FOR SEVERAL years President Obama has asserted that the United States must sometimes subordinate its commitment to human rights in backing repressive regimes that are supportive of U.S. national security objectives, such as fighting terrorism. The Egyptian government of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is providing a case study of why that doctrine is misguided.
In the name of defeating Islamic extremism, Mr. Sissi has instituted the most repressive regime Egypt has known in more than a half-century. Since leading a military coup against the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, he has overseen the jailing of more than 16,000 people and the killing of more than 1,000; the banning of public protests; the elimination of a once-robust free press; and a massive crackdown on non-government groups. Scores of secular Egyptians who led the fight to create a liberal democracy in 2011 and 2012 have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
Yet the actual threat of terrorism in Egypt has steadily worsened under Mr. Sissi’s rule. Last Friday saw the country’s most deadly terrorist assault in decades: a suicide bomb attack in the Sinai Peninsula that killed more than 30 soldiers. Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed in the Sinai in the past 15 months, and bombings in Cairo, unheard of before the coup, are now common. Both the foreign ministry and Cairo University have been targeted in recent weeks.
Mr. Sissi’s response to the latest attack exemplified his self-defeating reflexes: a blizzard of measures to further suppress peaceful opposition and free expression. Leading newspaper editors were induced to issue a statement Sunday pledging not to criticize “state institutions,” including the army, police and judiciary. The same day a judge sentenced 23 more activists, including several leading liberal democrats, to three years in prison for violating the anti-protest law.
The next day Mr. Sissi issued a decree vastly expanding the scope for secret military trials of civilians. Among those now subject to the summary procedures are university students and even schoolchildren accused of “sabotaging” educational facilities. None of these measures will affect the actual terrorist organizations based in the Sinai, one of which has pledged fealty to the Islamic State. Their militants do not participate in protests, publish critical commentaries or demonstrate on campuses.
Instead, the regime’s repression is eliminating outlets for moderate Islamists, alienating secular allies and turning formerly peaceful opponents into jihadist recruits. The secular and liberal April 6 movement, which has been outlawed by the Sissi regime, rightly judged that the new measures “will . . . increase chaos and create a better environment for terrorism.”
The Obama administration has stubbornly resisted this common-sense conclusion. It has been courting the Sissi regime while downplaying its abuses. Secretary of State John F. Kerry insists, ludicrously, that Mr. Sissi is leading Egypt to democracy. Fortunately, he is constrained by Congress, which passed legislation conditioning the full resumption of military aid on a formal certification of that claim. Instead of trying to free up aid that would be spent on tanks and fighter planes useless for fighting terrorism, the administration should be defending what remains of Egypt’s democratic opposition and civil society from Mr. Sissi.
Read more about this topic: