Sisi’s Egypt is a Poor Partner for the United States in the Fight Against Terrorism
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will visit President Trump at the White House next week. The visit comes at a time when governments around the world seek to build comprehensive policies to prevent violent extremism. Instead of ignoring the human rights abuses that have occurred in Egypt under Sisi, President Trump must remember that suppressing peaceful dissent and pluralism fuels grievances that are exploited by violent extremists, and is counterproductive.
In the run up to the visit, the Egyptian government has portrayed Sisi as a religious moderate playing a leading role in the fight against violent extremism, but his record in office belies such claims. Since taking power by military coup from the elected, Muslim Brotherhood-backed, government of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sisi has pursued policies that have fueled the grievances exploited by violent extremists.
Sisi has presided over the silencing of dissent, often through brutal force. In doing so he has set an example for extremist idealogues, who are all too willing to follow his lead in suppressing criticism. His repressive policies have denied space to independent mainstream religious voices, who could credibly challenge and rebut extremist ideologues, while co-opting religious leaders to validate his dictatorial rule, thereby undermining their independence and credibility in the fight against extremist ideologies.
The Egyptian government’s brutal repression of the former government and its supporters have thrown tens of thousands into jails, rife with harsh conditions and torture that are a notorious breeding ground for radicalization. Egypt’s jails and torture cells have produced some of the most infamous terrorists of recent decades, from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Omar Abdel Rahman. Brutalizing prisoners fuels burning resentment that turns easily to violent extremism.
Instead of dealing with the problem of torture, Sisi’s government targets those who report on its prevalence and seek to rehabilitate its victims. As part of a continuing crackdown on independent civil society organizations, especially those involved in defending human rights, the Egyptian authorities closed the offices of the Nadeem Center for the rehabilitation of torture victims.
In addition, Sisi’s Egypt has received tens of billions of dollars of support from absolute monarchies in the Gulf, anxious to ensure that the popular demands for more representative government and human dignity, heard during the short-lived Arab Spring of 2011, should not take root in the Arab world’s most populous country. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Sisi himself may claim that they have acted to restore stability, but their actions are double-edged: by crushing popular aspirations for freedom and dignity through non-violent protest and politics, they have strengthened those who say that necessary change can only be brought about through violence.
Sisi’s government also perpetuates anti-Christian sectarianism and intolerance of religious diversity that characterizes the extremist worldview. Incidents of anti-Christian violence, which spiked after the removal from office of President Morsi, have continued under President Sisi. His government has repeatedly faced criticism for failing to adequately protect Christians, and has made no progress in addressing long-standing institutionalized discrimination against Christians, nor in clamping down on endemic incidents of anti-Christian violence that rarely result in prosecution of the perpetrators.
There can be no credible reform while religious institutions operate within the framework of rigid state restrictions. Any reforms that leaders of influential institutions, like al-Azhar, might support would have little credibility if it appeared that they were being carried out under state pressure.
Similarly, as long the government suppresses peaceful dissent and stifles pluralism, it is part of the problem. To be an effective partner in the global fight against violent extremism the Egyptian government must stop creating the very grievances that are exploited by violent extremists.
President Trump is unlikely to challenge or criticize Sisi for any of his destructive, counterproductive polices, but he should. If he instead offers strong support, it will fuel resentment of the United States in Egypt and beyond. Hosting Egypt’s repressive president at the White House sends the wrong message to the world on how to overcome the scourge of violent extremism and terrorism.