Washington Backs Egypt’s New Dictator

As expected, the presidential election in Egypt confirmed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s new leader.  It was not exactly the model of a free and fair election.  Not only had el-Sisi, as the leader of the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, been Egypt’s de facto ruler for months, but his military colleagues (and their weaponry) were firmly behind his presidential candidacy.  Security forces had killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, Morsi’s political base, and jailed thousands of others, including Morsi himself.  Subservient Egyptian judicial tribunals imposed death sentences on more than eight hundred regime opponents, following trials that did not meet even the most meager standards of due process, in just the past two months. 

Western observers, including a Cato colleague, noted the pervasive censorship in the weeks leading up to the election.  Government-run media outlets maintained a steady barrage of images vilifying Morsi and hailing el-Sisi as the savior of the nation.  The images in the so-called private outlets (the ones that the junta had not shut down) provided images and editorial commentary nearly indistinguishable from the official government publications.

Under such circumstances, the outcome was as predictable as the Crimean “referendum” that ratified Russia’s takeover.  El-Sisi won with nearly 93 percent of the vote.  The only flaw in this orchestrated farce was a low voter turnout, the one permissible way to protest Egypt’s slide back into dictatorship.  But while the Obama administration repeatedly and harshly criticized the electoral charade in Crimea, U.S. officials portrayed the Egyptian election as progress toward democracy.  There was a time when U.S. leaders routinely castigated bogus elections in communist countries that produced wildly lopsided majorities for the incumbent regime.  No such criticism was forthcoming in this case, just as Washington didn’t denounce the earlier balloting for the new Egyptian constitution that produced a 98 percent favorable vote. 

The Obama administration’s hypocrisy is certain to deepen the already alarming cynicism throughout the Muslim world about U.S. policy.  One need not shed tears for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who embodied ugly theocratic values and practices.  But basic decency should have dictated a policy of U.S. neutrality regarding Egypt’s political convulsions.  Instead, Washington is moving to embrace the new “friendly tyrant,” just as a succession of administrations embraced the corrupt, thuggish Hosni Mubarak for three decades.  As I note in a recent article in Gulan, Washington has even agreed to deliver 10 Apache attack helicopters to Cairo.  Repressive regimes have never been reluctant to use such high-tech military aircraft to intimidate or slaughter anti-regime forces.  It was utterly inappropriate for the Obama administration to approve such a delivery to the Egyptian junta, and one can anticipate the anti-U.S. reaction of el-Sisi’s opponents if they see those aircraft flying over Tahrir Square the next time there are anti-government demonstrations.

U.S. officials may engage in an abundance of wishful thinking or outright sophistry, but the evidence confirms that el-Sisi intends to be as much a dictator as Mubarak ever was.  Not only has he created a cult of personality typical of Third World tyrants, replete with giant photographs of the supreme leader posted throughout urban areas, but he shows a pettiness that may even exceed Mubarak’s practices.  As the New York Times reported, el-Sisi has promised to remedy Egypt’s fuel shortages by installing energy-efficient light bulbs in every home, even if he has to send a government employee to carry out each installation.  “I’m not leaving a chance for people to act on their own,” el-Sisi stated in a television interview.  “My program will be mandatory.”  Al Gore and other environmental zealots might approve, but no one who truly values individual liberty should do so.

Yet this is the ruler that Washington has embraced as a new strategic and political partner.  It should not be the U.S. mission to impose democracy throughout the world, but neither should this country be the enabler of sleazy dictatorships.  We made that error far too often during the Cold War, and it appears that some policymakers have learned nothing from that experience.