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February 07, 2019

Trump's Extreme Hypocrisy: Venezuela & Egypt

Earlier this week, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo decided to weigh in on the crisis in Venezuela, tweeting that the Maduro government is “destroying” the country and that its people “have suffered under the heavy hand of oppression.”

The response was swift and predictable. “Trying to remember the equivalent tweet when allies in the Egyptian government ordered the massacre of some 1000 protestors in a single day,” tweeted Washington Post Middle East correspondent Louisa Loveluck , referring to the August 2013 mass killings of protesters in Cairo.

American hypocrisy on human rights isn’t a new phenomenon. But the embassy’s tweet was nonetheless notable for its audacity. Just after the post, Egyptian authorities published details of proposed amendments to the constitution, which could extend President Sisi’s term limits from eight to twenty years.

Sisi’s power grab is a perfect chance for the U.S. government to respond to charges of double standards. It could tell the people of Egypt it is with them against the heavy hand of oppression. More likely, however, it will continue to praise Sisi as a valued ally despite his attacks on human rights.

In a speech in Cairo last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a “real new beginning” in the U.S. approach to the Middle East. But really it was a doubling-down on an old, failed approach, where the United States arms, funds, and otherwise supports dictatorships in the name of stability and security.

This traditional policy of support for authoritarian allies helps these governments inflict suffering on millions. The region’s uprisings of 2011 should have shown that dictatorships do not foster genuine stability.

While Pompeo may actually think that the United States is regarded as “a force for good” in the Middle East, it’s not lost on human rights activists and others that the tools of their oppression are often literally “Made in the U.S.A.” Once blasted by Egyptians for supporting the Mubarak regime, the U.S. government is now earning enemies among Egyptians by enabling current President Sisi’s repression.

Pompeo’s fawning references to Sisi were bad enough; even worse was what he didn’t say. There was no mention of Sisi’s attempts to change the constitution, or his crackdown on free speech, or his systematic imprisonment and torture of government critics. 

French President Emmanuel Macron also visited Cairo last month and, in sharp contrast with Pompeo, met with local human rights defenders and publicly called out Sisi’s abuses, stating at a joint press conference that, "Things haven’t gone in the right direction since 2017 – bloggers, journalists are in prison,” and that “The search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights.”

This is the sort of messaging that the Trump Administration should be sending to its allies in Cairo. Instead Pompeo hailed Egypt as a counterterrorism partner without mentioning that Sisi’s policies are aiding ISIS.

I was in Cairo the same week as Pompeo and met recently released prisoners who told me that ISIS is recruiting within Egypt’s vast prison system. ISIS is increasingly appealing to young inmates desperate for revenge after being flogged and electrocuted. The terrorist group has become so powerful that it effectively runs parts of the prison system. In some, said a released prisoner, “there are hundreds in the ISIS group and they’re really powerful. They control parts of how the prison is run and can identify vulnerable prisoners they want transferred to their cell to radicalize, and the guards do it.”

During the Cold War, America’s rationale for partnering with brutal regimes and staying silent about their abuses was that their support was essential to containing the Soviet Union. Now countering Iran is the popular pretext. But the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, and Saudi-led coalition actions in Yemen may have begun to change this equation. Many in Washington are awakening to the realities of what it means to outsource regional stability to dictators.

The percolating doubts sound similar to those I heard when I was working on anti-apartheid legislation for Senator Ted Kennedy in the 1980s. Members of Congress are asking questions they should’ve asked long ago: why exactly is it good policy for the United States to be allied with governments that repress and torture their people?

Back then, it was the House and Senate that saved America from its alliance with the racist South African regime, when a bipartisan majority passed an anti-apartheid sanctions act over the veto of President Reagan. Congress could once again be a force for reason, this time on the Middle East. Senators spearheaded the sanctioning of those linked to Khashoggi’s murder. Congress is discussing what conditions on military aid to Egypt to include in the FY2019 Appropriations Act. It should reduce Egypt’s customary, annual military aid from $1.3 billion, and condition more than 30 percent of that amount on human rights progress. 

Congress should also ask why, if the Trump Administration wants democracy in Venezuela, it’s not also pushing for it in Egypt. If Pompeo and other senior administration officials are determined to deter a genuine “new beginning” in the Middle East, it’s time for Congress to step in and demand one.