AFTER MEETING Egyptian ruler Abdel Fatah al-Sissi last Saturday, Vice President Pence told reporters that he had raised the cases of two Americans unjustly imprisoned in Cairo as well as the treatment of nongovernmental organizations and religious freedom. Those are all matters in which the Egyptian regime has egregiously violated human rights, including those of U.S. citizens, while continuing to pocket more than $1 billion annually in American aid. So it was good that Mr. Pence spoke up, but strange that he would repeatedly call Mr. Sissi a "friend" and claim that the U.S.-Egypt relationship "has never been stronger."
Even more disappointing, for many Egyptians, was Mr. Pence's failure to comment on the bizarre travesty of democracy Mr. Sissi was enacting around his visit. On Friday, just before the vice president's arrival, the strongman officially announced that he would be a candidate in the presidential election in March. That he will be the only serious contender is not because Egyptians have no interest in alternatives. Before Mr. Sissi's announcement, two potentially potent rivals, former prime minister and air force chief Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the nephew of a former president, were driven out of the race. Mr. Shafiq was detained incommunicado until he yielded.
On Tuesday, another former senior military leader, Sami Anan, was arrested and forced to suspend his presidential candidacy just four days after announcing it. Mr. Anan was the second-most-senior military commander in Egypt when he was fired in 2012 by elected President Mohamed Morsi, who in turn was ousted by Mr. Sissi in a bloody 2013 coup. Like Mr. Shafiq, Mr. Anan is neither an Islamist nor a liberal democrat, the two categories of political activist most viciously repressed by the current regime. Rather, Mr. Sissi is demonstrating that he will not tolerate electoral competition even from other members of the ruling military establishment.
While it may disregard this abuse of the democratic norms that Egyptians turned out en masse to support seven years ago this week, the Trump administration ought to find Mr. Sissi's actions worrying. The general has manifestly failed to stabilize Egypt over the past half-decade, or to prevent the growth of a virulent Islamic State franchise in the Sinai Peninsula. He has grossly mismanaged the economy, pushing pharaonic megaprojects while driving away investors. Political repression has been the worst in Egypt's modern history, with thousands killed or disappeared, tens of thousands imprisoned, and a once-lively media and civil society stifled.
It's no wonder that two retired senior generals would offer themselves as alternatives to Mr. Sissi. That his response is to arrest them shows his insecurity about his own position; the strongman's base is steadily eroding. Without the support of much of the military elite — itself an isolated minority in Egypt — Mr. Sissi stands little chance of addressing the country's worsening domestic problems or defeating the Islamic State . That makes him not a friend but a liability for the United States.
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