Alexandria and the north, and then to director of Military intelligence & reconnaissance.

Q.–Were you able to get to know General Sisi at all? Did you have one-on-one discussions, meet informally outside of the classroom, or have any kind of interaction that would give a better sense of him as a person? Did he seem, as some Egyptian press accounts have put it, particularly devout?

I did get to know al-Sisi, then a Brigadier (1 star) general — I came to know the previous year’s Egyptian Brigadier Gen. very well & he was somewhat more vocal than al-Sisi, but what set me apart was being the only woman in SSI (the international officers were interested in our research center as the govt. has assisted in setting up some similar efforts in other countries)
and the only Muslim faculty member, ever, I guess up until then. That meant I was invited to some social events on our religious holidays and at the musallah, (small mosque). It meant also that I could not socialize in the guy-guy manner at such events, but I met his wife and daughter (and a cousin) and got a sense of the family. I also spoke with him at various parties and social events in the homes of other students and faculty.

At the time, under Bush and in the USAWC’s War on Terror atmosphere, I suppose every Muslim who prays (not all do) or fasts is considered extremely religious & that’s where this comment came from. Just as the vast number of ordinary Egyptian Muslims are pious, so too was al-Sisi, but not more so than my husband or in-laws. Nothing extraordinary and such piety is not in contradiction with a belief (which al-Sisi expresses) that the military must be above politics. Unlike US officers, the Egyptian military can’t vote.

We were just beginning a dispute at the time at the college about whether we (Muslims) could have a larger prayer room which I was advocating; the college cha& in the library that fit 3 people). The above 2 persons argued that very few students prayed & the chaplain later launched a full-out attack declaring the Quran’s Surah 1 attacks Jews & Christians. Al-Sisi was observant, but did not try to preach to his colleagues or others or hand it religious materials (as some Gulf state Fellows have). But neither was he out to have a good time while in the U.S. which has been the case for some officers.

Al-Sisi’s daughter wore hijab; one of his sons was attending courses at Dickinson College. His children and his wife and some relatives who visited them were very lovely, friendly and religiously conservative. Ultimately, I think the suggestion of his piety was made in the press to assert that he would not have been chosen by the Muslim Brotherhood as Minister of Defense to replace Tahtawy had the organization not trusted him, because Morsi was first and foremost attentive to the aims of the Muslim Brotherhood (along with the Freedom and Justice Party. As an observer of the Egyptian Army, I’m not so convinced; he had already risen in the ranks and very probably this was more so the Army’s decision than the MB & F & J.

–What was notable about General Sisi, in terms of his areas of interest or particular acumen, or what he seemed to express particular approval or disapproval of, or affinity for?

al-Sisi was quiet, well-spoken, very well informed about certain issues in history and regional politics including Islamic history which some of the other officers were interested in as well. Far more so, of course than some of our American officers, however, they are also experienced professionals and have other skills and insights that interested him.

He was ready for debate but not aggressive. There were interesting interactions between him and other officers – for example the very bright Indian & Pakistani and certain European officers. Each year there was a challenge from the Israeli officer to the Arab officers – again, it depended personality if this escalated at all, and I recall the Israeli officer that year to have been rather bullish. In that year I was working on a project which was very critical of Mubarak and continued lack of political freedom in Egypt. I had the impression that al-Sisi did not disagree that Egypt should transition to a more fully pluralist state, but was also cognizant of all the difficulties that entailed for a population which had not ever participated (at that time) in an open election. He was quite interested the discourse on the War on Terror and what he and some International Fellows considered a far too sweeping attack on Muslim communities, and if you can imagine the response of some of the American officers, this sort of debate went on every day as the latter took to task the Arab officers for every failing of their societies.

That year I co-organized the Middle East conference at the War College and a tricky aspect was my invitation to Prince Turki al-Saud, then Ambassador to the US which I pushed for and some other faculty and directors tried to push back. Al-Sisi and the Arab officers were very helpful and grateful for the conference and that the Commandant supported that particular invitation (since there was a lot of Saudi-bashing at that point), even if they did not especially like some of our “experts” views, for example Dennis Ross, or others invited that year. These and other large events, including my former institute’s SSI’s conferences and the annual National Security Strategy conference were all eye-openers for al-Sisi, who along with his classmates also visited other installations in the U.S. and Hawaii.

Among the serious and more theoretical lessons stressed are that war, ie. military power is but one means towards an end implying the inefficacy of other means. And we taught a great deal about other instruments of power – diplomatic, informational and economic.

I worked that year with 4 American officers and another International on their Strategic Research Projects (which is what Robert Springborg wrongly refers to as a “thesis “ in his article. Ret. Col Stephen Gerras has said he was el-Sisi’s SRP advisor and his seminar advisor. Al-Sisi write seminar papers, and I saw a draft of his SRP. To explain: none of the students write a thesis of the conventional length for an MS. Instead they write this Strategic Research Project which is a maximum of 25 pp. (unless the advisor agrees to something lengthier). Usually it’s only 16 to 20 pp. The International Fellows must pass an English language exam and most do not, hardly any of the Arab officers pass the exam (but for the Jordanian, or Lebanese officers). If they don’t pass the exam, they are not actually receiving an MS in Strategic Studies and aren’t required to write an SRP. Many want to write one because all their peers are, but if their English scores are inadequate, I have had students prepare a power-point presentation and be graded on that, or present me an SRP in Arabic (which I insisted we translate) or a very short paper. That is what I think he wrote. Gerras is subject to restrictions by the College’s Office of Public Affairs (and I am not), so you can try asking him.

