Everyone has decided that President Trump has altered US policy toward Egypt by meeting with and praising military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in a White House meeting.
Trump said Sisi is “doing a fantastic job” in Egypt.
Truth is, no administration since Dwight Eisenhower’s has concretely punished an Egyptian regime on policy—and that was when Gamal Abdul Nasser ruled Egypt and wouldn’t get on board with America’s Cold War agenda.
That’s not to say Sisi deserves a red carpet treatment in Washington. Now only did he overthrow an elected government (however unpopular the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammed Morsi, president of the time, was) in 2013, but in August that year, his troops killed 900 Egyptians in a day who were protesting Morsi’s ouster. Moreover, he has jailed not only Muslim Brotherhood followers by the thousands but also secular liberal opponents of his dictatorship.
Trump’s coddling is nothing new. Administration after administration has waived concerns about human rights abuses on national security grounds.
Let’s take Barack Obama, somehow seen now to be anti-Sisi because he didn’t invite the Egyptian to the White House. Instead, Obama repeatedly sent his Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo to somehow praise Sisi for taking Egypt on the “road” to democracy, or in some cases, just ignore human rights abuses altogether. Three months after Sisi’s slaughter of protestors, Kerry announced that the “The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception” and that everything is “moving down the road map in the direction that everybody has been hoping for and concerned about.”
For a while, Obama suspended shipments of military equipment to Egypt, but that move petered away. Even though Obama never hosted Sisi at home, that didn’t mean they didn’t talk and deal. As the Congressional Research Service noted last month: “On March 31, 2015, after a phone call between President Obama and President Sisi, the White House announced that the Administration was releasing the deliveries of select weapons systems to Egypt that had been on hold since October 2013, and pledged to continue seeking $1.3 billion in aid from Congress.”
Obama punted on possibly narrowing the scope of US military aid and limiting it to anti-terrorism weaponry until 2018. Hmmm. Did Obama think he would still be in power?
George W. Bush periodically sent his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice to Egypt to lecture then-President Hosni Mubarak on democracy. The theory was that the lack of democracy in the Middle East nurtured extremist groups. But Bush kept sending aid anyway. The rationale: Egypt was maintaining its peace accord with Israel, permitted US military cooperation and naval use of the Suez Canal in case of emergency and generally muted criticism of disastrous American Middle East policy.
What does Egypt want now? Congressional Research service says: “Various reports in the Egyptian media indicate that the Sisi administration is seeking, among other things, a restoration of certain major U.S. defense equipment sales to Egypt, an overall increase in U.S. aid to Egypt, and a U.S. designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.”
So will Trump continue Washington’s habitual inconsistency toward human rights abuses in Egypt? Or suddenly support liberal democracy? My guess is the former. At a minimum that is what the Pentagon wants—the defense Department is generally at home with military dictatorships and Sisi is a former general. And Trump has shown little inclination to lecture foreigners on repression.
In Egypt, that’s bad news for political prisoners, bad news for Egyptians who think that democracy would help Egypt navigate its current, vast economic problems.
But it’s also nothing new–it follows a long history of US abandonment of principle regarding political liberalization in Egypt.
The Washington Post criticizes Obama after the Sisi coup.
Congressional Research’s long report on US-Egypt relations.
In 2016, Kerry makes nice to Egypt.
Human Rights Watch rounds up Sisi abuses–and US inconsistency.