(Originally published in Politico)
Time was, American presidents had Egyptian leaders at their beck and call. Hosni Mubarak was once obliged to get up at the crack of dawn for a photo op with President Bill Clinton, scheduled with U.S. prime-time TV in mind. But if there’s one thing the “Arab Spring”—if we can still use that term with a straight face—has proved, it’s that those days are gone. Ever since Feb. 2, 2011, when President Obama pulled the plug on Mubarak in a hasty speech calling on the longtime Egyptian strongman to leave “now,” the United States has gone from bankrolling a friendly dictator to bankrolling an unfriendly dictatorship—while fast estranging itself from all sides of the political spectrum.
First it persuaded the angry remnants of Mubarak’s regime to bow to the people’s will and hold the first truly free and fair elections in Egypt’s 5,000-year history. (It did little, however, as the army brutalized mostly leftist protesters seeking a deeper overhaul of Mubarak’s security state.) Then, when Islamists predictably trounced their liberal rivals, Washington endorsed the results and resolved to work with Egypt’s bearded new leaders, who were understandably wary of working too closely with the same country that had spent the past several decades shoring up their oppressor. And finally, the Obama administration stood by as the military ousted the unpopular but duly elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, in what by every definition of the word was a coup. Each step of the way, the United States has been a player in Egypt’s political drama—making its halting efforts to foster democracy in the Arab world’s most populous state all the more perplexing for the lack of results.
Morsi now languishes in jail, on trial with other Muslim Brotherhood figures for a list of blatantly political charges of treason and murder, while the general who removed him is preparing to shed his fatigues for a run at the presidency he will undoubtedly win. That general, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has understandable apprehensions, confidants have reported, but vanity and a sense of national duty could well win the day: In an audio recording leaked in December, he revealed a series of bizarre dreams predicting he would one day be Egypt’s leader. In one, the late President Anwar Sadat tells him, “I always knew I would be president of the republic,” to which Sisi replies: “I also know that I will be president of the republic.” Hysterical uber-nationalistic media controlled by the intelligence apparatus have drummed up cultish support for him since July—one female columnist gushed that she would willingly be his sex slave—and even if he does not seek the presidency, the new constitution, which won 98 percent approval on a 38 percent turnout in mid-January in an atmosphere of cajoling and intimidation, ensures that Sisi will run the show behind the scenes.
This new Egypt is now a few notches to the right of Mubarak’s police state. Since July 3, some 20,000 people have been jailed, by some estimates, most of them for taking part in protests or strikes, or merely for belonging to the Brotherhood’s upper echelons. More than 4,000 have been killed—well over twice the number who died during the original uprising—with barely a peep from Washington. A protest law approved in November opened the way for a crackdown on the youth activists who set off Egypt’s revolution in the first place. They have been presented with a stark choice: submit to the new order—or risk jail or a heavy fine. Three prominent activists received three-year sentences in December for protesting without a permit; others have been outed as “traitors” with ties to foreign governments via recordings aired on television that bear all the familiar signs of state security manipulation.
In December, Sisi (or rather, his docile civilian government) even took a drastic step Mubarak would never have dared: officially branding the Brotherhood a terrorist group, although its leaders renounced violence years ago. Mass arrest was always a fait accompli once the coup occurred, but the designation took it further, granting the state’s formidable media apparatus license to exhort citizens to inform on suspect Islamist activity. Politicians opposed to the new order have switched off their phones or left the country, if they are not already in jail. And journalists who dare to cover protests or talk to Brotherhood supporters do so at their peril: Four who worked for Al Jazeera English, including a Canadian and an Australian, were grabbed from a makeshift studio in a five-star Cairo hotel in December; one was freed, but the others now face charges of distributing false information and, most absurdly, running a terror cell.
This is the regime that Washington has decided to tolerate. And as things get worse in Egypt, its ties to the Obama administration only get better. From the beginning it avoided calling Morsi’s ouster a coup, contorting the English language along the way. “We have determined we are not going to make a determination,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained boldly in July. The aim of the unseemly wordplay was to avoid entirely cutting off military aid while rapping Sisi on the knuckles through withholding some weapons systems and cash assistance and canceling joint military exercises. Through it all, Egypt still gets around $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid each year, and there is also annual economic aid of around $250 million, the fate of which hasn’t been finally determined.
But even those measures now seem too tough for the accommodative mood in Washington. In November, Secretary of State John Kerry certified that Egypt’s “road map” to democracy was “being carried out to the best of our conceptions”—never mind the military’s moves to codify its untouchable role in politics for years to come. For good measure, Kerry explained away the aid cuts: “President Obama has actually worked very, very hard to be able to make certain that we’re not disrupting the relationship with Egypt.” In December, Congress began rolling back the aid restrictions, and the Mubarak-like 98 percent approval for the new constitution barely raised a protest in January.
It’s true that some of Sisi’s repressive measures are popular. The Egyptian people are exhausted after three years of revolution and upheaval, and Sisi has cleverly played off that longing for a return to order and stability, even if it means crushing dissent. “I woke up at 6 a.m. and went with my wife to vote. We’re not interested in protests, or the violence and bloodshed. This is the one time my voice could make a difference,” voter Mohammed Sharif told me on a recent trip to Cairo.
But the bitter irony is that Washington has received no thanks for its indulgence and is now reviled by both the regime supporters and the Islamists for its equivocations. Last year, in the chaotic months running up to Morsi’s ouster, pro-coup protesters were regularly burning effigies of Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador at the time, on the grounds that she was secretly conniving with the Brotherhood to ruin Egypt.
But the Islamists are equally thankless. “The Americans approved the coup. It took place under an American green light,” declares Magdy Hussein, a senior figure in the National Alliance for the Defense of Legitimacy, a Brotherhood spinoff that has organized ongoing anti-military protests. TV commentators of all stripes have been using the rant-to-camera format to attack the United States since 2011: for variously backing the uprising, the army, the Islamists or all of them.
The United States is an easy punching bag, and for the regime a period of America-
bashing serves its purpose in rallying the country against the Islamists. In private, it’s another conversation entirely. Sisi, like all of Egypt’s top military brass, is nothing if not the product of Egypt’s post-Camp David alliance with the United States. He attended the U.S. Army War College in 2006 and is a familiar figure to American defense officials; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has had a regular hotline to the man since July.
And still, there’s no discernable sign that Washington’s polite requests for Sisi to modulate his hard line have had any effect. In the end, the argument for tolerating another strongman is proving as persuasive as it is drearily familiar: The United States should hold as tightly as possible to an ally that takes the fight to al Qaeda militants, maintains peace with Israel and keeps the Islamists down. Which leaves America uncomfortably close to where it was before Jan. 25, 2011: backing a client regime with barely a fig leaf of democracy. Only this time, there’s no Hosni Mubarak for those prime-time photo ops.