Washington’s Wishful Thinking Policy on Egypt

Wishful thinking does not make for sound public policy. But the U.S. government so desperately wants to believe that new Egyptian President Sisi is on the path to democracy that it keeps telling itself it’s true.

When asked on Monday if President Sisi was “still leading the democratic transition,” U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf responded with “He is, he is. Now, look, they have a long way to go…. But again, he was elected and is continuing on this transition.”

The United States sends 1.3 billion dollars in (mostly military) aid to Egypt annually, but hasn’t leveraged that influence in any meaningful way since the uprisings of early 2011, which ousted Mubarak. It’s true that pushing for progress in Egypt is a complicated issue, but it’s patently unhelpful to say things are getting better when they’re obviously not.

We’re caught in a nightmare where the plot repeats on end: Washington supports and arms a repressive regime despite knowing that dictators offer only the illusion of stability. Political upheaval ensues. And the United States, caught again on the wrong side of history and reviled by local democracy activists, desperately scrambles to protect its national interests.

U.S. national interests in Egypt are not insignificant; they include stability in the Suez Canal, continued adherence to the Camp David Accords, military-to-military cooperation on counterterrorism, and support for the U.S. manufacturing base. But it’s these core interests that will be put at risk if Sisi’s repression results in more political upheaval.

Sisi’s suppression of dissent is so severe that some human rights activists tell us the situation was better under Mubarak. A new “draft law on associations” is poised to criminalize the work of human rights NGOs. Peaceful dissent against the authorities is enormously dangerous.   The government routinely imprisons and kills protestors. Last week a team from Human Rights Watch was barred from entering the country. They were intent on releasing a report detailing last August’s mass killings of protestors during Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins.

Earlier this year I met a prominent human rights defender in Cairo, now afraid to be identified for security reasons.” Some things are better than under Mubarak—there’s no administrative detention and torture is not systematic,” he said. “But other things are worse—mass killings are new and media criticism of the government is even less possible than before. The judiciary under Mubarak wasn’t independent, but there were some standards. The anti-protest law is new. Mubarak used anti-protest laws from 1914, but after 2005 some demonstrations were in practice tolerated, and there was a sort of mutual understanding between the regime and the opposition about what was allowed. Now we’re not just back to the Mubarak era, we’ve become 1960s Eastern Europe.”

Washington’s eyes closed, fingers crossed approach to Egypt won’t work. Egypt’s government is not on a path to democracy.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on August 21, 2014


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