A woman casts her vote during the second day of the presidential election at a polling station in Cairo on March 27. (Amr Nabil/AP)

EGYPT’S PRESIDENTIAL election this week could have been one of the most competitive in its history, even with the exclusion of banned Islamist parties. Three former high-ranking military leaders announced they would challenge incumbent Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who seized power in a military coup nearly five years ago. One, Ahmed Shafik, is a former prime minister who made the runoff in the 2012 election. Also planning campaigns were Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, a nephew of one of the country’s most renowned presidents, and Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer.

In the end, none of them appeared on the ballot. All were forced out; Mr. Shafik was held vritually incommunicado in a hotel until he relented, while the two other former officers were imprisoned. Mr. Sissi then took to television to proclaim his disappointment that other “distinguished people” were not running against him. “We are not ready, isn’t it a shame,” he said. We’d call that Pharaonic cynicism.

The lineup of candidates Mr. Sissi might have faced showed that dissatisfaction with his rule runs deep even inside the military establishment. That’s because his regime has been the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history, having tortured or murdered thousands of real or suspected opponents and imprisoned tens of thousands of others, including a number of innocent Americans.

Several of the prospective candidates indicated they opposed Mr. Sissi’s concentration of power, his militarization of the economy and his denial of the rights Egyptians sought during the 2011 revolution. “A true democracy and basic human rights are not a given,” said Mr. Shafik in a launch video. For this he was detained and intimidated into silence — and Egyptians were denied a governing alternative other than Mr. Sissi’s harsh authoritarianism.

That’s a problem not only for the country’s 97 million people. Under Mr. Sissi, Egypt is failing. His regime has been unable to defeat terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula affiliated with the Islamic State. It has increased Egypt’s foreign debt by more than 75 percent, wasting tens of billions of dollars on megaprojects while exports and tourism revenue decline. It has allowed North Korea to use its Cairo embassy to sell weapons across the region.

In keeping with its affection for Arab strongmen, the Trump administration has shrugged at all this — though some military aid to Egypt was withheld last year under pressure from Congress. Those in Washington who recognize the trouble the Sissi regime is storing up, such as the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt, have stopped hoping the White House would pressure the dictator for change. Instead, in a pre-election letter to acting secretary of state John Sullivan, it urged the administration “not to treat this election as a legitimate expression of the Egyptian people’s will and to withhold praise or congratulations.”

No such luck. Even as news services reported dismally low turnout, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo cheerfully tweeted, “As Americans we are very impressed by the enthusiasm and patriotism of Egyptian voters.” It’s one thing to tolerate the Sissi regime; why must the Trump administration also propagate fake news on its behalf?