Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi will be celebrated in Washington on Monday as a major ally in the fight against terrorism and radical Islamic extremism, as well as a supporter of U.S. efforts to bring peace and stability in the region. Unfortunately, he is neither, according to Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne.
It’s not only Islamists who suffer repression. Sissi has cracked down on secular groups, from Egyptian human rights organizations to youth groups. One victim, typical of thousands of others except for the fact that she happens to be a U.S. citizen, is Aya Hijazi, inexplicably imprisoned for more than 1,000 days on artificial charges related to her work with street children, they write for The Washington Post:
Perhaps the greatest danger to Egypt’s stability is its disastrous economy….According to official statistics, Egypt’s misery index in February was 45 percent: 33 percent core inflation plus 12 percent unemployment. Unemployment among Egyptians under 30 is much higher. Instead, Sissi has funneled billions into the vast business empire of the Egyptian military. Mega-construction projects such as the $8 billion Suez Canal expansion and the $45 billion new desert capital city keep the generals happy — and Sissi coup-proof.
Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state in charge of human rights issues under Mr. Obama, said American aid to Egypt had never translated into the expected support for American policy, The New York Times adds.
“We’ve given Egypt $70 billion over the years, and last I checked there are no Egyptian F-16s helping us fight ISIS over Raqqa or Mosul,” he said. “All we get from the Egyptians is political repression that radicalizes its youth and gives terrorist groups new life.”
Egypt’s mass incarceration of thousands of peaceful activists and opposition supporters right alongside the most hardcore terrorists is arguably the worst counterterrorism strategy ever invented, Malinowski told a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“We learned a long time ago that promoting human rights and preventing terrorism are not competing interests,” he said.
To achieve results in the fight against terrorists, the US must also address Egypt’s political repression and its treatment of its citizens in detention, analysts Brian Katulis, Daniel Benaim, and Mokhtar Awad write for POLITICO:
Restrictions on basic freedoms constrain the space for a genuine battle of ideas essential in defeating extremism and in enhancing Egypt’s prospects to reemerge as a regional bulwark against sectarianism, terrorism and proxy wars. If Trump wishes to win broader support for his approach, he would be wise to quietly seek the release of Aya Hegazy, an American citizen who has been detained without trial on preposterous trumped-up charges for almost three years, and a resolution of other outstanding legal cases against Egyptian-Americans.
The U.S. and Egyptian leaders share more than a commitment to combatting extremism, analysts suggest.
“Both leaders are energised by a focus on security, both see their countries and administrations as being unfairly targeted. Both also rode into power from outside the political elite on the back of an angry populism which seems absent of a clearly thought-out ideology,” said HA Hellyer, an analyst with the London-based think tank the Royal United Services Institute.
To Sissi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was a problem to be managed, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven A. Cook. But Sissi has taken precisely the opposite approach, declaring the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization and unleashing the full force of his country’s security apparatus to root it out, he writes:
When the Brothers eschewed political change by force in the 1970s, they sought to delegitimize it and mobilize Egyptian society in opposition to the state by providing social services and articulating a moralizing mission that resonated with the values of many Egyptians. They have also been consistently and perniciously anti-American and anti-Semitic. Even with this loathsome history, Sisi’s effort to rip the Brotherhood out of Egyptian society is unlikely to work. The organization remains deeply connected to Egyptian society and its members are too tenacious to give up. Rather, they are likely to take up arms against the state. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is politically useful for Sisi, but it is also destabilizing and polarizing for Egypt as a whole.
Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Post. Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace [and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy]. They are co-chairs of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt.