At the United Nations General Assembly meetings this week, US President Donald Trump praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a "great leader" who has brought Egypt out of "turmoil." A few weeks earlier Trump reportedly referred to al-Sisi as "my favorite dictator."
Trump's praise came days after widespread protests erupted in numerous Egyptian cities after an Egyptian contractor, who had worked with Egypt's top brass for years, posted videos on social media detailing alleged corruption in al-Sisi's inner circle.
In the meeting with Trump, al-Sisi blamed the protests on "political Islam," but the slogans and chants had nothing to do with Islam. The protests appeared to be sparked by allegations of corruption; harsh suppression of civil society; the military's abusive campaign in the Sinai; the massive incarceration of dissidents; and impoverishment blamed on al-Sisi's economic policies.
In July and August 2013, Egypt's army and other security forces killed thousands of Egyptians protesting the al-Sisi-led military coup. Over the last seven years, security forces have killed more than 500 people in apparent extrajudicial killings and suspicious raids. Thousands have been convicted in unfair trials, often on bogus charges. Two dozen journalists remain in jail for doing their jobs, and the government has blocked hundreds of websites (including Human Rights Watch). Among al-Sisi's political prisoners are at least six US citizens (the number may be as high as 18). Prison overcrowding and deplorable conditions have contributed to the deteriorating health and likely the deaths of scores, including former president Mohamed Morsi. Torture is endemic.
The US Congress has stepped into the void left by the Trump administration. The Senate appropriations committee again included strong language in the 2020 proposed budget that would condition a portion of US military aid to Egypt on human rights improvements. Regrettably, last month Secretary of State Michael Pompeo waived the congressional restrictions on Fiscal Year 2018 funding and authorized the release of the $300 million that had been conditioned on human rights improvements, citing national security concerns. Given the state of affairs in Egypt, Congress should remove the possibility of any waiver from the current draft.
Trump described the US relationship with Egypt as "great" and "long-term." But longstanding ties don't justify the administration's coddling of al-Sisi and turning a blind eye to his government's massive rights violations. These latest protests make clear that Egyptians have not forgotten the 2011 dream of living in a country that respects and protects their basic rights. The US government should likewise be clear that it stands by Egyptians' hopes and aspirations.