(Here I wrote something about the originality of the SRPs, plagiarism, and the fact that the failure rate of the Fellows is zero – in other words, we could not and did not fail officers).

Here is an example of one of the best SRPs I supervised and by one of the only international fellows who qualified in the English exams. http://books.google.com/books/about/The_2006_Israeli_War_on_Lebanon.html?id=ucr8NwAACAAJ

Usually an SRP will reflect the officer’s sense of his own military’s position on an issue.

–What was your reaction when he was elevated by Morsi, and when he helped oust him? Was there any hint that General Sisi would ever play such a role?

He had already risen to a fairly elevated position in the Army for his age but was among a cohort who could be seen as not having been corrupted or too close to Mubarak and think that was the important consideration. I was surprised but not terribly so, because many other of our Internat’l Fellows have gone onto higher leadership positions in their countries. He had been fairly conciliatory to many groups this spring prior to Tamarrod and for example, tried to allay the fears of some groups such as the musicians and artists who then protested Morsi’s appointee as Min. of Culture.

I can’t say there was a hint that this was his idea when he was at the AWC which was only a year after the 2005 elections and the period when Kefaya became active. However, last fall when I was researching a piece on Egypt’s minorities since Mubarak’s fall, I interviewed people who already believed (and knew others of similar sentiments) the Army should take control given the disastrous direction signaled in the whole process of drafting Egypt’s constitution. Al-Sisi gave an indication that the Muslim Brotherhood had gone too far in February last year when he said that the political struggle between contesting forces could bring about “the collapse of the Egyptian state.” I don’t think this was meant, however as a warning of a takeover.
When al-Sisi responded to the demonstrations of 30th of June, he revealed some of his efforts at diplomacy with Morsi up to that point, on behalf of Tamarrod & 30th of June and the opposition parties which took place in June.

For now, there is no reason to believe that al-Sisi will dictate the actions of the current interim government except in the area of national security. Given the arms being confiscated, situation in the Sinai, and MB intransigence, this will be complicated. There was a denial that al-Sisi was interested in running for President, but every Egyptian President but Morsi has come from the military, and it would not be illegal for him to run. I don’t think that scenario is what the demonstrators of the 30th of June have in mind – rather his and their objectives are to carry out parliamentary elections & work towards a situation where political forces are better able to share power and cooperate instead of relying on the military for leadership.

As for al-Sisi’s call for the public to demonstrate, some have called this Peronism. But those demonstrating for al-Sisi included many liberals who see this temporary guardianship of the country as the only path towards democracy, and also many poor and underprivileged Egyptians who are not anti-military and who are actually very angry at Americans for dubbing this a coup rather than a popular revolution and rejection of ballotocracy.

My personal position is very complicated. I am eligible for Egyptian citizenship but can’t hold dual citizenship and also renew my security clearances. So with my Egyptian hat on I fully supported Tamarrod. As a scholar of Islamic movements, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood (subject of my dissertation), I am however, not an advocate of their totalizing da`wah or mission. I had hoped the Muslim Brotherhood would behave more democratically while in power via the Freedom and Justice Party and President Morsi, but month by month since June 2012, it became very clear that was not the case.

I no longer have to ask permission of anyone at the Army War College to speak to the media, and my affiliation is the Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies where I am director.

My understanding is that the Economist or Evan Hill only wished to print two comments from the material below – one about Gen. al-Sisi’s wife and daughters’ clothing, and the other about his perception of Egypt’s way forward. That’s fine, but if Mr. Hill thinks I’m not credible, I’d rather not add to the idea that al-Sisi is an “Islamist” because of his family’s dress styles. It sounded as if they thought I’m not qualified to say who an Islamist is or is not. And wish to adhere to the theory that al-Sisi is a Muslim Brotherhood backer as did Robert Springborg in his recent piece in Foreign Policy. I hope that’s not true.

8 Responses to ““General al-Sisi at the U.S. Army War College” by Sherifa Zuhur”

  1. sherifazuhur August 1, 2013 at 4:36 am #

    It’s worth mentioning that the previous year’s Egyptian Fellow was Gen. Sedki Sobhi, now the Egyptian Army’s Chief of Staff. I’m sure he will remember me and our feverish discussions about the War on Terror.

  2. Sherifa Zuhur August 2, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    Here’s the Economist article – it’s not bad, but I disagree with Springborg – again! al-Sisi has said repeatedly that he is not running for President. Baradei stressed that today. Well, he could change his mind. http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21582564-generals-who-deposed-muslim-brotherhood-are-keener-power-they-let

    • Zeinab Abul-Magd August 3, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

      I fully agree with you and support your views.

  3. mirandawmeyer August 22, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    Reblogged this on Fursa Sa'ida.

  4. 23hq.com February 5, 2014 at 5:15 am #

    That is a great tip especially to those fresh to the
    blogosphere. Brief but very precise information… Many thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read article!


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