Trump, Tillerson make right move challenging Egypt's repressive regime
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Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonGary Cohn: 'I haven't made up my mind' on vote for president in November Kushner says 'Alice in Wonderland' describes Trump presidency: Woodward book Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE’s quiet announcement Tuesday that he was cancelling $95.7 million in aid for Egypt, and postponing delivery of another $190 million, was a breath of fresh air. Even by the grim standards of recent Egyptian dictators, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has been extraordinarily repressive. His rule is consistently driving people into the hands of Islamic extremists, and he is a major obstacle to a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors.

General al-Sisi came to power in a 2013 coup capitalizing on popular discontent with President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

President Morsi won the presidency in an election from which the military excluded credible secular democratic candidates. More focused on consolidating the Brotherhood than on consolidating democracy, unable to right Egypt’s economy, and unwilling to challenge the security forces’ human rights violations, President Morsi quickly became widely unpopular. After briefly claiming that he would respect democracy, General al-Sisi showed his true colors by massacring 817 non-violent protesters seeking restoration of the elected president.

He then arrested almost the entire leadership of the secular democratic opposition as well as numerous journalists, many held indefinitely without trial.

To understand Egypt, you have to stay focused on its economy. After decades of decay under the Mubarak regime, its decline has accelerated rapidly over the past few years. Much of the problem is that the Egyptian military, and its generals, own or control vast swaths of the economy, including numerous businesses having little to do with traditional security concerns.

The states in the Soviet bloc could not reform their economies because so many powerful communist figures depended for political patronage on inefficient state-run industries. Egypt is much the same way, only with generals instead of politburo members at the heart of the corruption. The result is mass unemployment, particularly among Egypt’s huge and growing youth population, and bad conditions for those that do have jobs. The security services are so sensitive to possible labor unrest that they apparently kidnapped and tortured to death Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student interviewing Egyptian labor activists.

Egypt’s economy is being kept afloat in large part by Saudi Arabia. This has rendered General al-Sisi so dependent on the Saudis that he recently gave them two strategic islands. Surrendering sovereign Egyptian territory was deeply unpopular at home, which led the regime to double-down on repression while blocking the websites of non-profits and independent news organizations. Trying to reclaim the nationalist banner, he enacted a new law severely restricting who can form a civil society organization and restricting donations to those groups, on the pretext that non-profits were being supported from abroad.

Businesspeople within Egypt are already reluctant to criticize the regime because of the danger of being boycotted by state- and military-related companies. Critics also have faced bankrupting lawsuits for supposedly offending the dignity of the state. And, of course, many thousands have been rounded up and thrown in prison, where torture and rape remain rampant.

The mass unemployment of Egyptian youth, and their bleak prospects for being able to support families, have created fertile recruiting ground for Al-Queda, ISIS, and other extremist organizations. In addition, by imprisoning almost the entire leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood — which strongly opposed violence — and making clear that peaceful change is impossible, General al-Sisi has handed extremists’ recruiters priceless tools.

To justify the military’s dominance of Egyptian public life after so many decades of economic stagnation, the regime must constantly fan the public’s fears of a supposedly ruthless external enemy, Israel. Despite its nominal peace treaty, government bookstores are rife with paranoid, anti-Jewish literature and sinister Jews are a staple of popular culture. Meaningful peace will remain impossible as long as corrupt and illegitimate military-dominated regimes depend on vilifying Israel to stay in power.

Middle-eastern despots try to present the West with a false dichotomy between authoritarianism and radical Islam, expecting us to back them as a “lesser of two evils.” To do this, they must repress secular democrats so thoroughly that we fail to recognize them as our true natural allies in the region. Thus, Egypt’s generals were willing to allow the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi to run for, and win, the presidency because they knew the West would never back him. And today, they repress thoroughly secular opposition voices under the guise of fighting radical Islam. (Syria’s President Assad does very much the same thing.)

All too often, this ruse has worked. Secretary Tillerson deserves our congratulations and thanks for recognizing General al-Sisi’s destructive and self-serving repression for what it is.

Congress should support Secretary Tillerson in resisting pressure to release the suspended aid, and if necessary in suspending more, unless General al-Sisi abandons restrictions on non-governmental organizations, frees imprisoned journalists and opposition activists, and allows genuine freedom of expression.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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