Recent Posts by Walker Gunning

After Trump Victory, Sisi Smiles, Egypt Shrugs

Donald Trump’s election may have been met with incredulity and concern by some US allies, but the leader of at least one Middle Eastern nation is thrilled.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may have been the first foreign leader to call and congratulate the new US President on the Wednesday after the election. Sisi was effusive in his congratulations, echoing his September comments that Trump would be a “strong leader.” Trump as well has had kind words for Sisi in the past, calling him a “fantastic guy.”

The Trump-Sisi connection is likely to rest on more than mutual admiration. As pointed out in Al-Monitor, “the two men also share similar views on a number of issues.”

The major areas of agreement include an openness to Russia, a refusal to back Syrian Rebels and deep skepticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has also shown little desire to push human rights concerns with regards to the Egypt’s mass incarceration of Muslim Brotherhood members and Arab Spring protesters.

All of this may bring Egypt back to the negotiating table on a host of Middle Eastern issues given its potential for a leadership role in the region and as a link between the US and Russia.

However, many Egyptians see less room for optimism.

Recent protests by Egypt’s”Movement of the Poor” have recalled the anger directed against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but with little success. Instead, Sisi has pursued massive crackdowns, a policy likely to continue in light of Trump’s vocal criticism of US support for Mubarak’s ouster.

The main emotion felt by Egyptians however, might simply be a rueful cynicism. Proof of that emotion, and a little schadenfreude, can be seen in the picture above of former Egyptian spy chief and Vice President, Omar Suleiman. In 2011, Suleiman claimed the Egyptians were not ready for democracy. Now, many in Egypt believe that the tables have turned.

Will a Cult Leader’s Daughter Bring Down South Korea’s President?

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For the last week, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye has been at the center of a fast evolving and hard-to-believe scandal that some believe could bring down the government.

The New York Times reported Monday on the firing of eight top presidential aides after revelations that Choi Soon-sil, a friend of President Park and daughter of an infamous cult leader, had enjoyed unprecedented access to presidential security briefings, edited Presidential speeches, siphoned away millions of dollars, and even designed the President’s clothes.

The Washington Post has written that the scandal has, “plotlines straight out of a soap opera: rumors of secret advisers, nepotism and ill-gotten gains, plus a whiff of sex.”

The salacious nature of the revelations, which has seen phrase “Korean Rasputin” appear in print, even include a “boy toy” of Choi Soon-sil who brought many of the findings to light.

The scandal has the Korean public furious and is complex enough to have spawned a sub-genre of scandal-explainer posts. Some of them quite good.

If President Park is not able to ride out the scandal, let’s hope that NY tabloid writers give the scandal the cover it deserves.

Is Egypt Ready for its Close-up?

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The Middle East has loomed large throughout the presidential campaign with contentious exchanges on Iraq, Syria, terrorism, and the Iran nuclear deal marking the debates. Conspicuously absent however, has been any mention of the most populous Arab country; Egypt.

This silence betrays a widely perceived belief that Egypt is unable to play a leading role on the world stage. Just five years removed from the Arab Spring, which reshaped the entire region and two years after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s election, Egypt has gone from standard bearer, to cautionary tale, to virtual nonentity.

So how did Egypt, which captured the world’s attention for 18 days in Tahrir Square, drop off our international radar?

In this case, no news is certainly not good news.

Since 2011 terrorism, especially in the Sinai, has skyrocketed. High profile bombings targeting security forces and civilians have reached all the way to Cairo and, in 2015, the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate managed to bring down a chartered plane filled with Russian tourists.

On the economic side, billions of dollars in aid have achieved little and the country faces huge budget deficits (link). Overvalued currency and lack of structural reforms have made The World Bank and the IMF hesitant to commit further funds. Domestic repression has also resulted in threats to cut off US aid, though military funding has been little affected.

Still it is Egypt’s responses, not its challenges that are keeping it in the shadows.

Reform or Status Quo?

Instead of structural reform, President Sisi has engaged in a series of white elephant projects that have cost billions and seen little return (link). The digging of a “second” Suez canal, in essence a $9 billion dollar lane widening project, has yet to increase revenues and comes at a time of declining global trade.

Without new domestic sources of revenue, Cairo has leaned heavily on Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been pumping cash infusions into the country since the overthrow of Morsi’s Egyptian Brotherhood government. However the Kingdom’s role has not been uncontroversial and the planned transfer of two Red Sea islands (link) by Egypt to Saudi Arabia have fueled popular protests. With oil prices predicted to remain low for the immediate future, and new sources of tension (link) over Syria and Egypt’s involvement in the Yemen campaign, it’s unclear how much longer Riyadh will decide to keep Cairo afloat.

Hundreds of death sentences handed out for Muslim Brotherhood members have further stoked tensions with Turkey and Qatar, as well as human rights groups (link). Combined with the massive campaign of detentions against those who led the Arab Spring, Egypt has effectively outlawed a huge percentage of its population.

Even Egypt’s successes have been misplayed. The most successful aspect of the country’s foreign policy may be the unprecedented level of anti-ISIS security cooperation (link) with Israel in the Sinai, yet government officials prefer to remain mute for risk of backlash.

Little of this seems to worry the country’s leadership who put their faith in spectacle and military might.

President Sisi in particular is convinced he is delivering a star turn. In February the army unrolled a 2 mile long red carpet for Sisi to drive over while openin♦g a housing complex for the poor. the press and citizens immediately blasted the hypocrisy. Yet, the government seemed caught off guard, with a military spokesman claiming (link),

It gives a kind of joy and assurance to the Egyptian citizen that our people and our land and our armed forces are always capable of organizing anything in a proper manner. —Egyptian Military Spokesman

Such cluelessness may fall short of a “let them eat cake” moment, but until Egypt confronts its systemic problems, its red carpets are unlikely to lead to the world’s stage.

Walker J. Gunning is the executive director of CPOST (Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism) and a media commentator. His pieces have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. He was formerly the associate editor at Walker holds a MA and BA in Near Eastern Studies from NYU and previously worked in independent and documentary film production. His views are his own.


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