The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. is complacent as Egypt repeats its history of repression

In this June 25, 2014, file photo, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi stands at Algiers airport on his arrival to Algiers, Algeria. (Sidali Djarboub/AP)

THE EGYPTIAN regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi again demonstrated its violent and cynical nature last weekend, as the country marked the fourth anniversary of the popular revolution that overthrew former ruler Hosni Mubarak. More than 20 protesters were killed by police, including liberal human rights activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, who was shot in the back as she walked toward Cairo's Tahrir Square to lay flowers. Five witnesses who tried to give testimony about her slaying were charged with staging an illegal protest.

Despite a promise by Mr. Sissi to release journalists and young activists on the anniversary, none of the dozen journalists imprisoned by the regime — including Australian Peter Greste and Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy — were freed. Nor were liberal leaders of the Jan. 25, 2011, demonstration that touched off the revolution, who have been jailed by the Sissi regime for violating a draconian anti-protest law. Nor were any of the 176 democratically elected members of parliament who remain imprisoned along with former president Mohamed Morsi.

Instead, two sons of Mr. Mubarak who were prosecuted on corruption charges after the revolution were released; charges against the former ruler have also been dismissed. Mr. Sissi himself gave a speech in which he warned Egyptians to "take care when you are demanding your rights," adding that, while "nobody is against human rights," they are not his priority.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sissi’s view is shared by President Obama, who has repeatedly stated a policy of subordinating human rights concerns in Egypt to the U.S. security relationship with the regime. Last month the administration succeeded in winning congressional approval for a provision that will allow it to fully resume aid to Egypt even if the regime does not take steps to restore democracy or release political prisoners. It has already delivered Apache helicopters to Cairo that were held up in the aftermath of the July 2013 coup.

In justifying his new approach to Cuba, Mr. Obama has repeated the phrase that if a policy has failed for a half-century it should be abandoned. Yet the dismal 70-year history of U.S. support for Arab dictators, which has done much to produce the chaos now engulfing the region, does not deter the president from reembracing the policy for Mr. Sissi as well as Saudi Arabia's new King Salman, whom he courted Tuesday in Riyadh.

The White House might argue that Mr. Sissi's repression, though the most severe Egypt has known in decades, is preferable to the bloody anarchy of Syria or Libya. But by killing peaceful opponents like Ms. Sabbagh, silencing the media and jailing secular pro-democracy activists such as Jan. 25 leaders Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, the regime is making it more likely that extreme groups will flourish. As it is, violence by militants who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State has increased under Mr. Sissi's rule, as a big series of attacks in the Sinai Peninsula on Thursday demonstrated.

It’s hard to foresee the future of the Arab Middle East at such a tumultuous moment, but one of the least likely outcomes is a return to stability under 1950s-style military strongmen such as Mr. Sissi. By ignoring his brutality and resuming bilateral business as usual, the Obama administration is making a bad bet.

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