Trump Administration's Abdication of Leadership Facilitates a Shameful Farce of an Election in Egypt
The negative global impact of the Trump Administration’s disturbing affinity with authoritarianism can be seen in the lack of integrity and fairness in the forthcoming presidential election in Egypt, scheduled to take place between March 26 – 28.
By any standard, the election lacks credibility. Egyptians have no meaningful choice. The only candidate, other than the incumbent, is a presidential supporter whose presence on the ballot serves only to advance the false impression that this is a contested election. The necessary human rights conditions for a free and fair election, including respect for basic freedoms of expression, assembly, and association are completely absent. Egyptian officials denigrate and threaten the press of for accurately reporting on the climate of intimidation surrounding the process.
Plausible opponents have been prevented from running using a wide range of dirty tricks from Egypt’s long history of election fixing. Just six years ago, in the spring of 2012, Egyptians had the opportunity, for the first time ever, to take part in competitive, multi-candidate elections, from which the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi emerged as Egypt’s first elected civilian president. This was a fateful moment for Egypt’s fledgling democracy. In the midst of Sisi’s root and branch extermination campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood it is now often forgotten that less than 25 percent of voters chose Morsi in the first round of balloting. Had the pluralistic, democratic, non-military political factions been able to coalesce around a single candidate, that candidate would likely have won the first round by some distance and would have beaten either Morsi or former general Ahmed Shafik in the run off.
Morsi’s doomed presidency lasted only a year before he was removed in a popular coup led by the then-defense minister and head of the Armed Forces, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The military takeover signaled an escalating human rights crisis marked by a precipitous rise in political violence and a sharp constriction of basic freedoms.
Sisi rules by fear and deception. He and his supporters emphasize the security threats facing the country, but their own brutal counterterrorism methods make the situation worse, stoking grievances on which violent extremists thrive.
Sisi's sham competitor, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who leads the pro-Sisi al-Ghad political party, has a record of violence in the service of undermining the integrity of Egyptian politics. In 2008 he led a group of pro-government thugs who set fire to the offices of the al-Ghad Party, then led by the opposition figure Ayman Nour, who was jailed on fabricated charges in 2005 having dared to challenge President Mubarak in a contested election. To its credit, the Bush Administration vociferously objected to Nour's persecution. The Trump Administration is unlikely to make a similar stand for pluralistic politics in Egypt.
Crudely fixing an election, especially in a country with recent memories of a more genuine process and with a demonstrated preference for more representative government, is destabilizing. Public discontent with the grossly unfair 2010 parliamentary elections contributed to the February 2011 mass uprising that brought an end to Mubarak’s thirty-year dictatorship.
The administration has been muted in its statements. President Trump spoke with Sisi on March 4 without raising any concerns about the lack of fairness in the forthcoming elections, or about other human rights issues. Trump has frequently praised Sisi in the past. The State Department has expressed U.S. support for a “credible electoral process” and has urged Egypt to address restrictions on freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. Unfortunately, the Egyptian government has disregarded such advice.
Departing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was instrumental in the Trump Administration’s decision in August 2017 to withhold and deny hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Egypt in part out of concern over human rights violations. It remains to be seen whether his designated replacement, Mike Pompeo, who President Trump says he has selected because of the alignment in their views, will continue to press Egypt towards democratic reforms.
The absence of strong leadership from the United States promoting a credible election. Trump, the admirer of dictators and absolute monarchs, is no advocate for universal values. However, the cost of this abdication of America's role as a global champion of democratic freedoms can be seen most clearly in countries like Egypt where the popular desire for better governance has been thwarted, but where the alternative of repressive authoritarianism has failed calamitously in the past.
Egypt's regression to the bad old days of rigged elections enforced by government backed thugs, and intimidation of the media, civil society and the political opposition will only perpetuate polarization. The Egyptian people and U.S. interests will suffer the consequences.