When General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi led a military overthrow that ejected Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cultivated a close relationship with the junta leader. The two spoke on the phone regularly, the former senator tasked with steering the Egyptian military toward a democratic transition.
Hagel sent El-Sisi a copy of Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow’s 900-page biography of the general who after leading the American Revolution only served two terms in office. “So, I point out in the book … one of the last chapters on how Washington walked away from power,” Hagel told The Atlantic. “Are you going to be the George Washington or are you going to be the Mubarak of Egypt?”
El-Sisi has chosen the latter, and President Trump has embraced the Egyptian strongman wholeheartedly. On Tuesday, El-Sisi visited the White House while his allies in the Egyptian parliament were drafting amendments to the constitution that would allow him to serve as president legally until 2034. Without this constitutional change, El-Sisi, who was re-elected to his second term last year, wouldn’t be able to run again in 2022.
This battery of amendments not only eliminates the current term limits, but also deepens the military’s role in politics. It furthermore gives the presidency new powers over judges and courts. El-Sisi is almost certainly guaranteed to secure the parliament’s support for them and, with a souvenir photo with Trump in hand, will hold a nationwide referendum in May.
The notion of presidency-for-life was the primary grievance of the 2011 people power uprising in Tahrir Square that ended with the ouster of Mubarak. But in 2019, public protests are illegal in Egypt and the aspiration for an accountable, transparent, and democratic political system is beyond the reach of Egyptians, in large part thanks to American encouragement of Egyptian intransigence.
Trump’s uncritical embrace of El-Sisi contradicts the reporting of the State Department and runs counter to American interests, however construed. By ignoring the ongoing, massive human rights abuses that El-Sisi’s colleagues are pursuing, Trump has empowered the drift toward something that is qualitatively different than the Mubarak era. What is emerging is the most totalitarian repression in generations, in which the military forcefully dominates every sphere of life.
Although it was unsurprising that the Trump White House framed the meeting around security and economy talking points, experts and activists were perturbed by Trump’s all-too-characteristic avoidance of human rights issues. Asked about El-Sisi’s bid to stay in power, Trump responded, “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort; I can just tell you he’s doing a great job. Great President.”
In the two years since Egyptian President El-Sisi last visited the White House, the former general has used a state of emergency in his country to consolidate power. Security forces have forcibly disappeared hundreds if not thousands of civilians, creating a chilling effect on journalism, activism, academia, and daily life.
Egyptian jails are overfilled with political prisoners, and the situation has grown so rotten that illegal encampments—harsh and inhumane—are being used to house the incarcerated. Egyptian authorities have tortured hundreds of prisoners, according to local watchdog groups. And, in spite of it all, El-Sisi won a second term in 2018 without any realistic competition, in turn drawing 97.08 percent of the vote in a show election that grossly overstated his true public support.
President Trump could have found these facts in the State Department’s Egypt 2018 Human Rights Report. That accounting of abuses, mandated by Congress since 1976, documents in detail how Egyptian authorities are committing extrajudicial killings, employing neglectful and coercive tactics against prisoners, and stifling expression.
The degree of surveillance and overreach is unprecedented, and it is putting a severe strain on Egyptians. Security agencies have exerted control of media outlets, and even soap operas are being censored. Free speech, though enshrined in the Egyptian constitution, is no longer on offer. In October, economist Abdul Khalik Farouk was arrested (and then released) for publishing a book that criticized Egyptian management of the economy. Among the tens of thousands in Egyptian prisons on political charges sits YouTube comedian Shadi Abuzeid, who was arrested in May 2018.
“Even those [lawyers] working on forced disappearances have become victims of forced disappearances,” Moataz El Fegiery, general coordinator of the Egyptian Human Rights Forum, said on a panel Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The spectacle of a second White House visit has given El-Sisi cover to move forward with his further consolidation of power without consequence. The repression is not ad hoc but rather “formalized, systematized, and institutionalized,” Mai El-Sadany, a legal expert at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told attendees at the Carnegie Endowment.
This situation carries with it a whole new set of exposures and risks in an ally that the United States depends on.
Like on Saudi Arabia, Congress is stepping in as vocal critic, urging the White House to stand up for the dozen or more U.S. citizens in Egyptian prisons, expressing concern about the Egyptian purchase of Russian aircraft, and highlighting the deterioration of political and human rights. And like the congressional effort to condemn Saudi’s war in Yemen, there is wide bipartisan support for “a tangible effort” of reform in Egypt, as 17 senators wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo in advance of his meeting with El-Sisi on Monday.
“If Egypt continues in this direction, the future is predictable, and it’s ominous,” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said at an event on Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “Rather than becoming a modern, stable, and prosperous country—which it could—it will become increasingly divided and unstable.”
But no one at the White House end of Pennsylvania Avenue seems to be listening. Neither head of state mentioned human rights nor the constitutional referendum in the Oval Office. Rather, Trump used the brief press gaggle to boast that the first lady was “very impressed” by the pyramids of Giza during her October visit to Egypt.
“You could call it the seventh wonder or the eighth wonder of the world,” he added. (You could in fact call them the seventh, but definitely not the eighth). It was the type of tourism plug that Egyptian officials had dreamed of, especially given the State Department’s advisory that travelers “exercise increased caution in Egypt due to terrorism.”
Days earlier Ivanka Trump tweeted in support of El-Sisi’s purported women’s rights reforms, obscuring the massive human-rights abuses under way in the country of some 100 million.
“Egypt is doing a good job at framing itself as the U.S. wants it to be,” said El-Sadany, the legal scholar, noting that Egyptian officials’ talking points focus on women’s rights, Christians, and minorities in public statements, “but it couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
The Obama administration, too, deserves criticism for emboldening El-Sisi and failing to create consequences for his extrajudicial crackdown. After El-Sisi led the country’s military takeover in 2013, Obama officials also performed rhetorical acrobatics (this is not a coup) to ensure that U.S. funding would continue to reach Egypt.
The August 14, 2013, massacre of hundreds of protesters at Cairo sit-ins, which Human Rights Watch has called a crime against humanity, did not affect Washington’s relationship with Cairo. The Obama administration took pains to avoid a White House invitation to El-Sisi, but did not push for constructive developments. Hagel’s haggling was not enough to push El-Sisi to shepherd democratic change or even basic rights in the new Egyptian republic.
But the Trump administration’s Egypt policies are dangerous in new ways, and the degree to which they are antithetical to American interests and values is shocking. If the fall of Mubarak didn’t illuminate the fragility of dictatorship, then ongoing popular demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan ought to remind policymakers that the old model of one-man regimes is neither sustainable nor desirable.