Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

BOTH HILLARY CLINTON and Donald Trump met at the United Nations this week with Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the general who led the military coup against Egypt’s elected government in 2013 and has since overseen the harshest repression the country has known in a half-century. The candidates’ face time with him was unmerited and ill-advised, considering that Mr. Sissi, in addition to overseeing the extrajudicial killing or disappearance of thousands of Egyptians and the imprisonment of tens of thousands, has directed a vicious campaign against U.S. influence in his country.

There was, however, a notable difference in the way that Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton handled the strongman — one that reveals a substantive and important divide on foreign policy. Mr. Trump’s post-meeting statement heaped uncritical praise on Mr. Sissi, thanking him “and the Egyptian people for what they have done in defense of their country” and promising to invite the coup-maker for an official visit to Washington.

In contrast, Ms. Clinton, while paying tribute to U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism, “emphasized the importance of respect for rule of law and human rights to Egypt’s future progress,” according to her statement. She also “raised concerns about prosecution of Egyptian human rights organizations and activists.” In other words, while Mr. Trump handed a pass to this deeply problematic U.S. ally, Ms. Clinton put him on notice that his abuses will not be ignored if she becomes president.

That is important, for two reasons. First, Mr. Sissi’s repression — which has included imprisoning or forcing into exile the country’s most prominent secular liberal leaders and human rights activists — is, as Ms. Clinton hinted, destroying his country’s prospects. Egypt will never recover economically, or regain political stability, while Mr. Sissi stifles open debate and free assembly and employs torture and assassination against Islamist opponents, including those affiliated with the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood. A failure of the Egyptian state would be a disaster for U.S. interests in the Middle East — and yet that is where Mr. Sissi’s policies are leading.

Rivals Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sought to showcase their foreign policy credentials by meeting world leaders at the U.N. Clinton sat down with the leaders of Japan, Ukraine and Egypt, and Trump also met with the Egyptian president. (Video: Reuters, Photo: AFP)

Then there is Mr. Sissi’s fervent anti-Americanism. It’s not surprising that Mr. Trump would fail to grasp the strategic implications of the regime’s disregard for human rights, given his own contempt for liberal values. But it’s striking that a candidate who claims to put America first would overlook Mr. Sissi’s practice of systematically targeting American interests and American citizens even while pocketing $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid.

The general and his propagandists rant on state television about what they say are U.S. plots to divide and destroy Egypt, using media and civil society groups. The regime meanwhile wages war against American-backed nongovernmental organizations, seizing their assets and charging their leaders with crimes. A U.S. citizen who founded an organization to help street children, Aya Hijazi of Falls Church, has been jailed without trial for more than two years — in violation of Egypt’s own laws — on charges Egyptian and international human rights groups unanimously say are fabricated.

Ms. Clinton, to her credit, raised Ms. Hijazi’s case with Mr. Sissi and called for her release, according to the campaign’s statement. Mr. Trump had nothing to say about her. Will a Trump administration be ready to defend Americans who are persecuted by foreign dictatorships? Evidently not, if the dictator is Mr. Sissi.

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