Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the brutal military dictator who overthrew his country’s democratically elected president in a 2013 coup, killed more than 800 protesters in a single day, and has imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents since he took power, was President Donald Trump’s honored guest at the White House on Monday.
This is Sisi’s first official state visit to Washington as Egypt’s president. That’s because although the US has long viewed Egypt as a vital strategic ally in the Middle East, President Obama steadfastly refused to meet with the Egyptian strongman over concerns about serious human rights abuses carried out by Sisi’s security forces — including torture, mass detention, and forced disappearances of journalists, aid workers, activists, students, and Islamists. In one particularly gruesome incident, a 28-year-old PhD student from Italy studying in Cairo was abducted, tortured, and murdered in what many believe was an attack by Egyptian state security forces.
Clearly, Trump — whose lavish praise for another repressive dictator, Vladimir Putin, has already raised eyebrows — isn’t bothered by any of that. For Trump, all that matters is that Sisi is a tough leader who has done what Trump seems to think is a bang-up job of fighting terrorism in Egypt and who is one of Israel’s closest allies in the Middle East.
Speaking to reporters Monday after meeting with Sisi, Trump said, “We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Except that he hasn’t. Sisi has violently cracked down on all forms of dissent and turned Egypt into a police state arguably worse than anything seen under former President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011 after 30 years in power. And for all of that, Sisi hasn’t actually done a very good job of fighting terrorism.
President Sisi’s approach to counterterrorism has made things worse, not better
On July 3, 2013, Sisi, who was the head of Egypt’s armed forces, mounted a coup that overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi had alienated broad swaths of the country by pursuing a pro–Muslim Brotherhood agenda, taking steps to sideline the country’s powerful military, and failing to stabilize the country’s ailing economy. After several days of massive anti-Morsi protests, a cadre of military officers led by Sisi removed Morsi from power, suspended the constitution, and installed an interim government.
Almost immediately, Sisi began cracking down on dissent from all sides. When pro-Morsi demonstrators staged a peaceful sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013, to protest Morsi’s ouster, Sisi’s troops gunned them down. Sisi killed 813 protesters in a single day, and has since jailed more than 40,000 people in a crackdown on the Brotherhood and other political dissenters.
These tactics are explicitly intended to clamp down on dissent. “We have taken several measures to ensure activists don’t have breathing space and are unable to gather, and several cafes and other meeting places have been closed, while some have been arrested in order to scare the rest,” an official at Egypt’s homeland security agency told Reuters last January.
The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that maintained an armed wing for decades but now says it is committed to pursuing its goals through electoral means, fueled a low-grade insurgency pitting jihadists in Egypt’s strategic Sinai Peninsula against government security forces.
“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.
According to Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the number of terrorist operations in Egypt in 2014-’16 reached 1,165. In the last quarter of 2016, 104 terrorist operations took place across the country, Al Monitor reports. And on October 31, 2015, a Russian passenger airliner, Metrojet Flight 9268, was brought down over north Sinai following its departure from the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 213. ISIS-linked militants in the Sinai claimed responsibility.
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.
Sisi has actually helped strengthen the jihadist narrative
For decades, jihadists have argued that violence was the only way to topple the entrenched dictators of the Middle East. So when Sisi launched his military takeover of the country, ousted Morsi, and proceeded to crack down hard on dissent of all kind — Islamist or otherwise — it was a bitter “we told you so” moment for jihadists. You thought you could bring down the government with just a few protests and a ballot box? Now look where that got you. You should’ve listened to us. We’ve been saying all along that all these people understand is violence.
By doubling down on US support for Sisi, Trump is not fighting the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism. If anything, he’s making the ideology even more powerful.
“We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt,” Trump said after his meeting with Sisi on Monday. The thousands of dissidents languishing in Egyptian prisons might beg to differ.