EGYPTIAN STRONGMAN Abdel Fatah al-Sissi claimed he was the first foreign leader to call President-elect Donald Trump with congratulations. He had good reason: In meetings with the two presidential contenders in New York in September, Mr. Sissi was chided by Hillary Clinton about his abominable human rights record, while Mr. Trump issued him a free pass, calling him “a fantastic guy.” “Egypt hopes the presidency of Donald Trump will inject new life in Egyptian-American relations,” said a jaunty statement from Mr. Sissi’s office Wednesday.
If Mr. Trump follows the course he set in the presidential campaign, there will be many more such statements — and a rush to repression in countries around the world. At least since President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the 1919 Versailles conference, the United States has been the world’s foremost promoter of human rights and democracy. Mr. Trump appears ready to walk away from that role.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump brushed off reports of brutality and repression by the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not surprisingly, all three regimes welcomed his electoral college victory. In an interview with the New York Times in July, Mr. Trump raised his brushoffs to something like a doctrine. Asked about Mr. Erdogan’s arrest of tens of thousands of domestic opponents, he said, “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country.”
It’s true the U.S. human rights record is far from perfect, and presidential preaching — from Wilson to Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush — often has been bluntly rejected. But American pressure also has played a role in pushing dozens of countries toward freedom, rescuing countless political prisoners and restraining abuses by autocrats like Mr. Sissi. Even powerful adversaries, such as Mr. Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, have been discomfited by U.S. human rights criticism and sanctions — including those under the Magnitsky Act, which mandated travel bans and asset freezes for Russian officials linked to such crimes as the killing in prison of a dissident lawyer.
President Obama has been a relatively lukewarm supporter of this policy. He withheld some military equipment from Egypt after Mr. Sissi’s 2013 military coup, but later released it and waived human rights restrictions on other aid. Yet many regimes, from Congo to Bahrain to Thailand, still feared U.S. censure. The moratorium on pressure signaled by Mr. Trump could quickly have a tangible impact: Congo President Joseph Kabila, for example, may now shrug off U.S. pressure to step down when his term ends in December. Rodrigo Duterte may feel freer to step up his murderous campaign against alleged drug traffickers in the Philippines.
Mr. Sissi, who freed one American citizen held in his crammed jails under pressure from Washington, was pressed by Ms. Clinton to release Aya Hijazi, a U.S. citizen and nongovernmental-organization activist from Falls Church who has been unjustly held without trial since May 2014. Mr. Trump, who claims to put America first, said nothing about her plight. No wonder Mr. Sissi was so quick to call.