El-Sisi: The Churchill Test; Another Damaskinos?

El-Sisi: The Churchill Test; Another Damaskinos?

“El-Sisi: The Churchill Test” was writ­ten 2014. It’s 2023, and he’s still there. Hmm.

Damaskinos, 1944

On Christ­mas eve 1944, Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill left fam­i­ly cel­e­bra­tions and flew to Athens. He hoped to medi­ate the Greek civ­il war. Com­mu­nists and roy­al­ists were fight­ing it out. Armed with one promise Josef Stal­in actu­al­ly kept, Churchill thought he could give peace a chance.

(Stalin’s kept promise was the round­ly-con­demned “per­cent­ages agree­ment” in Moscow a few weeks ear­li­er. It gave Britain a sphere of influ­ence in Greece in exchange for Sovi­et spheres in pret­ty much the rest of East­ern Europe.)

Damask­i­nos with Churchill, 1945. (Hills­dale Col­lege Press)

Churchill had nev­er heard of Arch­bish­op Damask­i­nos, the man his For­eign Office said might rec­on­cile the fac­tions and head off a Com­mu­nist takeover. In Athens, Churchill fixed a steely eye on the gen­er­al com­mand­ing British troops:

“This Damaskinos—is he a man of God, or a schem­ing prelate more inter­est­ed in tem­po­ral pow­er than the life hereafter?”

The gen­er­al replied, “I think rather the lat­ter, Prime Minister.”

“Good,” Churchill replied: “That’s our man.”

Schemer or saint?

The general’s was a harsh judg­ment. Dur­ing the war, Damask­i­nos had issued Chris­t­ian bap­tism cer­tifi­cates to Jews flee­ing the Nazis, becom­ing one of the “Right­eous Gen­tiles” dur­ing the Holo­caust; but he was cer­tain­ly ready to take and exer­cise power.

In Piraeus har­bor the tow­er­ing Arch­bish­op was piped aboard HMS Ajax to meet Churchill. It was Christ­mas day: sailors were cel­e­brat­ing, dressed as gob­lins, gyp­sies and hula dancers, occa­sion­al­ly throw­ing one of their num­ber over­board. The Arch­bish­op, in cler­i­cal robes with a head­dress that made him even taller, seemed a fel­low cel­e­brant. Sailors advanced with every intent of toss­ing him over the side. They were dis­suad­ed with dif­fi­cul­ty, as the cap­tain con­vinced the priest that it was not a staged insult.

At a con­fer­ence in the Greek For­eign Office, lit only by hur­ri­cane lamps as bombs burst over the Piraeus, Churchill sub­ject­ed the war­ring Greeks to a dis­course the like of which they had nev­er heard before. The two fac­tions agreed to appoint Damask­i­nos as Regent; he called for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, end­ed the fight­ing, and left office in 1946 with Greece a con­sti­tu­tion­al monarchy.

El-Sisi, 2014

Flash for­ward 70 years almost to the day for anoth­er Mediter­ranean schemer: Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Abdel-Fat­tah el-Sisi—no man of God, and like­wise no sissy.

In Octo­ber 2014, after attacks by jihadists in north­east Sinai, el-Sisi bol­stered his forces. He rout­ed Hamas insur­gents and destroyed tun­nels by which arms were smug­gled in from Gaza. Then he closed Egypt’s bor­ders to a Hamas del­e­ga­tion, accus­ing Hamas of engi­neer­ing vio­lence. Hamas’ attempts to pla­cate Cairo after a long estrange­ment col­lapsed. Hop­ing to cur­ry el-Sisi’s favor, Hamas even sev­ered its ties with the Mus­lim Brotherhood.

You remem­ber the Mus­lim Brotherhood—those “reform­ers” the West backed dur­ing the “Arab Spring.” After an elec­tion in June 2012, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mor­si became Egypt’s pres­i­dent. Alas Mr. Mor­si was no soon­er in office than he mor­phed from Jef­fer­son­ian demo­c­rat to a tyrant, and was deposed by el-Sisi and the Army a year later.

El-Sisi’s coup was protest­ed by those who wel­come any leader who is elect­ed, even if an elec­tion is not exact­ly up to the stan­dard of, say, the League of Women Vot­ers. They called for stop­ping aid to Cairo, pre­sum­ably until Egypt got back to elect­ing anoth­er Mor­si. El-Sisi ignored all that, and his deter­mined actions against the jihadists offer a chance to sta­bi­lize Sinai. That may take him years, not to men­tion paci­fy­ing oth­er trou­ble spots deep­er inside Egypt.

Idealism and Realpolitik

Recent­ly, author David French sug­gest­ed that ide­al­ism will be the death of us—be it Pres­i­dent Bush’s faith in demo­c­ra­t­ic nation-build­ing, or Pres­i­dent Obama’s arm­ing of unpre­dictable zealots: “We have to replace fool­ish hopes and dead­ly dreams with hard-nosed eval­u­a­tions of action. Allies such as the Kurds have proven them­selves reli­able time and again, and Egypt’s new gov­ern­ment has shown promise in its treat­ment of Hamas.” We seem, French writes, “more will­ing to arm jihadists in Syr­ia than to arm the Kur­dish pesh­mer­ga in Iraq.”

His­to­ry doesn’t repeat, Mark Twain said, but it some­times rhymes. In Athens 70 years ago, a hard-nosed Churchill saved Greece with realpoli­tik and a tough-mind­ed leader who sti­fled the forces of anar­chy. The sit­u­a­tion is not the same today. The oppor­tu­ni­ty is eeri­ly sim­i­lar. Churchill said late in life:

The Mid­dle East is one of the hard­est-heart­ed areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major pow­er has estab­lished firm influ­ence and shown that it would main­tain its will. Your friends must be sup­port­ed with every vigour and if nec­es­sary they must be avenged. Force, or per­haps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respect­ed. It is very sad, but we had all bet­ter recog­nise it. At present our friend­ship is not val­ued, and our enmi­ty is not feared.

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