This Tuesday, Donald Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Thursday night, he called in to Lou Dobbs’s show on Fox Business to report on how the meeting went.
What he said was embarrassingly ignorant. Trump seemed to praise Sisi’s seizure of power in a military coup, then described Sisi’s counterterrorism campaign as a success when it’s actually a crushing human rights failure.
Perhaps more fundamentally, though, Trump’s comments are deeply revealing about his worldview. The praise he offers Sisi fits with a decades-old pattern of praise for authoritarian leaders — a history of Trump fetishizing a leader’s appearance of “strength” over basic democratic values. It’s a pretty disturbing quality to see in a potential president of the world’s leading democracy.
Trump gets Sisi backward
The first thing Trump said about Sisi — “he’s a fantastic guy, he took control of Egypt” — is almost comically on the nose. As BuzzFeed’s Hayes Brown notes, Sisi quite literally took control of Egypt.
In 2013, Sisi, who was the head of Egypt’s military at the time, headed up a military junta that overthrew the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, returning the country to the dictatorship that Arab Spring protesters had toppled just two years prior.
When demonstrators — led by Morsi’s backers, the Muslim Brotherhood — convened in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square to protest, Sisi’s troops gunned them down. Sisi killed 813 protesters in a single day, and has since jailed at least 40,000 people in a crackdown on the Brotherhood and other political dissenters.
None of this, however, appears to bother Trump very much.
“He’s gotten the terrorists out — wiped them out,” Trump said. “He took a very tough approach, much different than our approach. … They were having a tremendous problem before, tremendous problem. He’s done a very good job.”
Ironically, the precise opposite appears to have been true: Sisi’s repression helped make Egypt’s preexisting terrorism problem much worse.
The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that pursued its goals through electoral means, prompted a violent backlash from jihadists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Angered by the Sisi government’s violent suppression of Islamist groups and emboldened by the chaos and instability in the country, the jihadists shifted their focus from attacking mostly Israeli targets to targeting military and police institutions.
“After the crackdown in Rabaa Square, there was a significant change in the insurgency’s rhetoric, behavior, intensity, and scale of operations, as well as in its overall narrative and goals,” a report from the German Council on Foreign Relations explains. The report quotes one jihadist leader in Sinai linking this directly to Sisi’s repression: “After what happened after the military coup, fighting the armed forces became an urgent necessity,” the leader said.
In 2014, the Sinai jihadists pledged allegiance to ISIS. Since then, the group has led an increasingly bloody terrorist campaign against the Egyptian government. Sisi’s repressive response, which has included evicting thousands of families suspected of supporting the jihadists from their homes, has failed to quell the insurgency.
The number of people killed in jihadist attacks actually went up between September 2015 and May 2016, per a Levantine Group analysis:
Trump appears to have confused Sisi’s successful repression of political dissidents, like the Muslim Brotherhood, with his relatively ineffective and heavy-handed attempts to combat actual terrorists.
The Brotherhood isn’t exactly a model of liberal democratic ideals, and President Morsi was worryingly authoritarian while in office. But the Brothers aren’t ISIS-style militants, and they expressed their views through the electoral process. And Sisi’s mass slaughter of his political opponents isn’t very democratic, either — and, in this case, it appears to have actually made Egypt’s terrorism problem worse.
Praising this “very tough” approach to political dissent as a successful counterterrorism policy is not only incorrect, it’s worrisome.
Why Trump’s Sisi comments matter
To be fair, Trump isn’t alone in praising Sisi; both Democrats and Republicans have praised him as a friend to Israel and an ally in the fight on terrorism. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens once described him as “the world’s most significant advocate for Islamic moderation and reform.” Hillary Clinton met with him this week.
But the tenor of Clinton’s comments after the meeting was quite different from Trump’s. Clinton discussed counterterrorism but also “raised concerns about prosecution of Egyptian human rights organizations and activists,” per an official campaign statement.
Trump, by contrast, totally ignored concerns about human rights and democracy. His campaign’s account of the meeting was fawning: “Mr. Trump expressed to President el-Sisi his strong support for Egypt’s war on terrorism, and how under a Trump Administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally.”
Viewed from one lens, this is just more honest. The Obama administration refused to officially label Sisi’s coup a “coup” after it happened, and has since equipped his regime with jets and missiles. It’s clear that human rights aren’t driving US policy toward Egypt, and they probably wouldn’t under Clinton either.
Viewed differently, though, Trump’s praise for Sisi is more troubling. He’s not saying “we need Egypt, but they’re still doing something wrong” — he’s directly praising Sisi’s vicious repression of dissent as a model for counterterrorism.
This isn’t the first time Trump has said something like this, either. In a December 2015 interview, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him whether Vladimir Putin’s killing of journalists affected Trump’s view of the man. Trump’s response? “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.”
Indeed, this is a long-running theme with Trump. In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump seemingly endorsed the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China:
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.
What runs through all three of these comments is a barely disguised fetish for authoritarianism: the idea that democracy and free speech are dispensable values, second in importance to the need for “strong” leadership. Trump sees foreign authoritarians as models, not cautionary tales.
This doesn’t mean that Trump is a fascist. He actually isn’t, by any reasonable definition. It does mean, though, that he has repeatedly expressed contempt for the foundational values of the US Constitution, and heaped praise on those who routinely circumvent them.
It’s hard to say exactly what that tells us about how he’d govern — but it probably isn’t anything good.