The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’ panics

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi speaks during a press conference in Bucharest, Romania, on June 19. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

EGYPTIAN RULER Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has become President Trump’s “favorite dictator” in part by offering the assurance of stability in the Arab world’s most populous country. So the president and those who share his views ought to be worried by the recent news from Cairo. Young Egyptians fed up with stagnating living standards and the Sissi regime’s corruption have taken to the streets on two consecutive Fridays to shout slogans against the strongman.

Their numbers have been relatively small — probably in the hundreds. But Mr. Sissi’s reaction has been telling. In the past 10 days, he has launched what looks like a panicked attempt to prevent the protests from swelling. According to human rights groups, more than 2,000 people have been arrested, from known critics of the regime to random young people swept up on the streets. Access to the Internet has been restricted, and foreign journalists have been warned that they must report “the viewpoint of the State.”

Last Friday, police completely sealed off the center of Cairo, so would-be demonstrators could not reach Tahrir Square, the site of the mass demonstrations that toppled a previous dictator, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011. But a crowd nevertheless gathered in another part of the city. Many participants were described as young men who have come of age since Mr. Sissi seized power in a bloody 2013 coup against a democratically elected government.

Though few expect another revolution in the near future, the unrest — and Mr. Sissi’s reaction to it — is a clear warning that Egypt under his rule is anything but stable. Though the economy is growing, so is the poverty rate. Mr. Sissi has squandered billions on pharaonic projects, such as an expansion of the Suez Canal and a new capital city.

Meanwhile, the former general and his military cronies have indulged in staggering corruption — some of it documented by a self-exiled contractor named Mohamed Ali, who has posted dozens of videos on social media. Among other things, Mr. Ali alleges that Mr. Sissi has been wasting money on new presidential palaces, including a $15 million pile in Alexandria.

Mr. Sissi offered an interesting defense of this building spree: “Where will I receive President Trump?” With 30 million Egyptians living on less than $1.45 a day, such cluelessness isn’t just shocking; it’s dangerous for anyone who is counting on Mr. Sissi to maintain order for the decade or more he plans to remain in power.

Unfortunately, Mr. Trump shares in the obtuseness. Meeting Mr. Sissi at the United Nations last week, he again called him “a great leader” and dismissed the recent demonstrations as unimportant. When it comes to his favorite dictator, nothing seems capable of troubling Mr. Trump: not the persistence of an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula; nor the regime’s imprisonment of U.S. citizens on concocted political charges; nor its talks about purchasing Russian fighter jets even as it pockets more than $1 billion in annual U.S. military aid.

The State Department last week said Egyptians should be allowed to protest peacefully, as did the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But Mr. Sissi takes his cues from the White House. As long as he remains Mr. Trump’s favorite dictator, we can expecting unrelenting — and ultimately destabilizing — repression in Egypt.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Egypt seized a U.S. art teacher over her Facebook posts. Trump must get her free.

The Post’s View: The unjust death of Mohamed Morsi shows how far Egypt has regressed

Bahey eldin Hassan: Why we’re pushing back against the Egyptian president’s constitutional coup

Mohamed Soltan: Egypt’s opposition must unite against the regime — or risk further repression

Ayman Nour: Egypt’s President Sissi has just staged his biggest farce yet