Trump and the Cycle of Democracy Promotion

U.S. governments have long swung between advancing human rights abroad and supporting stable allies that trample on those rights.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Reuters)

The Trump administration’s decision to welcome Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Washington this week is being described as a shift away from previous administrations’ emphasis on human rights. Sisi, a former military chief, toppled a democratically elected government in 2013 and presided over the worst mass killing of protesters in modern Egyptian history. He has brutally suppressed political opposition ever since.

But it might be more accurate to describe the move as the latest phase in a cycle: U.S. governments—including those led by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and many presidents before them—have long oscillated between promoting democracy abroad and supporting stable allies that trample all over democracy. As the journalist James Traub has documented, Bush sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Cairo to declare that the days of America prioritizing stability over democracy in the Middle East were over, only to back off when the Iraq War deteriorated and Egypt’s authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, presented himself as a “bulwark against radical Islam.” The Bush administration, Traub writes, ultimately stuck by its friend rather than its values. The Obama administration urged Mubarak to resign during the Arab Spring and temporarily froze some military aid to Egypt after Sisi came to power, only to reinstate it as conflict and terrorism spread in the Middle East.

Now Egypt is back as a perceived bulwark against radical Islam. “We will fight terrorism and other things,” Donald Trump promised in an Oval Office meeting with Sisi on Monday. “We’re going to be friends for a long, long period of time.”

Sisi has emerged as a darling of many on the American political right, particularly among those who view the fight against terrorism as a Cold War-like ideological struggle. They praise the Egyptian leader for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood (whose Islamist government he overthrew in 2013), taking tough measures against terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula, and calling on his fellow Muslim leaders to eradicate extremist interpretations of Islam by orchestrating a “religious revolution.”

A number of Sisi’s fans are high-ranking members of the Trump administration. “You don’t find many Thomas Jeffersons” in the Middle East, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s CIA director, observed in 2015, in discussing the need to partner with Egypt’s president despite his undemocratic rule. “Once you accept that … the line needs to be drawn [between] those who are on the side of extremism and those who are fighting against it.” Last spring, James Mattis, now Trump’s defense secretary, sounded the standard concerns about the Egyptian military subverting democracy and stifling dissent before concluding:

Right now the only way to support Egypt’s maturation as a country with civil society, with democracy, is to support President al-Sisi. … I think that when a president comes out two years in a row ... calling for a revolution in rhetoric in order to reduce the amount of negatives about the Muslim religion, I think it’s time for us to support him and take our own side in this. I’m a strong believer that Egypt is a critical nation in terms of the future for stability in the Middle East.

Last year, Sebastian Gorka, currently a counterterrorism adviser to the president, likewise applauded Sisi for speaking out against radical Islamic terrorism. He characterized Sisi’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government not as a military coup, but as a bold attempt to modernize Islam and separate religion from politics in the Muslim world:

The Jordanians, the Egyptians, those countries who for the last seven and a half years have been betrayed by [the Obama] administration. It is not tenable to have white-skinned or black-skinned or yellow-skinned Americans be the face of victory against the jihadists. We want it to be fellow Muslims. We want it to be the king of Jordan. We want it to be President Sisi. That’s when you get victory. When the Muslims destroy the jihadis. …

General Sisi of Egypt is a devout Muslim, a seriously devout Muslim, but when [I met him and] asked him, ‘General, why did you do what you did? Why did you take your forces onto the streets to take down a democratically elected government?’ And he was very, very simple in his answer. He said, ‘Because I am an Egyptian before I am a Muslim.’ It’s not the same thing. Not the same thing. There are examples of Muslim states that have functioned in ways that comport with our value system and can function as allies.

Sisi’s visit to the White House marks a resurgence of the logic that American interests in a country like Egypt are more likely to be advanced by shoring up strongmen than cultivating democrats. The logic, however, may cycle out of favor before long. As Tom Malinowski, a former Obama administration official, told The New York Times this week, “We’ve given Egypt $70 billion over the years, and last I checked there are no Egyptian F-16s helping us fight ISIS over Raqqa or Mosul. All we get from the Egyptians is political repression that radicalizes its youth and gives terrorist groups new life.” Of course, Condoleezza Rice made a similar argument in Cairo in 2005. Her vision prevailed for several months.