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August 07, 2017

The Trump Administration Praises Anti-Democratic Rulers, Again

In a recent telephone call with Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Vice President Pence said:

“The United States stands with the Venezuelan people, and we call for the full and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, free and fair elections, restoration of the national assembly, and respect for human rights in Venezuela.” 

Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump expressed similar sentiments following the Venezuelan Maduro government’s illegitimate election on July 30. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley described it as a “sham election.”

But when it comes to other repressive regimes, the Trump Administration’s statements are much more forgiving. Compare senior presidential advisor Jared Kushner’s recently-leaked remarks on the Egyptian government.

In an “off-the-record” briefing for Capitol Hill interns, Kushner spoke of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi:

“I never understood why politicians from government made speeches condemning these world leaders on human rights. Because at the end of the day, it’s like, [unintelligible] Egypt, this guy, President el-Sisi.... He was a general in the army, he basically took out the Muslim Brotherhood, and in a lot of ways saved Egypt from a very, very radicalized direction.”

Whatever else may be said about these comments, they are not supportive of human rights and democracy as a policy priority in Egypt.

The Sisi government is every bit as repressive and anti-democratic as the Maduro government. Egypt has tens of thousands of political prisoners. Political opposition figures are jailed and intimidated, and protesters are killed in the streets. The government has restricted the press and launched a severe crackdown on independent civil society organizations.

Of course, Egypt has some distinctive characteristics. One is its worsening terrorism problem. As ISIS’s presence grows in the Sinai, terrorist attacks spread into Cairo and other major cities.

Egypt also has a history of institutionalized discrimination against religious minorities. Not only do Islamic extremists exploit this discrimination to exacerbate sectarian divisions, but government inaction also worsens it. The government has failed to remedy long-standing problems like the discriminatory law that makes it much harder to repair or build new churches than it is to build mosques and the practice of not holding accountable those who engage in acts of anti-Christian violence.

However, one clear point of convergence in the Egyptian and Venezuelan situations is that mounting economic and political instability threatens U.S. interests in both countries. Authoritarian governments in both countries that routinely flout the basic rights and freedoms of their own people bear much responsibility for this disturbing state of affairs.

Kushner is right to note that the Sisi government has “taken out” the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it is questionable whether the brutal suppression of what was then primarily a non-violent movement seeking political power through the ballot box has “saved Egypt” from moving in a “very, very radicalized direction.” Kushner’s comment overlooks the much wider crackdown that Sisi has undertaken in recent years, targeting non-violent secular opponents to his policies, including human rights and democracy promotion organizations.

Sisi deposed the democratically-elected, Muslim Brotherhood-backed, civilian president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Since then, there has been more political violence in Egypt than at any other time in Egypt’s recent history. 

It is not normal for the Egyptian government to kill thousands of protesters in the street, as the Sisi government has done since August 2013.  Disappearances and extrajudicial killings were extremely rare in Egypt until the last few years.  Torture is more prevalent today than ever before. 

Sisi’s approach is not working.  Civilian casualties from terrorist attacks, which were at a low level for decades before Sisi came to power, continue to rise. What’s more, Egypt pays an economic price for this, most directly in the catastrophic collapse of vital tourism revenue.

It might be tempting to dismiss Kushner’s comments as uninformed. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has otherwise indicated that it does not see democracy and human rights promotion as U.S. foreign policy priorities. 

President Trump has notoriously shown more affinity for authoritarian repressive rulers like President Putin, President Erdogan, King Salman, and President Sisi than he has for the United States’ democratic allies. Secretary of State Tillerson has proposed deleting the promotion of a “just and democratic” world from the State Department’s mission statement.

The growing instability and violence in both Egypt and Venezuela should be a warning of the costs of a U.S. foreign policy not rooted in universal values. A world where the United States competes with other powers to secure its narrowly defined interests at the expense of human rights and justice will be less stable and less secure

Thus, the values expressed by Vice President Pence with respect to Venezuela should be universally applied in all U.S. bi-lateral relationships and should be the foundational principles of U.S. foreign policy.

People in Egypt, Venezuela, and around the world are looking for U.S. leadership on human rights. It would serve American interests for the Trump Administration to stop its unseemly willingness to overlook the gross violations of human rights committed by its authoritarian partners and to stand up clearly and consistently for universal values everywhere.