The Egyptian government recently passed a new law against spreading “rumors.” By “rumors,” President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi means anything that might undermine confidence in his regime. El-Sisi runs a military dictatorship that puts journalists who report factually about events in the country — or anyone with a Facebook account — in potential peril. Such offenders have swelled the already high population of dissidents in Cairo’s jails.
Egypt’s record on human rights has gone from bad to worse as the regime tightens its grip on power. But in a development that set off a predictable chorus of opposition from Trump critics, the U.S. State Department lifted restrictions on military aid to Egypt, put in place a year ago to register American dismay at Cairo’s human rights record and ties with North Korea.
The decision is being denounced as yet another indication that Trump likes dictators. But American policy toward Egypt isn’t a function of the president’s soft spot for strongmen. To the contrary, doubling down on American backing for El-Sisi is a reflection of sober analysis. It shows that Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are aware of the mistakes Obama made in Egypt and why they shouldn’t be repeated.
The same things that can be said about El-Sisi were said about Hosni Mubarak, who led Egypt from 1981 to 2011 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, murdered by radicals for making peace with Israel. Mubarak, determined not to suffer the same fate, avoided it by a combination of brutal repression and ice-cold peace with Israel. Successive U.S. administrations were queasy about his authoritarianism, but kept billions in U.S. aid flowing to Cairo, the price to keep a dubious ally and the status quo.
When the Arab Spring protests began in 2010, Obama believed it was the moment. to embrace change. As many conservatives embraced the notion of spreading democracy in the Middle East during the Bush administration, Obama thought supporting democracy was consistent with American values and strategic interests.
But Obama’s attempt was as much a disaster as Bush’s. When demonstrations against Mubarak began, Obama pushed an ally out. It seemed like the right thing to do, but Obama was either oblivious or mistaken with respect to the question of succession. There was only one entity in Egypt with the strength to mount a successful national campaign: the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Obama and a credulous Western press fell for the Brotherhood’s depiction of itself as a band of Islamic democrats, their goals were very different. The Brotherhood was an Islamist group ready to fill the vacuum left by Mubarak’s collapse — and that’s what they did, sweeping to power in the 2012 election and putting Mohamed Morsi in Mubarak’s chair.
Over the next year, Egyptians watched in horror as the Brotherhood sought to transform their country into a Sunni theocracy. Morsi ignored American efforts to support democracy. When protests against the Brotherhood spread, Obama warned the Egyptian military not to try to overthrow Morsi. But as tens of millions took to the streets to oppose their nation’s drift towards extremism, the army, led by El-Sisi, ignored Washington and deposed Morsi.
The United States is still hated by Islamists for all the reasons they always have, but now it has been blamed for Egypt’s year under the Brotherhood’s tyranny. Though he did so reluctantly, even Obama had to admit that his policies had failed. He grudgingly restored most of the aid he sought to withhold after the coup.
While the United States wasn’t wrong to wish for the spread of democracy in the Arab world, Obama had learned that there were only two choices in Egypt: a tyrannical military that would violate human rights but not seek to destabilize the region; or Islamists who would be just as tyrannical but would also constitute a threat to U.S. and Israeli interests. The only rational thing for America to do was to join Israel in backing El-Sisi.
For all of the horror it has inflicted on dissidents, El-Sisi’s government has allied itself with Israel against Islamist radicals, including the Hamas government in Gaza (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood), and an Iranian regime that seeks regional hegemony.
It’s easy to criticize Trump for supporting a violator of human rights, but we already know what happens when a U.S. president tries the alternative. Repeating that disaster is unthinkable.
The El-Sisi regime is as brutal, corrupt and incompetent as Mubarak’s. It is an unreliable ally. But it’s better to have a weak and unsavory ally running the most populous Arab country than a strong and ruthless Islamist enemy.
Say what you will about Trump’s foreign policy acumen, but even he knows better than to repeat Obama’s blunder.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.