TWO YEARS ago Saturday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry claimed that Egypt’s armed forces were “restoring democracy” by deposing the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and launching a massive crackdown against its followers. As subsequent events have demonstrated, he could not have been more wrong. The coup led by Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has evolved into the bloodiest and most brutal repression in Egypt’s modern history, directed not just against jihadists and followers of Mr. Morsi’s nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood but also journalists, human rights activists and the secular democratic activists who led Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
Democracy is nowhere in sight: Though Mr. Sissi took off his uniform and stage-managed his own election as president, legislative elections promised for March were indefinitely postponed. Even if they were held, a fair vote would be impossible. As it happens, however, Mr. Kerry is returning to Cairo this weekend to carry on a “strategic dialogue” with Mr. Sissi’s government. It’s an opportunity to correct his gross public mischaracterizations of the regime and to press for a badly needed change of course.
After weakly attempting to punish the Sissi regime with steps such as withholding the delivery of military helicopters, the Obama administration fell in behind it this year, using its authority to waive congressional restrictions on more than $1 billion in annual U.S. aid. Administration officials have argued the policy is aimed at helping Egypt defeat terrorists, including an affiliate of the Islamic State now based in the Sinai Peninsula. But under the Sissi regime, terrorist violence has grown steadily worse, with attacks spreading from the Sinai to Cairo and tourist sites such as Luxor.
One big reason for this is easy to understand. As a bipartisan group of policy experts wrote in a letter to Mr. Kerry last week, “by closing off all avenues of peaceful expression of dissent through politics, civil society, or media, Al-Sisi is stoking the very fires he says he wants to extinguish.” Added the Working Group on Egypt: “State violence — several thousand killed during street demonstrations, tens of thousands of political prisoners, hundreds of documented cases of torture or forced disappearance, sexual assault of detainees or family members, reported collective punishment of Sinai communities possibly with weapons provided through U.S. military aid — is creating more incentives for Egyptians to join militant groups.”
Another letter to Mr. Kerry, from a bipartisan group of seven senators, expressed similar concerns. “A key element of U.S. foreign policy has always been and must continue to be support for human rights, political reform, and civil society,” wrote a group including Democrats Ben Cardin (Md.) and Tim Kaine (Va.) and Republicans John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). “In the U.S.-Egypt relationship, we are concerned that these core principles seem to be no longer a priority.”
The Working Group, headed by Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, offered Mr. Kerry some excellent advice. He should, they said, push the Sissi regime to end political trials and to annul death sentences, stop the repression of journalists and civil society, revise strategy in Sinai and “initiate processes of national reconciliation.” Moreover, they suggested, Mr. Kerry should “resist the urge to give any public praise to the Egyptian government beyond what is precisely accurate and warranted.” In other words, no more claims that Egypt is “restoring democracy.”