The United States has had a long, dishonorable history of supporting a series of "friendly dictators" in Egypt. It dates from the late 1970s, when Anwar el-Sadat broke with the pro-Soviet, anti-Western orientation that his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser established in the 1950s. Sadat’s decision to sign the Camp David peace accord with Israel cemented his heroic reputation in the United States and accelerated a generous flow of U.S. financial and military aid. Americans deeply mourned his assassination in 1981, and his favorable image remains intact four decades later.
US officials willingly overlooked the disagreeable detail that Sadat, like Nasser, presided over a thinly disguised, one-party state. Moreover, as a 2013 Council on Foreign Relations study noted, the "use of coercion, intimidation, and violence" was applied "to the regime’s opponents across the political spectrum." The same convenient blindness marked Washington’s relationship with Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, until his position finally became untenable during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Barack Obama’s administration expressed official support for the professed democratic aspirations of Arab Spring demonstrators in countries (such as Tunisia) where the autocratic regimes did not have especially close political and military ties with the United States. Indeed, the administration went well beyond verbal endorsements, providing outright military support for insurgents in countries such as Syria and Libya where Washington was on bad terms with the incumbent dictatorships.
US leaders adopted a very different attitude toward opponents of Mubarak’s corrupt, repressive regime, however. In an interview on the McNeil Lehrer Newshour, Vice President Joe Biden even objected when the host referred to Mubarak as a dictator. Biden denied that the term was appropriate in Mubarak’s case. Yet the evidence was overwhelming that Washington’s client had retained power through rigged elections, the disqualification of opposing candidates, controlling the media, imprisoning critics, and other autocratic measures.
The administration’s attitude when demonstrators continued their demands for Mubarak’s resignation was ambivalent, at best. It did not help America’s reputation when protestors had to look at US supplied tanks in the streets and U.S.-supplied Apache attack helicopters flying overhead in an attempt to intimidate them and thwart the drive for political change. Ultimately, US leaders accepted the reality that Mubarak’s position was untenable, but it was an extremely grudging acceptance. Their attitude did not improve when Egypt’s first truly free elections led to a victory by Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is no hard evidence that Washington assisted the Egyptian military when it overthrew Morsi after he had been in office barely a year. Nevertheless, the sigh of relief in US military and intelligence circles was almost palpable. The administration even refused to label the Egyptian military’s action a "coup." The White House also emphasized that it was "in no hurry" to freeze US economic and military assistance to Cairo, even though US law seemed to require that step
Indeed, Washington’s generous economic and military aid continued to flow with only a brief interruption, even though the new tyrant, coup leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, quickly amassed a dreadful record of brutality. In just two years, his government imprisoned more than 60,000 Egyptians and executed nearly 1,000. Another 1,250 were mysteriously missing. That record of systematic repression continued throughout the following years and still has not abated.
Egyptian citizens do not appear to be the only victims. A new report by Freedom Initiative found that "Egypt’s long arm of repression has targeted US citizens, permanent residents and visa holders, with the US embassy in Cairo offering little to no assistance to secure their release." Rather than directly targeting U.S.-based critics, the report added, Egyptian authorities go after friends or family members residing in Egypt. “These reprisals most often took the form of detention of family members as a hostage-taking tactic, where, either by explicit declaration or implicit suggestion, those in the US understood that their family members might be released if they ceased their activity or speech," Conversely, if such opponents continued their anti-regime behavior, the fate of detained loved ones could become even worse.
It’s a sad commentary if the US government won’t take action against an autocratic ally that is harassing US residents and citizens. However, given the long-standing willingness of US officials to look the other way as a succession of friendly dictators in Cairo committed abuse after abuse, such passivity would be unsurprising. That policy needs to change.
Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on Egypt considers the Sisi government one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights. True, Egypt has serious competition for that designation, including from North Korea, China, Iran, and an assortment of other dictatorships. But the ongoing, extensive aid to Cairo puts Washington’s responsibility in a separate category. There is little that US leaders can do to alleviate domestic repression in countries such as North Korea and China, unless the Biden administration decides to wage regime-change wars, and that step would be a catastrophic folly for obvious reasons.
But the least Washington can do is not be an active accomplice in the destruction of other peoples’ liberty. That is why continuing to play the role of Sisi’s enabler should be utterly unacceptable. (The same principle applies with respect to US military aid to Saudi Arabia, despite Riyadh’s legendary domestic repression and genocidal war in Yemen, and US aid to Israel, despite that government’s chronic mistreatment of Palestinians.) The United States cannot solve all of the world’s human rights abuses, but it does have an obligation not to facilitate them. Egypt would be a good place to begin cleansing Washington’s shameful record.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.