President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt was full of swagger as he was the host to entrepreneurs and senior diplomats in Sharm el Sheikh for an investors’ conference last weekend. The event at the Red Sea resort town was meant to show that the Arab world’s most populous country had shaken off the turmoil of the 2011 popular uprising that briefly put Egypt on a path toward democratic reform. Postrevolutionary Egypt is open for business, Egyptian officials announced proudly.
By sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the meeting, the Obama administration appeared eager to signal its support for the Egyptian government’s intent to attract new and significant foreign investment. “How Egypt develops in the coming years, how it succeeds,”Mr. Kerry told reporters, “will also have a profound impact on the entire region.”
A strong, stable and prosperous Egypt is certainly in the best interest of the region and the United States. But, by largely supporting the country’s increasingly authoritarian government without question, the United States is pursuing an unprincipled and dangerous policy.
Senior administration officials see Egypt as an indispensable ally in the campaign against the Islamic State as well as in other foreign policy priorities in the region. But the Egyptian government’s crackdown on Islamist movements, including moderate ones who denounce the use of violence, is likely to lead to broader radicalization in communities that have no way to further their objectives and voice their grievances.
Since Mr. Sisi took power in July 2013, following a wave of protests against the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist, it has become increasingly clear that the Egyptian government has no intention of building democratic institutions or tolerating opposing views.
Civil society and pro-democracy organizations have been threatened or forced to shut down. The news media is tightly controlled, and protests are banned. Nearly all leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that became the dominant political force in the country after the Arab Spring protests, are locked up.
While American officials have voiced concern about these trends in boilerplate language, they continue to provide Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid each year and have only taken modest steps to condition the aid improvements in democratic governance. Much of the time, they merely express hope that progress is being made, while ignoring a level of brutality and repression that is worse than in the era of Hosni Mubarak.
The Sisi government, clearly eager for foreign investment, wants to appear as a legitimately elected government playing a constructive role in the region. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Egypt has become a dictatorship that justifies its abuses under the pretext of containing the threat posed by radical Islamists. A parliamentary election that was to be held this month has been indefinitely postponed. Journalists are languishing in jail. Courts have imposed mass death sentences following proceedings that lasted just minutes. While some American lawmakers have raised alarm and sought to cut off, or condition, the military aid package in recent years, they have been outmaneuvered by those who think that standing by the Sisi regime is a necessary evil in a volatile part of the world.
Last year, Congress gave the White House authority to keep Egypt’s military aid flowing without having to certify that the government respects human rights and is taking steps to govern democratically, conditions that had been in the previous spending bill. And, for the first time, lawmakers gave the State Department the right to keep as a classified secret its rationale for disbursing the aid.
Administration officials said that Mr. Kerry favors continuing the military aid and is awaiting a final decision from the White House. If the aid is extended, the United States would be abetting Egypt’s ruthless business as usual.