U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Monday, while he is in New York for the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants. And human rights activists aren’t pleased.
Reports of the candidates’ independent meetings varied to a large degree. Trump, who has previously and repeatedly called for a ban to all Muslims entering the United States, told Sisi about his “high regard for peace-loving Muslims.” Trump also said the United States would be a “loyal friend” to Egypt that the country could rely on.
Trump-Sisi readout: Says he would invite Sisi to the U.S. for an official visit as president and would be happy to visit Egypt.
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) September 20, 2016
Clinton, who doesn’t enjoy a lot of credibility with certain sectors of the Egyptian population for her comments about Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak during the early days of the 2011 revolution, did not signal any kind of policy change from the Obama administration’s approach to Egypt. She did, however, broach the terror threat facing Egypt (particularly from groups like ISIS in the Sinai) while simultaneously addressing human rights issues.
“There’s a key difference in their attitudes toward Sisi,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday. said. “There’s nothing to suggest Trump brought up human rights abuses, where Hillary Clinton very clearly did.”
In the past, Clinton said Egypt’s government is “basically an army dictatorship” — something she would be sure to have avoided in her meeting with Sisi. But Clinton did bring up the case of an imprisoned American citizen named Aya Hijazi, who was imprisoned two years ago for operating a non-profit organization in Egypt.
Prior to the meetings, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights addressed an open letter to both candidates, asking them “to reconsider the false dichotomy between Egyptian citizens’ rights and freedoms and the country’s security threats.” They added, “We urge the next president of the United States to view bilateral relations with Egypt as an opportunity to constructively work towards a positive dynamic that speaks to American interests, while honoring the rights and demands of the Egyptian people.”
Human rights under Sisi
A year after a military coup in Egypt deposed then-President Mohammad Morsi in 2013, Sisi was elected President of Egypt. Despite his status as the country’s first democratically-elected leader, Morsi was widely disliked by many Egyptians who say he prioritized his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, over Egypt. Many of his largest critics were leftists or human rights advocates, but these same critics are facing even harsher crack downs under Sisi.
“[Sisi’s regime] is not just repressive, it is one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East, which is saying something,” Hamid said.
Sisi’s reign has witnessed the arrest, disappearance, and death of multiple critics of his regime. Egypt is one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to arresting journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and has cracked down heavily on critics of the Sisi regime’s human rights record.
Hundreds of Egyptians have disappeared or been tortured, or both, under Sisi’s rule, Amnesty International reported in July. Most recently, an Egyptian court froze the assets of five prominent human rights defenders and three NGOs.
“Egypt’s current government (meaning Sisi but also all the institutions/groups that participated in the coup and now back him) sees itself as being in an existential struggle, and it regards (entirely justified) complaints about horrible human rights records as a defense of those individuals who are trying to bring ii down and, to put a finer point on this, kill it,” Eric Trager, the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), told ThinkProgress over email.
“The government is extremely paranoid,” he added, and “it makes it impossible to have a serious conversation with it about human rights.”
Bringing human rights to the table
There is a desire from many analysts to see American politicians dispense with the lauding of Sisi.
To date, Secretary of State John Kerry has fairly regularly praised the Egyptian government. This position has garnered plenty of criticism from analysts.
“Kerry has repeatedly [praised] Sisi over the past several years, maintaining this idea that Egypt and Sisi are on some sort of democratic transition,” Hamid said. “This is problematic because it is not true.”
During the primaries, then-candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) praised Sisi and cited him as an “example of a Muslim [leader] we ought to be standing with.”
“Any politician who hails Sisi as a good Muslim leader doesn’t know what they’re talking about and is beyond absurdity,” Hamid said.
Sisi’s sensitivity toward criticism has also led to arguments that the U.S.-Egypt relationship should undergo a strategic shift that only focuses on intelligence sharing and mutual interests.
“We should focus on what we need from Egypt — the same basic strategic/regional interests that haven’t changed — and not on what we wish Egypt was, or on what we want Egypt to be, because it won’t achieve that anytime soon and it certainly won’t take advice from the U.S.,” Trager said. “For this reason, I also think that Democrats and Republicans should avoid praising Sisi, calling him ‘democratic,’ because this is inaccurate (to say the least) and makes us look like we’re blind to the truth.”
Since taking power, Sisi’s focus has been on increasing security in Egypt through strict counterterrorism measures. But his efforts have largely failed to bear fruit as there has been an increase in terrorism in Egypt since the coup in 2013, and ISIS has established a solid presence in the Sinai. These failures point to the shortcomings in Sisi’s security-driven approach, and Hamid believes the next American president shouldn’t separate human rights from American strategic interests.
“I think it’s a very problematic approach in that it sees counterterrorism as wholly separate from Egypt’s political situation,” Hamid said. “The two are related, terrorism doesn’t just come from the sky. Terrorism, extremism, and civil conflict all draw from the given political and regional context. To keep them separate is not good policy.”