Although Donald Trump doesn't have too many nice things to say about people in the Middle East, he has spent the past year and a half lionizing one man in particular: Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
The Egyptian leader and former army officer came to power in a military coup in 2013 and has since set about consolidating his grip through a ruthless campaign of repression, censorship, arrests and disappearances. Sissi also is believed to have presided over the massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of suspected Islamists who supported the ousted democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi.
Nevertheless, for Trump as well as other senior Republican politicians, Sissi has become an exemplar of a solid ally, a soldier who is tough on terrorism and vehemently opposed to political Islam. In August, Trump hailed Sissi as someone who recognizes "this ideology of death that must be extinguished."
On Monday evening, Trump met the Egyptian president in New York on the sidelines of the sessions at the U.N. General Assembly. It was his second face-to-face encounter as presidential nominee with a foreign leader — the first occurred when he jetted to Mexico City to meet President Enrique Peña Nieto, a publicity stunt that seems to have backfired on the Mexican president.
Sissi also sat down with Trump's rival for the White House, Hillary Clinton. According to an aide, the Democratic candidate and former secretary of state "emphasized the importance of respect for rule of law and human rights."
Trump, though, seemed less concerned. He is on record lamenting the democratic uprisings that shook Egypt in 2011 and led to the departure of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. And after the sit-down with Sissi, Trump's campaign issued a glowing statement.
"Mr. Trump expressed to President el-Sisi his strong support for Egypt’s war on terrorism, and how under a Trump Administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead," it said.
The words "democracy," "human rights" and "rule of law" do not appear in the text. This shouldn't be surprising. Trump has been conspicuous in his celebration of strongmen and decisive leadership, no matter how problematic their governance may be. He claims to have an affinity with Russian President Vladimir Putin, backs Sissi's crackdowns and even advised the Washington establishment to curb its criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's widespread purge following a failed coup this summer.
This has angered leading figures in the Washington foreign policy establishment. "Since taking power via a military coup three years ago, President Sisi has overseen not only the complete reversal of Egypt’s nascent democratic transition but also unprecedented human rights abuses," states a letter circulated last Friday, signed by a coterie of leading Middle East experts. "It is not in our interest to embrace him but to use our influence to press for beneficial change in Egypt."
It goes on, addressing both Trump and Clinton: "Your meeting with Sisi at the UNGA will be taken in Egypt, and around the world, as an endorsement. To meet with him is a policy decision, which should await a later date after much study and assessment of U.S. policy toward Egypt. Therefore, we strongly urge you to readjust your schedule." That readjustment did not take place.
During his final address at the General Assembly on Tuesday, President Obama offered a defense of the liberal world order, spoke out against demagogues and for "human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law" -- all things that seem to be under threat in Egypt right now.
"There appears to be growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism right now," Obama said. "And I want everybody to understand, I am not neutral in that contest." It's not quite clear, though, whether Trump would be on his side.
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