When I interviewed John McCain a couple weeks ago for the latest issue of The New Republic, he was candid about his opinion of Egypt's new military leader, General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Here was the exchange:
JM: I have had a relationship with their military for years. I met this guy [the new leader Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi, and as soon as I met him, I said, This guy is not his predecessor. And everyone said, Oh no, he’s [Mohamed] Morsi’s guy, and I said, Not this guy, he’s his own guy.
IC: Morsi may have thought he was Morsi’s guy.
JM: I was just about to say that. Created a monster [laughs].
My first reaction to McCain's skepticism was, well, skepticism. Did McCain really sense immediately that Sissi had his own agenda? After reading Lally Weymouth's exclusive interview with Sissi in Sunday's Washington Post, however, I withdraw my doubts about McCain's intution. Indeed, intuition may be the wrong word, because the picture that Sissi inadvertently (but bluntly) draws of himself is one of an insecure and thuggish autocrat. (I don't know the Egyptian Arabic translation...)
The most interesting aspect of the interview is Sissi's contempt for the Obama administration and the United States. You might think the fact that, for decades, the United States has (in stalwart fashion) been a close ally of the Egyptian military would have pleased Sissi. You might think that John Kerry's pathetic response to the coup—"The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people," Kerry said during a visit to Pakistan. "The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment, so far."—would have pleased Sissi, too. (Kerry added that the military was "restoring democracy.") You might also think that Sissi would be happy that the Obama administration is tying itself in rhetorical knots to avoid cutting off aid to Egypt and its military—not that there is much of a difference. (This Robert Kagan piece makes a good argument for ending financial support.) No, instead Sissi is angry that the U.S. canceled delivery of four F-16's, in a move the Post calls "purely symbolic."
Sissi bristled. "This is not the way to deal with a patriotic military," he said.
Sissi went on to add that, "You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that." He also, in predictably self-pitying fashion, lashed out over the fact that Obama hadn't called him. After reading the interview, I took a glance at al-Sissi's biography and learned that—gasp—he had studied in America.
To recap: The United States, with typical short-sightedness, showed a willingness to sacrifice democracy for stability in Egypt. And in return we got undemocratic thugs who don't even like us. (It's good to see this particular Cold War relic of authoritarian client states—seen to glorious effect in Latin America and South Asia—repeat itself in the "post 9/11" world.) It may not be surprising that the people of countries whose dictators we support despise us; but it would probably take a psychiatrist to explain why the recipients of U.S. aid have such contempt for America. (Even the Contras eventually took on this surly posture.)
No matter: Sissi seems intent on upholding the Banana Republic-style traditions of his institution:
Asked if he intends to run for president, as previous military leaders have done, Sissi suggested he will not, saying he does not "aspire for authority." But when pressed, he stopped short of ruling out the possibility.
"The most important achievement in my life is to overcome this circumstance, [to ensure] that we live peacefully, to go on with our road map and to be able to conduct the coming elections without shedding one drop of Egyptian blood," he said, before adding, "When the people love you, this is the most important thing for me."
You can't say we didn't ask for it.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.