Call a spade a spade: Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is as much a president, with its democratic connotations, as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Egypt now rates a dismal 26 from 100 on Freedom House’s Freedom Index: just behind Qatar and barely above dysfunctional Iraq. Some may quibble that Sisi is more a “strongman” than a dictator; in terms of political outcomes, that’s the difference between holding rigged elections and having no elections at all.
And now al-Sisi is coming to kiss the Trump ring.
As reported by the Associated Press:
Making his first official visit to Washington, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s meeting this week with U.S. President Donald Trump would be a significant step in the international rehabilitation of the general-turned-politician who was kept out of the Obama White House.
We are now more cleanly entering the post-human rights world. From 1991 until 2016, human rights were given major geopolitical power: they propelled Western intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, were a major rationale for the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, and prompted the EU to open its doors to the migrants that have now flooded Europe.
But Brexit, the shuttering of Europe’s borders, and the rise of Donald Trump have proven the West is no longer willing to use its power trying to improve global human rights. Yemen and South Sudan are starving; they are back page affairs. Assadist war crimes get barely any mention. The U.S. is lifting an arms embargo on thuggish Bahrain.
For rulers like Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, it is a breath of fresh air. Constricted by criticism from the Obama White House, allied dictators found navigating the thin line between human rights and state security nearly impossible. Sisi came to power by launching a popular coup in July 2013, and then proceeded to massacre his Muslim Brotherhood enemies a month later. As a consequence, the U.S. froze arms sales to Egypt for almost two years during a worsening Sinai insurgency.
As Sisi comes to DC, he will surely find a friendly face. Trump and Arab leaders have always gotten along famously. His friendship with Dubai’s ruling class is based on a similar approach to politics: sycophancy to people’s faces, brute self-interest behind closed doors. Dubai’s elite, after all, also deport at will, despise free media, and built their empires on real estate.
Sisi’s close relationships with Gulf Arab elites have prepared him for his meeting with Trump. He may yet get Trump to promise him the world: more military kit, a push for Arab-Israeli peace, more support for his tightening grip over Egypt and a better bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Yet Sisi may miscalculate, as so many Arab rulers do, the powers of the American presidency. The IMF is a UN agency, not a U.S. one; U.S. military sales are subject to Congressional approval, and the Arab-Israeli peace process is confounded by overlapping layers of Israeli and Congressional interest. About all Sisi can be sure of is Trump’s silent approval for further crackdowns. That’s a leg up from the Obama years, but might not be enough to keep the Egyptian leader from shopping around for new allies.