Egypt Can Only Blame Itself for President’s Crackdown

The increasingly totalitarian moves by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who just enacted a new law giving him control of nongovernmental organizations in his country, shouldn’t be pinned on his chumminess with U.S. President Donald Trump. In fact, six years after the Arab Spring and almost four years after Sisi’s takeover, it’s time to stop blaming the U.S. for the failure of democracy in Egypt.

The true cause of Sisi’s suppression of dissent, including the new restrictions on human-rights groups and other charities, is simply that there’s no one left in the country with the capacity to balance him. And that’s a result of the disastrous decision by a part of the Egyptian public to turn against democratically elected leaders, however badly they were doing, and embrace the military.

The instinct to hold Trump responsible for Sisi’s extreme legislation has two roots. One is based in the anti-Trump politics of the moment. The other lies in a broader worldview that holds the U.S. responsible for just about everything that happens in Egypt, a traditional ally that receives extensive military aid.

Both are wrong, or at least substantially overstated.

Trump, to be sure, has demonstrated substantial public support of the Sisi regime. The Egyptian president got substantial billing in Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where (lest we forget) he was one of the three men holding the now-famous glowing orb. And Sisi is one of a handful of foreign leaders who have been invited to Washington for a visit with Trump, which seemed like a success.

This is certainly a pattern in Trump foreign policy intended to embrace realpolitik rather than liberal idealism. No doubt it’s strengthened Sisi’s hand at home.

But it’s crucial to recall that, by the time he left office, President Barack Obama had adopted an Egypt policy that was just about as pro-Sisi as Trump’s, even if it was less publicly visible.

A federal law prohibits military aid to governments that take power in a coup. Yet Obama deftly refused to find that Sisi’s takeover in 2013 counted, and ultimately restored full military assistance to Egypt.

Some voices within the Obama administration argued against treating Sisi as a close ally. But ultimately, Egypt’s value outweighed the value of democracy. As one unnamed Obama administration official put it to Politico last year, when it came to Egypt, “we caved.”

Trump’s Egypt policy is therefore consistent with Obama’s. Indeed, to the extent Trump sees Egypt as a potentially important participant in a regional grand bargain for peace and security, Trump’s justification for keeping Sisi close is stronger than Obama’s.

The other instinctive reason to blame the U.S. goes deeper. It’s based in the view that, since the era of colonialism, Western powers like the U.K. and the U.S. have meddled so deeply in Egyptian and broader Arab affairs that they can be held accountable for the failure of democracy in Middle Eastern countries.

This view long deserved to be taken seriously, and I myself held a version of it when I started writing about prospects for democracy in majority-Muslim countries back in the early 2000s.

But the events of the Arab Spring and its aftermath marked an important historical shift that also needs to be taken seriously.

The U.S. had almost nothing to do with the spontaneous outpouring of anti-authoritarian sentiment in 2011 that brought millions into the streets and helped bring down the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak. For the first time in nearly a century, Egyptians were expressing their own sense of political agency.

And when Egyptians went to the polls and by a slim margin elected a democratic government headed by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, that, too, was reflection of their agency, not U.S. intervention. The U.S. didn’t favor the emergence of an Islamic democratic government in Egypt or anywhere else; it feared that outcome.

As it turned out, the Brotherhood government under Mohamed Mursi made just about every mistake it could have made, most significantly failing to create a broad-based coalition that might have strengthened it against the coming challenge from Egypt’s deep state — and the part of its public that had not voted for the Brotherhood.

At the same time, Mursi’s task was made extraordinarily difficult by forces devoted to his overthrow. Those included Egypt’s constitutional court, which disbanded the national legislature after free elections. The charge that Mursi was governing autocratically had some truth, but how else can you govern if there’s no sitting legislature?

Eventually, large swaths of the Egyptian public went to the streets to protest Mursi. The military took the invitation to return to power — and to eliminate the Brotherhood.

The point is not to rehash the details of this democratic disaster, but to note that it was Egyptians, not outsiders, who determined the fate of democracy in Egypt. The Obama administration was prepared to accept the Mursi government. And it was ultimately prepared to accept Sisi’s military rule.

And the consequence for that rule is that, with the Brotherhood banned and its leaders jailed, there isn’t any force in Egypt capable of standing up to Sisi. It was logical and inevitable for Sisi to impose greater and greater strictures on any political opposition. It was also 100 percent predictable. (I predicted it.)

Egyptians are extremely unlikely to have any form of democracy for at least a generation. That’s tragic, but it isn’t the fault of outsiders, including the U.S. It’s the product of political decisions made by Egyptians who were and remain agents of their own fate.

So we should criticize and bemoan Sisi’s bid to control Egyptian civil society. But we shouldn’t blame Trump or the U.S. for the unavoidable outcome of Egypt’s rejection of democratic governance, with all its flaws and limits, in favor of military dictatorship.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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