Last night's Republican debate was light on concrete foreign policy chat, but there was one declaration that should not go unnoticed. As part of his response to a question on how he would deal with the threat of the Islamic State, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) criticized President Obama by heaping praise upon a leader in the Middle East.
Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Cruz argued, was a tough, terror-fighting commander who should both be befriended and emulated. Here's Cruz, from the Post's annotated transcript of the whole debate:
... let me contrast President Obama, who at the prayer breakfast, essentially acted as an apologist. He said, "Well, gosh, the crusades, the inquisitions —"
We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt's President al-Sisi, a Muslim, when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world.
Sissi, you see, is no sissy. The Egyptian president came to power in 2013 through a coup that ousted the country's first democratically-elected leader — Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sissi's takeover was spurred in part by rising anti-Morsi sentiment and mass protests and saw only muted condemnation from a few circles in Washington.
Many American conservatives were skeptical of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings, which had yielded electoral victories for Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, and were relieved to see a secularist backlash. Earlier this year, a senior U.S. diplomat in the region warned WorldViews of the dangers of "Morsi-style majoritarianism."
Last year, Sissi cemented his rule with a somewhat dubious presidential election in which he won 96 percent of the vote. Egypt became yet another Arab country where American politicians checked their rhetoric of freedom and democracy in favor of supposedly more pragmatic interests.
As Cruz says, Sissi has talked tough on "Islamic terror" and cracked down on Islamists. Under his watch, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and outlawed, Morsi and other top figures were sentenced to death, and tens of thousands of dissidents and Brotherhood sympathizers have been rounded up and detained.
In March, the Obama administration lifted a freeze on arms shipments to the country, a long-time recipient of U.S. military aid. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo cheered on the delivery of weapons shipments:
— US Embassy Cairo (@USEmbassyCairo) August 4, 2015
— US Embassy Cairo (@USEmbassyCairo) July 31, 2015
Republicans, in particular, seem to like Sissi's rhetoric directed at Islam. In January, Sissi delivered a much-discussed speech at Al Azhar, one of the Muslim world's most formidable and ancient intellectual institutions, and scolded Islamic clerics, calling for a "religious revolution."
The message went down very well in Washington.
"I hope one day that our top leaders in this country will have the courage of President al-Sisi in Egypt and they will reflect, as Gen. al-Sisi has, the will of the people of their country," Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tex.) said on the House floor not long thereafter.
In February, a number of prospective Republican presidential candidates followed suit.
"[Sissi] gave this incredible speech about Muslim extremism, and saying it's the responsibility of the Arab world to step up to fight this," Jeb Bush told CNN, which went on to detail similar remarks from other candidates:
"What would be far better to see was the kind of courage that was demonstrated just a few weeks ago by President al-Sisi in Cairo," Cruz said [on Fox News].
"Why don't we see the president of the United States demonstrating that same courage, just to speak the truth, about the face of evil we are facing right now?" Cruz asked.
Mike Huckabee, another potential Republican presidential contender, said "thank God for President al-Sisi in Egypt" in an interview with NewsMax TV.
Yet for all the Sissi-mania, many observers are critical of the current Egyptian regime.
Erin Cunningham, The Washington Post's Cairo bureau chief, has for months chronicled reports of rights abuses, intimidation of journalists and secular activists, and crackdowns on civil society that have become the norm under Sissi rule. Some activists claim that the scale of the repression is more alarming than under the dictatorship of long-ruling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Moreover, experts challenge whether Sissi has actually made his country safer. "By any measurable standard," writes Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, "Egypt is more vulnerable to violence and insurgency today than it had been before."
In a piece in Foreign Policy, Hamid lays out the staggering security crisis that has followed the 2013 coup, which includes a worsening insurgency in Egypt's Sinai peninsula and a spate of attacks on state and military institutions in the country's cities.
Given the "growing trend of academic literature pointing to the link between tyranny and terror," Hamid explains, the chaos may be a feature of the Sissi status quo. "If this is what a 'stability-first' approach looks like," writes Hamid, "Egypt’s future is dark indeed."
It seems the GOP candidates have yet to get the message.