Riding a tiger of radical Islam: Why the US must back Egypt’s Sisi
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“When everybody in Iran is like everybody in Sweden, then I will rule like the King of Sweden.”

- Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran (1941-1979)

On his recent visit to Washington, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi got the “big hug” he needed.  After years of being treated like a pariah by the Obama administration following his 2013 seizure of power in a coup d’etat against Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammed Morsi, Sisi was now warmly embraced.  “He’s a fantastic guy, he took control of Egypt, he really took control of it,” said a beaming President Trump.


While the optics are problematic, this is an important and necessary development.  Egypt must be viewed through the lens of former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s influential essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” It boils down to this: when presented with the choice between a non-ideological authoritarian regime and totalitarian political ideological regime, choose the former. They are often better for America’s interests and, over time, are more likely to improve human rights and allow for democratic reforms.


This is Sisi’s Egypt in a nutshell, underscored horrifically not long after his visit by an ISIS terror attack against the country’s Coptic Christian minority that left at least 45 people dead. This attack is an especially deadly episode in an ongoing assault on the Coptic community that started under Morsi, and increased after his ouster, as Brotherhood backers took their revenge on the Copts.

Although Copts are popular targets of Islamist violence, the Brotherhood and its ideological kin ISIS threatens, not only on Copts, but all Egyptians who reject extreme Islamism. Indeed, Sisi rules in large part because of fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose brief, bloody reign make it so unpopular Egyptians will put up with much to stay rid of it.

However, Sisi’s resort to much the same governing tactics as his predecessors’ risks fueling the same kind of anti-state resentments that enabled the Brotherhood to take over in the first place.  

Whatever the wisdom of his declaration of a state of emergency following the latest attack,  it calls to mind the ongoing state of emergency kept in place for over three decades by former President Hosni Mubarak.  

But reactions have been mixed.  Left-wing human rights groups cried foul, while Coptic elders, generally supportive of Sisi (Pope Tawadros stood on the stage when Sisi announced Morsi’s ouster), said the state of emergency was insufficient to protect their flocks.  Sisi acknowledged the hurtful symbolic backsliding, asking Egyptians to “bear the pain.”

While Sisi cannot afford to alienate the Copts, he risks alienating other supporters and inflaming his adversaries if he defends them too aggressively.  Copts comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim society, and while Sisi has made unprecedented symbolic shows of support, they are decidedly not popular with Islamists and viewed skeptically even by moderates, having faced persecution for hundreds of years.  Furthermore, Sisi’s heavy-handed tactics also risk damaging Egypt’s already troubled economy, but so does allowing the Brotherhood and ISIS free reign.

Sisi knows this, telling a bipartisan U.S. Congressional delegation that the goal of the attack was to damage Egypt’s economy and harm Muslim-Christian relations.

However, there is reason for hope.  The Copts are working toward reconciliation, winning the admiration of popular Egyptian media personality Amr Adeeb and others for their forgiveness of their attackers and their lack of malice toward their Muslim neighbors in the aftermath of the attack.  “The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” Adeeb declared.  Additionally, after monetary and tax policy reforms, Egypt’s economy is expected to grow at 4 percent.

Like the late Shah of Iran, Sisi finds himself riding a tiger: unable to get off without being eaten, he must kill the tiger or die.  America should help him defeat radical Islam. Sisi is protecting religious minorities and moderates who are determined to resist jihadists, favors friendly relations with Israel, and generally supports America’s interests in the region. The Trump administration should take this chance to increase military and economic aid to Egypt.  

Additionally, it should declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and consider playing a direct military role in destroying ISIS in the Sinai.

Sisi’s previous writings indicate that he wants to build a just, democratic Egypt. This starts with defeating radical Islamism.  Partnering with him gives us greater influence: Trump’s embrace of Sisi already resulted in the release of several unfairly imprisoned Americans. But we must never forget that Sisi’s most powerful political opponents are not liberals, they are radical ideologues willing to commit unspeakable atrocities in their bid to remake Egypt.

Cliff Smith is the Director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter @CliffSmithZBRDZ.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.