America's new pharaoh

America's new pharaoh
Comment: The Trump-Sisi White House summit could have helped put Egypt on the path to political and economic reform. Instead, Cairo's anti-democratic police state was bolstered, writes Alaa Bayoumi.
6 min read
10 Apr, 2017
Sisi's vision for the region includes saving the Syrian regime [Getty]

The history of America's relations with Egypt has now performed a full cycle. On April 3, the White House welcomed a new Egyptian military dictator, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, offering him what US President Donald Trump described as "strong backing".

This is after a brief period of reluctant American support for democracy in Egypt following the January 2011 revolution, when the US gave up on Mubarak and supported the country's fragile transition to democracy - at least up until the July 2013 military coup led by Sisi himself, who was defence minister at that time. 

Egyptian intellectuals, who understand US politics and follow American liberal media, might understand that Trump's celebration of the new Egyptian dictator does not represent all Americans - and his support is being met with strong opposition among liberals, democrats, and some republicans.

Yet such understanding is difficult to extend to thousands of activists currently jailed by the regime or to the great majority of Egyptians - who only see Sisi being warmly welcomed by the US president and courted by European leaders. 

In March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Cairo announcing a half billion dollars in economic aid and providing vital political support to the regime in return for his cooperation on securing his country's own shores on the Mediterranean and borders with Libya - in order to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and refugees to Europe.

  Read more: Europe's unfortunate return to pragmatism over Egypt

Moreover, during his first 18 months in power - and with financial backing from the Gulf - Sisi was able to offer lucrative deals to major European oil, arms, and technology firms from Germany, France, the UK and Italy. The deals were repaid by granting Sisi lavish official visits to European capitals, helping him break the international isolation imposed on his regime after leading his military coup against democracy and a bloody crackdown on opposition that left hundreds dead. 

Trump offered Sisi something more. He is helping transform Sisi into a regional model of leadership

At the White House, Sisi got more than a US recognition of his regime, a defacto reality since the July 2013 coup. His seizing of power has never been declared as such by the American administration, keen on keeping aid flowing to the Egyptian military.

Trump offered Sisi something more. He is helping transform Sisi into a regional model of leadership. 

The new Egyptian dictator is advocating a vision for the Middle East that differs from the views of his Gulf backers, particularly Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is keen on getting Trump's support for curtailing Iran's influence, removing Bashar al-Assad from power and achieving a decisive victory in its war in Yemen.

In contrast, Sisi is less keen on confronting Iran, winning the war in Yemen, or removing Assad.

Special coverage inside Egypt's
war on democracy and civic life

At the Arab Summit in Jordan on March 27, Sisi outlined a vision based on empowering autocratic regimes and militaries throughout the Arab world, ending conflicts, and focusing instead on fighting "terrorist groups" - which could include, according to Sisi's definition, any peaceful opposition challenging the power of ruling regimes. 

"During the last few years, the new challenges that stormed our Arab homeland have concentrated in the spread of terrorism and the rise of its threat and in weakening the entity of the nation state," he told regional leaders.

"Therefore, we have to work simultaneously on two fronts; fighting terrorists with full force and decisiveness and doing our best efforts to settle conflicts, bring back security and stability and empower nation state institutions."

Sisi's vision for the region includes saving the Syrian military and regime, which has recently sent senior security officials to Cairo. It also include installing a Sisi-like military dictatorship in Libya led by renegade General Khalifa Haftar who has been trying to militarily overthrow his political rivals for the past three years.  

Divergence between Sisi and Saudi Arabia on relations with Iran and Syria has led to a show of disagreement between the two countries since last October, when Saudi Arabia announced a suspension of discounted oil shipments to Egypt.

The ban ended suddenly during a mid-March visit by the Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohamed Bin Salman, to the US - raising predictions that the Saudis have repaired their relations with the Sisi regime under US pressure. 

  Read more: Egypt's Sisi declares three-month state of emergency

Therefore, Trump's strong backing of Sisi may yet offer the Egyptian autocrat more than domestic political support.

It may offer him regional influence, by appearing to show him as able to influence the strategy of the US administration. After all, Sisi and Trump share many characteristics - their disdain for human rights, appreciation for "strongmen", a staunch opposition to the religious rebel groups such as those active in Syria and supported by Saudi Arabia, and their interest in avoiding their countries' costly conflicts with Iran in Syria and Yemen. 

In other words, Trump may help transform Sisi into a powerful regional leader and not just a stable dictator. This is why the Sisi visit is being so wildly celebrated by his loyalists, who dream of open political support in addition to more economic and military aid. 

In such context, Egyptian democrats have no choice but to brace themselves for at least four difficult years. Under Trump, the Sisi regime will feel more empowered and disinterested in respecting any human rights standards.

Europe is also busy with its own domestic problems, such as rising populism and Brexit. In the meantime, the Middle East has enough anti-democratic forces, including the Israeli government, the great majority of Arab regimes, the Islamic State group and its ilk - and the poor social and economic conditions caused by decades of living under dictatorships and oppression throughout the Arab world.

In the meantime, Egypt will continue to face many political, security and economic problems.

On Sunday, IS claimed two explosions at churches in Northern Egypt, killing dozens of innocent Christians as they celebrated Palm Sunday.

This comes amid a surge of violence against security forces in northern Sinai since October. Moreover, a series of economic reforms by Sisi has sent inflation, unemployment, and the number of Egyptians living under the poverty line to levels not experienced in at least the past two decades. 

The White House meeting could have been used to help put Egypt on the path to political and economic reform.

The important opportunity was used to repeat the same old historical mistake, offering American backing for another pharaoh

In return for inviting Sisi to the White House for the first time since taking office, the US administration could have demanded Sisi build a more serious foundation for Egypt's security by opening its political environment, ending oppression, illegal detention and torture, and by respecting human rights and the rule of law.

The meeting could also have been used to pressure the regime to develop a more serious plan for economic reform and equal distribution of the benefits of growth. 

Instead, the important opportunity was used to repeat the same old historical mistake, offering American backing for another pharaoh.

History teaches us that nothing should be taken for granted, change will ultimately take place, and the masses could surprise everyone at any time. Let's hope that positive change will not come too late, and that unrestricted autocratic rule will not push the Arab world's most populous country off the cliff. 

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.