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June 02, 2017

Trump Should Use His Special Relationship with Sisi to Push for Essential Policy Change 

President Trump and President Sisi of Egypt like to exchange compliments and to make grand statements about their resolute stance against terrorism. Speaking after the horrific attack on Christians traveling to a monastery in Egypt’s Western Desert near Minya on May 26, Sisi called on Trump, declaring, “I trust your ability to wage war on terrorism.” 

In the interests of the safety of the Egyptian people, especially Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic Christian minority, the target of four incidents of mass killing in the last six months alone,  President Trump should use the mutual admiration to push for a new approach in U.S. bilateral relations with Egypt. Sisi’s tactics of violent repression, centralizing power, and crushing dissent aren’t working. In fact, the brutalization of tens of thousands of political prisoners and killing of thousands of protesters have fueled grievances that will only lead to further violence. 

Through his relationship with Sisi, Trump has an opportunity to add substance to his tough rhetoric on fighting terrorism. Trump claimed as a success that during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia dozens of leaders of majority-Muslim countries committed to joining his fight against terrorism. But what do these leaders mean when they say they will fight terrorism? 

In Egypt’s case the answers are not reassuring. Seizing power in a popular coup in July 2013, Sisi pledged to restore security after years of unrest following the mass uprising of January and February 2011. His preferred method has been repression and the fight against terrorism his favored pretext for continuing to pursue failing policies. In his speech after the Minya attack, he used typically inflammatory language: “If Egypt fails, the whole world will be in chaos. We are waging war on behalf of the world.” 

The first part of this statement contains a bit of truth. The “whole world” will survive whatever happens in Egypt, but a further deterioration in security conditions in Egypt would be a seriously negative development for the rest of the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. It is very much in the interests of the United States for Egypt to reverse Sisi’s disastrous course and pursue stability through restoring the rule of law and protecting human rights. 

The second part of Sisi’s statement exposes a flaw at the heart of Sisi’s, and the Trump administration’s, counterterrorism strategy. Sisi pledges to wage war against terrorism, the Trump administration claims that its coalition of mostly autocratic governments he addressed in Riyadh will make a strong stand against terrorism, but what does that mean in practice?  In addition to hapless, counterproductive violence against Egyptian residents of the North Sinai, and knee-jerk retaliatory air strikes on Libya, Sisi’s war on terrorism includes a systematic assault on independent civil society and the destruction of his nonviolent, liberal political opponents

In the inverted and dangerous worldview of autocrats like Sisi, publishing human rights reports, meeting with senior human rights officials from multilateral organizations, or even meeting the UN Secretary General constitute evidence of a conspiracy to bring down the Egyptian state. He uses the need to fight terrorism to explain an ill-conceived vendetta against Egyptian and international human rights organizations—case number 173 of 2011—and earlier this week he signed a new law regulating non-governmental organizations, Law 70 of 2017, which places NGOs under centralized government control and eliminates independent civil society in Egypt, working on a wide range of issues from human rights to development. 

Leading Republican senators have already expressed their opposition to this draconian new law and have pledged to attach human rights conditions to U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt. This is a positive step, but President Trump should do much more. 

First, he should inform President Sisi that the United States will undertake a comprehensive review of the military assistance to Egypt. U.S. military assistance should focus on the real security threats facing Egypt, which include ISIS-inspired terrorism in North Sinai and mounting insecurity along Egypt’s western border with Libya. An effective fight against these threats must include putting an end to practices creating instability and fueling grievances, like extra-judicial killing, torture, and forced disappearances. President Trump should work with sympathetic members of congress to attach stringent human rights conditions to military assistance, because, as Michele Dunne said in recent congressional testimony: “There is no point in trying to help the government to fight terrorism while it enflames the problem at the same time.” 

Second, President Trump should call on President Sisi to make good on his repeated pledges to protect Egypt’s Christian community.  This would involve better security for Christian places of worship, which have become preferred terrorist targets, but also meaningful steps to push back against institutional anti-Christian discrimination in Egyptian society.  Egypt should end discrimination against Christians who seek to build new churches or restore existing ones, hold accountable those who engage in anti-Christian violence and vandalism, stop the use of blasphemy laws to target Christians, and, above all, push back against sectarian anti-Christian bigotry in the state controlled media, statements of religious leaders, and educational materials. President Sisi himself should personally repudiate such statements, and his government should pass laws and reforms to remove institutionalized discrimination. 

Finally, President Trump should urge President Sisi to put an end to his relentless campaign against independent civil society and the nonviolent political opposition. As leading Egyptian human rights defender, Bahey Eldin Hassan,  pointed out in testimony before the European Parliament, Sisi’s increasingly individualistic dictatorship makes Egypt more fragile.   

Repression is not strength. Without a fundamental change in the Sisi government’s polices there will be no sustainable security. As such, Egypt cannot be an effective partner for the United States in the global struggle against terrorism. It is vital that all the authoritarian leaders whom Trump has engaged in his counterterrorism agenda understand that his exhortation to fight terrorism is not an invitation to double down on repression.