12/23/2014 11:27 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Some Current Events in Egypt

The New York Times recently carried an interesting report stating that well-known American scholar Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was recently denied entry into Egypt. Ms. Dunne had travelled to Cairo to attend a foreign affairs conference, apparently endorsed by the Egyptian government and organized by a pro-government group. Why this has happened is not clear. It appears that previously foreign scholars who had entered Egypt on a tourist visa were allowed to participate in academic activities. Presumably, Ms. Dunne felt that there would be no difficulty for her to follow past precedents. The fact that she was declined entry into the country of an ally of the United States is unusual. Perhaps there is some background related to this somewhat unorthodox Egyptian decision that one does not know about. It could also be that the previous laxity in allowing foreigners to attend conferences on tourist visas is no longer acceptable. Perhaps the Egyptian government wishes to control the movements and activities of foreign nationals, even from the United States.

Recently also, in a stunning judgement, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was acquitted of charges amounting to murder in the wake of the huge protests that erupted in Egypt in the winter of 2011. Around 900 protestors were reportedly killed in the police fire during the demonstrations. Earlier Mubarak had been committed and sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the police to open fire on the protestors. The sustained anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011 had given a handle to the Egyptian army leadership to depose the octogenarian president, who had ruled Egypt for nearly three decades. The Economist called the verdict "the most sensational trial in Egyptian history." Mubarak's ouster after a period of interim army rule was succeeded by a democratically elected government -- the first in Egyptian history -- headed by the conservative Muslim Brotherhood party. Its leader, who assumed the mantle of the presidency, Mohamed Morsi, had a tumultuous reign, lasting just one year. Aided by the Brotherhood's missteps and rising public anger against its rule, Army General Abdel Fattah al Sisi seized power in a coup in July 2013. Sisi proceeded to immediately jail thousands of Brotherhood members. The inevitable protests from the powerful Brotherhood cadres were put down with an iron hand. Hundreds of protestors were killed by the security forces.

Sisi has built himself up as a savior of the Egyptian people. He was reportedly heavily bankrolled to the extent of billions of dollars by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE to prop up the sclerotic Egyptian economy, which had gone downhill during Morsi's tenure. The Gulf Sheikdoms were extremely nervous and fearful of the virus of the "Arab Spring" reaching their shores and toppling their undemocratic rule. The Gulf's largesse has shored up Egypt, the most populous Arab country at 83 million, for the time being. The Western countries, suspicious of the religiously-inclined Muslim Brotherhood, have also appeared to acquiesce to Sisi's takeover. The U.S. also has continued military and economic aid to Egypt, thereby ostensibly reconciling itself to Sisi's strongman rule. In the past, the U.S. has not been averse to dealing with military dictators in foreign countries. In the game of world politics, military rulers can be more malleable toward U.S. interests than civilian governments.

As a rule, military rulers do not believe in democratic niceties and the rule of law. Why should General Sisi be any different? Not only is he facing a solemn enemy in the Brotherhood, which has been relegated to the shadows with its leadership in prison, but even liberal pro-democracy elements have been imprisoned and marginalized.

Apparently, all is not well with Sisi's government. The Sinai Peninsula, a huge area bordering Israel and Jordan, has developed into a hotbed of insurgency. A militant group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, (Supporters of the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) has repeatedly confronted the Egyptian army in the area. The group has inflicted significant losses on these forces. Also to add fuel to the fire the militant group has pledged allegiance to the ISIS leadership. It has renamed the Sinai Peninsula as a province of ISIS.

"If France sneezes, the rest of Europe catches cold" is a saying attributed to the 19th century Austrian statesman Metternich. The same aphorism could, mutatis mutandis, be conceivably applied to Egypt. Just as France -- particularly Napoleonic France -- occupied center stage in European politics in the 19th century, Egypt occupies the same prominence in the Arab world today. Stability and order, and more importantly, return to a democratic provenance in Egypt are essential if the gains of the Arab Spring are not to be scattered aimlessly, but instead to be realized and legitimated. The Mubarak verdict puts a spanner in the works in the onward march of the Arab Spring. The question probably on the lips of some Egyptians and foreigners as well, is whether Sisi's rule represents a facsimile of the despised Mubarak era?