Even if the White House is in denial about al-Sisi’s harm to regional instability, Congress shouldn't be.
On the last day of 1977, President Jimmy Carter called U.S. ally Iran “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world” and hailed the repressive Shah’s popularity. Within two years Iran’s government collapsed, revolutionaries took dozens of American diplomats hostage, and Carter’s presidency was in tatters.
In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured the world that the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was “stable.” Three weeks later, he was overthrown by mass street protests.
Next week, President Trump will host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Washington where, says the White House, they will discuss “Egypt’s longstanding role as a linchpin of regional stability.”
Sisi’s stability—like Mubarak’s and the Shah’s—is a false one, based on violent repression and support from the United States. In reality, Sisi’s government is about as stable as a drunk carrying a tray of eggs.
Sisi, who took power in a coup in 2013, has cracked down on dissent, imprisoning thousands and stoking anger across the political spectrum. Now he’s in the process of changing Egypt’s constitution so that he can stay president until 2034 and give the military even more power.
Rather than criticize Sisi’s abuses, Secretary of State Pompeo visited Egypt in January and thanked him “for his vigorous efforts to combat the ongoing threat of terrorism as well as the radical Islamism that fuels it... Our robust battle against ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups will continue.”
In fact, Sisi’s crushing of peaceful dissent is fueling ISIS. I was in Cairo during Pompeo’s visit, researching a report based on interviews with former political prisoners, who told me that ISIS is recruiting tortured detainees across the country’s vast penal system. No one knows how many political prisoners there are in Egypt, though estimates are generally at least 60,000, and many, if not most, face the pain and humiliation of torture.
The former prisoners gave me detailed, consistent, and credible accounts of ISIS’s growing power within the prison system, where it preys on abused prisoners, exploiting their anger and offering them promises of revenge. ISIS is now so powerful they have de facto control of parts of the prison system.
One prisoner, released in November 2018, told me: “In some prisons, like El Netrun, there are hundreds in the ISIS group and they’re really powerful. They control parts of how the prison is run and can identify vulnerable prisoners they want transferred to their cell to radicalize, and the guards do it.”
I heard how an 18-year-old was arrested for excessive partying, imprisoned, and tortured. Guards suspended him from the ceiling, flogged him, and electrocuted him. Shortly after, an ex-prisoner told me, the teenager joined ISIS. “The ISIS guys talked to him, they offered him revenge. He joined them and changed his nickname to Suicide Vest.”
Like Mubarak and the Shah of Iran before him, Sisi crams his jails with tortured political prisoners and calls it stability. Outside the jails, dissidents are disappeared or forced into exile. The changes to the constitution will only deepen the dictatorship, fueling more violent extremism.
History tells us that dictatorships are time bombs, creating pressure that eventually erupts. Perhaps Trump and his aides go out of their way to describe the Sisi government as stable because they know better and hope that it doesn’t fall apart on their watch. (They don’t, after all, feel the need to describe Canada or Denmark as stable.) Perhaps they, like previous administrations, genuinely believe that propping up brutal regimes is the best way to secure American interests.
But the rampant human rights abuses of the Sisi dictatorship are slowly cultivating danger and disorder in a strategically important part of the world. Even if he manages to hang onto power far into the future, Sisi is empowering a transnational terrorist group committed to opposing the United States and killing Americans and others.
Just because the White House is in denial about what Sisi is doing and where it is leading, Congress shouldn’t be. It has the power to entirely cut the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. gives Egypt. It should at least reduce the amount, and not release the aid unless Egypt fulfills strict human rights conditions, including an end to torture in custody.
The longer the brutal repression continues, the easier it will be for ISIS to recruit detainees and further destabilize Egypt and the region. “The ones recruited by ISIS attract others,” a former prisoner told me. “It was like a fire in a forest.”
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