EGYPT’S PREPARATIONS for the fifth anniversary Monday of a march that touched off its 2011 revolution offered a clear picture of the current state of the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the general and coup-maker turned president. Evidently terrified of another popular uprising, security forces staged a sweeping crackdown, detaining hundreds of activists and searching 5,000 apartments in the vicinity of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where anti-government marchers gathered on Jan. 25, 2011. Tanks and soldiers filled the area while state media celebrated “police day.”
There was no public protest — opposition groups advised their followers to stay home — but the regime’s boast of overwhelming public support was belied by its actions. Far from “restoring democracy,” as Secretary of State John F. Kerry predicted, it has since its July 2013 coup created what domestic and international human rights groups deem the most repressive regime in Egypt’s modern history. It has killed thousands, imprisoned tens of thousands and employed torture, disappearances, media censorship and sham trials.
Rather than revive the economy — as Mr. Kerry also predicted — Mr. Sissi has presided over a corrosive stagnation. Tourism revenue plummeted 18 percent last year and massive deficits were recorded in the balance of payments and government budget. Unemployment is 12 percent, and for youths far higher. Private business is hemmed in by a venal bureaucracy, corruption and the military’s own sprawling interests.
Signs of discontent with the regime are mounting. Some 50,000 people registered on a Facebook page calling for new protests before the regime blocked it. Participation in a parliamentary election in the fall was abysmal — the government claimed a turnout of 26 percent, but independent observers said it was far less. There are rumblings of discord inside the regime, with intelligence services and some in the military suspected of discontent with Mr. Sissi, according to Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Most alarming for Egypt’s neighbors, the regime’s attempt to combat jihadist terrorism, including a self-declared affiliate of the Islamic State based in the Sinai Peninsula, has worsened rather than alleviated the threat. The brutal treatment of Bedouin and other Sinai communities has driven recruits to the militants. When a journalist pointed this out, the regime’s response was to arrest him.
Unfortunately, the regime’s unraveling has mostly been ignored by the Obama administration, which resumed full U.S. aid — $1.5 billion this year — on the theory that backing the dictatorship will promote stability. By now it should be clear that the bet is a bad one. Barring major changes in the regime’s policies, the Arab world’s most populous country is headed toward another breakdown.
The United States cannot necessarily stop Mr. Sissi’s self-destruction. But it can lay the groundwork for a better future by urging his regime to cease persecution of peaceful opponents, including the secular, liberal leaders of the 2011 revolution, most of whom are in jail or exile. It should link aid to media freedom and the revocation of repressive laws, like a measure banning all protests. With its unconditional subsidies, the Obama administration is merely hastening Egypt’s next crisis.
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