March 30, 2014

PRESIDENT OBAMA, a White House aide said Friday, wants “stability” in Egypt but believes “that stability ultimately is going to be best served by Egypt following through on its commitment to transition to free and fair elections and democratic governance.” In theory that put him at odds with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who in the name of stability has put billions behind the regime of Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi since it staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi in July.

In practice, the U.S.-Saudi differences looked irrelevant in light of Gen. Sissi’s announcement that he intends to be a candidate for president. The general’s move virtually ensures that Egypt will be neither democratic nor stable — even though both Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration may go on backing him.

Mr. Obama’s pro-democracy rhetoric notwithstanding, his administration has publicly supported the notion that the Sissi regime is leading Egypt back to democracy long after it became obvious that the opposite was occurring. Since July, the generals have presided over more than 2,500 deaths in political violence and at least 16,000 arrests, including not just the imprisonment of Mr. Morsi and the leadership of his Muslim Brotherhood but also those of secular journalists and liberal organizers of the 2011 revolution.

Last Monday, following a two-day trial, a judge sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death for the killing of one policeman. As Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded, the regime’s “use of violence . . . is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern political history.”

With opposition media silenced, a massive state-sponsored propaganda campaign has created a cult of personality around Gen. Sissi while defaming opponents. Consequently, the planned presidential election, expected in less than two months, will not be fair. How could it be when the winner of the last five elections, the Muslim Brotherhood, is being violently repressed?

Many in Washington might share King Abdullah’s lack of concern about whether the Sissi regime is moving toward democracy — though the Obama administration must certify that it is before fully resuming U.S. military aid. But Gen. Sissi also cannot offer “stability.” That’s one reason the Egyptian stock market dropped in response to his candidacy: The prospects for an economic recovery under his rule are bleak.

The general has offered no economic program other than promising that “work, food, education, medical treatment and homes . . . must be easily available to all Egyptians.” Since the coup, the regime has depended on populist pump-priming bankrolled with foreign donations and borrowing, an unsustainable formula. Egypt needs peace to restore its critical tourism industry and tough free-market reforms to attract foreign investment. Gen. Sissi, committed to repression and beholden to the military’s vast economic establishment, can deliver neither.

If the Obama administration really supports “democratic governance” in Egypt, its only reasonable course is to recognize that Gen. Sissi is not delivering it. That would lead to a full suspension of military aid with resources redirected to support the emergence of a genuine democratic movement. If Mr. Obama instead chooses to perpetuate the fiction that the current regime is on the path to democracy, his only real difference from the Saudi king would be one of honesty.

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