This month, the United States delivered the first batch of 762 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Egypt free of charge. That’s on top of the $1.3 billion in military aid the Obama administration has allocated to the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi this year. The White House refuses to condition these gifts on an improvement in Egypt’s horrendous human rights record. So herewith a more modest proposal: Obama should ask Sissi to publicly explain how the MRAPs fit into the “fourth-generation war.”
Most people are unfamiliar with that esoteric term — unless they have been following the rhetoric of Egypt’s military leaders since the coup of 2013. Fourth-generation warfare, Sissi once explained to cadets at Egypt’s military academy, occurs when “modern communication channels, psychology and the media are . . . deployed to create divisions and harm Egypt from within,” according to the website Mada Masr.
Who is the enemy in this war? According to the Egyptian military, that would be the United States — the same country providing the army with those free armored vehicles and billions in aid. In March, the Defense Ministry’s Nasser Military Academy briefed the parliament about fourth-generation warfare. According to the outline, reported by Mada Masr, the subjects included “Egypt’s defense strategy and Western plans to divide the Middle East.”
Pro-regime propagandists are far more explicit. “Most civil society organizations” in Egypt “work to demolish the state through fourth generation warfare for a few dollars,” wrote Charl Fouad El Masry in Daily News Egypt in January. Amr Ammar, a frequent guest on state television, has written a tome explaining how Egypt’s 2011 popular revolution was actually a U.S. plot to destroy Egypt for Israel’s benefit. He calls it “the Hebrew Spring.”
Some might dismiss this anti-American ranting as harmless rhetoric for internal consumption. In fact, it is not. We know that because the military has been acting on its theories. Among other steps, it has launched an offensive against those allegedly dollar-supported nongovernmental organizations. In March, prosecutors reopened a 2011 court case against a number of human rights groups, banning their leaders from leaving the country and asking a judge to freeze their personal assets.
During the first round of the case, the regime directly targeted U.S. organizations such as the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, forcing them to shut down their operations and pull their staff out of the country. Now it is prosecuting people such as Hossam Bahgat, the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which recently reported on the regime’s persecution of gay people; Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information; and Bahey eldin Hassan, the founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Observers of Egypt might wonder why Sissi, who claims to be fighting the Islamic State and other Muslim extremists, would devote himself to prosecuting secular human rights activists as well as journalists and left-wing politicians who despise jihadism. The answer is simple: It’s all part of fighting the fourth-generation war. The ultimate enemy in this war is not Sunni extremism but Western liberalism — headed by the United States.
As the Egyptian generals see it, they use the tanks and mine-resistant vehicles and F-16s supplied by Washington to fight the Islamic State on one front, in the Sinai Peninsula. Meanwhile, they direct their intelligence services and prosecutors to assault America’s subversive agents in Cairo. There is no contradiction, so long as the U.S. administration doesn’t object and the military aid isn’t endangered. And the Obama administration doesn’t object. In fact, it has asked Congress to remove all political and human rights conditions on military aid to Egypt in next year’s budget.
The problem with this is that U.S. support of the Egyptian military is serving to destroy U.S. relations with Egypt. Secular supporters of democracy and human rights, our natural allies, are being crushed. Meanwhile, Egyptians are being fed propaganda describing the United States as the sponsor of a massive plot to divide and destroy the country. From Washington’s point of view, it seems like a poor return on one of the largest aid packages in the world.
That’s why an Egyptian activist I know recently offered a friendly suggestion. Forget about trying to stop Sissi’s war on peaceful dissent, his prosecution of journalists and his shuttering of NGOs, he said. But tell the generals that future U.S. aid will depend on a prime-time televised statement by Sissi, in Arabic, assuring Egyptians that the United States is not plotting to destroy the country and has nothing to do with a “fourth-generation war.”
It doesn’t seem like much to ask in exchange for 762 free MRAPs.