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#5271, 19 April 2017

West Asia

Obama, Trump, and Abiding Authoritarianism in Egypt
Derek Verbakel
Researcher, IReS, IPCS
Email: derek.verbakel@ipcs.org

On 3 April, US President Donald Trump hosted the first ever visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House. Many observers have characterised Trump’s praise of el-Sisi's authoritarian governance as engendering a significant policy shift from the more liberal administration of former US President Barack Obama. Yet, others have anticipated a mere extension of Washington’s longstanding pursuit of its perceived interests through supporting repressive regimes in Egypt. 

This prerogative is less obscured by sophistry and indeed clearer in Trump’s conduct, and there are some differences in how the two administrations have engaged with and been perceived by Egyptian governments. Still, broadly, the Trump administration’s approach to Egypt appears to be more a continuation than a disjuncture from Obama’s; and Egypt is set to continue experiencing the long-underway entrenchment of el-Sisi’s authoritarian, anti-democratic rule. 

For three decades prior to his ouster, Washington maintained a strategic partnership with the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak, who in 2009 was called a family friend by the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During the January 2011 uprising, Obama was cautious and indecisive in backing the demonstrators; and US policy invited criticism as US-made military hardware was used against countless Egyptians who took to the streets calling for freedom and democracy. Before finally endorsing Mubarak’s immediate departure, the Obama administration attempted and failed to arrange a transition from Mubarak to his CIA-linked intelligence chief, whose ascension, it was hoped, would sufficiently safeguard ‘stability’ and simulate ‘change’. 

Strong ties between Washington and Cairo transcended the overthrow of Mubarak, and later Mohammed Morsi - who, after one year as president, was viewed unfavourably by many Egyptians as advancing the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood movement from which he came. The then US Secretary of State John Kerry had characterised the ensuing military coup led by el-Sisi against Egypt’s first elected president as a restoration of democracy. The next month, in August 2013, el-Sisi presided over the massacre of over 800 pro-Morsi demonstrators in a single day. 

Following the coup and a months-long crackdown on political opposition, the relationship between the Obama administration and Cairo worsened. In October 2013, in an unprecedented move, Washington imposed a partial suspension of military aid to Egypt while both citing the need for more democratic governance and denying that the move was punishment. Aid that was deemed vital for counter-terrorism was exempted, and the vast majority of military assistance continued nonetheless, but Egyptian officials still lambasted the US for allegedly harming Egypt’s interests.

Military aid was reinstated in April 2015 at a time of heightening US security concerns due to Islamic State-linked insurgencies in the northern Sinai and Libya. This coincided with an intensifying crackdown by the el-Sisi regime on wide-ranging dissidents, which entailed widespread and severe human rights abuses. Indeed, aid suspension and reform-oriented discourse were more consequential in symbolic than material terms, but still the Egyptian government was displeased. Cairo signalled this to Washington by pursuing stronger ties with competing countries such as Russia, for whose leader it hosted a conspicuously adulatory state visit in February 2015. 

Anticipating an even friendlier US administration, el-Sisi avidly pursued President Trump in recent months. The White House visit was considered an opportunity to improve Egypt’s regional geopolitical position in relation to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, and Turkey as well as to bolster support for the continued consolidation of power domestically. After Trump was elected, many officials in Cairo expected he would raise annual US military assistance to Egypt from $1.3 billion. 

However, in some respects the more accommodating policy shift that el-Sisi had hoped for did not occur. Rather, in the proposed budget for 2018, US military assistance switched from a grant to a loan and economic assistance was cut completely. The Trump administration also maintained its backtracking – due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s regional political ties – from an initiative to follow Cairo in designating the group a ‘terrorist’ organisation.

Yet despite these developments, Trump's rhetorical support has further validated the style and substance of el-Sisi’s governance, particularly in relation to combating ‘terrorism’. Since Morsi’s overthrow, el-Sisi has used countering extremism and ‘terrorism’ as a pretext not only to target the Islamic State and other militant groups that have in fact grown stronger largely as a result of his rule. Eased by measures such as the 2013 anti-protest law, 2015 anti-terrorism law, and 2016 NGO law, el-Sisi has instead placed priority on repressing those who pose a more significant challenge to his power: the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other activists of all kinds. 

There are approximately 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt, and Trump has outwardly registered no concern over this or the broader escalation of human rights violations by the el-Sisi regime. For el-Sisi, now free of even hollow remonstrations from Washington, welcome is the disabuse of America’s longstanding hypocrisy towards other states while reserving itself the option to violate human rights in the name of national security.

However, neither US policy shifts towards Egypt, nor their implications, should be exaggerated. The Egyptian state under el-Sisi will continue its years-long process of destroying or dominating rival centres of power and organisation – crushing political opposition, suffocating civil society, and deepening military involvement in the country’s fragile economy. However, as authoritarianism breeds disaffection and resistance, it promises to fuel extremism and instability in Egypt, rather than inhibiting it.

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