In one of his first acts in office, President Donald Trump phoned his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The symbolism was telling: Sisi wasn’t just another Arab autocrat but one of the region’s most repressive. The Trump-Sisi mutual appreciation society of two continues this week during President Sisi’s much-hyped (in Egypt) visit to Washington.
The authoritarian instinct is easily recognizable among fellow travelers. Like liberalism, it too is universal, cutting across national boundaries. I, like many Americans, have relatives who are Trump supporters. The only difference is that they live in Egypt, which, like Alabama or Texas, is Trump country, at least among a certain group of so-called liberal elites. These “liberals” (who are liberals in some senses but not in others) and of course Sisi himself, did little to hide their enthusiasm for the Republican nominee. Most of my relatives enthusiastically backed the August 14, 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. And this is what they like about Trump—that he seems to hate the Brotherhood just as much as they do.
Of course, that massacre happened on President Obama’s watch, and Obama, beyond some initial rhetoric, did relatively little in response. Not too long after those tragic events (and the military coup against the country’s first democratically elected president that preceded it), the Obama administration began normalizing and legitimizing the Sisi regime. Secretary of State John Kerry regularly heaped praise on Sisi, even as a crackdown on regime opponents intensified. There was a partial aid suspension, but senior U.S. officials repeatedly telegraphed to Egypt that there was little to worry about. Kerry, just a month after the partial aid suspension was announced in October 2013, reassured Egyptian officials that the “aid issue is a very small issue.”