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Opinion Obama’s Mubarak policy is back — with Trump and Sissi

President Trump: U.S. 'very much behind' Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi (Video: Reuters)
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The Post reports on the visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi:

“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sissi,” [President] Trump said, sitting next to his counterpart in the Oval Office. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. . . . We have strong backing.”
Sissi’s arrival at the White House marked a reversal of U.S. policy after President Barack Obama refused to invite him, because of concerns about human rights violations.
Trump and his aides did not mention human rights ahead of Sissi’s visit, suggesting that the issue would be raised in private, if at all. Instead, Trump and Sissi appeared focused on security, and they sought to demonstrate warmth, shaking hands during their brief remarks to reporters.

The contrast between Trump’s giddy enthusiasm for Sissi and his chilly reception for a democratic ally, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, will not be missed by the human rights community, dissidents around the globe or strongmen. As one former senior Republican administration official told me, “Human rights are a key component of U.S. foreign policy, as important as economic and security interests.” He explained, “One can argue about the best, most effective ways for raising these concerns, but it is discouraging to see the Trump administration minimize human rights, especially with the visits this week of leaders of countries – Egypt and China — where the human rights situation is rather appalling.”

Contrary to Trump’s effusive praise, Sissi has not been a blessing for Egypt. Freedom House reminds us:

A closer look at his performance reveals not just a feckless and thuggish security apparatus that has failed to quell the insurgency, but also a pattern of corruption and economic mismanagement that is bringing Egypt to its knees. The ongoing violence and political repression have crippled the vital tourism industry. Billions of dollars in aid from the Persian Gulf monarchies have been wasted, partly on megaprojects of dubious value that enrich regime cronies. And in 2016 the government began implementing austerity measures in exchange for an emergency bailout from the International Monetary Fund, driving up prices for food staples and angering an already desperate population.

We should not be encouraging such conduct.

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A group of U.S. senators alarmed at the abandonment of human rights as a pillar of foreign policy, even more stark than we saw under the Obama administration, introduced a resolution on Monday — Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). In a press release, the senators described a balanced approach to Egypt: “The resolution notes the long history and enduring ties between the United States and Egypt, offers support for Egyptian efforts to confront legitimate threats and stabilize the economy, and calls for Egypt’s leaders to take steps toward meaningful political and human rights reforms. The senators also reiterated their call for the release of Egyptian-American prisoner Aya Hijazi, who has been detained for nearly three years on unsubstantiated charges.” A resolution asserting that the United States stands “with the Egyptian people as they confront violent extremism and threats on land and sea borders” but also demands “an immediate end to the harassment and interference in the operations of independent civil society and media organizations in Egypt, including the closure of Case 173 and the revision of Egypt’s nongovernmental organization law in accordance with international best practices” should have been the model for the administration. Instead, we got a love-fest with nary a mention of human rights concerns. Kudos to these senators who maintain the same standard whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House.

Bringing up human rights serves multiple purposes. First, it gives us credibility when calling out human rights atrocities elsewhere, demonstrating to Muslims throughout the region that their success and freedom are important to us. Second, it seeks to avoid past presidents’ mistake in backing a repressive regime (Hosni Mubarak) that proved unstable. Third, it signals to Sissi that our patience is not unlimited and his human rights abuses will prevent the sort of elevated status and close relationship with the United States that he craves.

We should not be surprised that Trump delights in a tough-talking autocrat. We should nevertheless be concerned about the precedent Trump is setting.