The Republican Adoration of Egypt’s Sisi

by Derek Davison

During Thursday night’s Fox News-sponsored Republican primary debate, moderator Megyn Kelly asked Texas Senator Ted Cruz whether he believes that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is an “ideological problem in addition to a military one.” This was Cruz’s response:

Yes, it is ideological, and let me contrast President Obama, who at the prayer breakfast, essentially acted as an apologist. He said, “Well, gosh, the crusades, the inquisitions…”

We need a president that shows the courage that Egypt’s President al-Sisi did, a Muslim, when he called out the radical Islamic terrorists who are threatening the world.

This was not the first time that a high-profile figure on the right has expressed admiration for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Indeed, Sisi’s star has been on the rise in Republican circles since January, thanks to a speech he gave at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University in which he called for a “religious revolution” within Islam to counteract extremism. Since then, Sisi has been praised by, among others, Cruz’s fellow Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Lindsey Graham, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, and neo-conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, as well as Cruz on multiple other occasions.

What makes this right-wing infatuation with Sisi so perplexing is that, by any tangible measure, he is exactly the kind of repressive, authoritarian dictator that America often claims to stand against. Sisi took power in a 2013 military coup that toppled a freely elected Egyptian government led by Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohamed Morsi. In the aftermath of that coup, Sisi’s government has presided over the deaths of an estimated 2,600 Egyptians due to violence between police and protesters. The Rabaa Massacre alone, on August 14, 2013, claimed the lives of at least 900 in an event that Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth called “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”

Since he formally assumed the office of president in June of last year, following an election whose results were dubious at best, Sisi has presided over what HRW calls a “Year of Abuses.” His government has “provided near total impunity for security force abuses and issued a raft of laws that severely curtailed civil and political rights, effectively erasing the human rights gains of the 2011 uprising that ousted the longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.” Sisi outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and has imprisoned thousands suspected of supporting it. “Authorities detained, charged, or sentenced at least 41,000 people between July 2013 and May 2014,” according to HRW. Over 500 of those prisoners have been sentenced to execution, including former President Morsi. And contrary to Sisi’s message of religious moderation, his police have been shoring up their boss’s religious credentials by brutally targeting Egypt’s LGBTQ community.

Anti-Terrorist Leader?

It would be one thing if Republicans were arguing that Sisi’s dictatorial nature were the unfortunate downside of an Arab leader who is effective at combatting the extremists he criticizes in his speeches. Sisi himself has excused his government’s rights abuses on those grounds, and that’s effectively how Jeb Bush framed Sisi’s merits back in February:

Jeb Bush asked Wednesday: “Is (Sisi) a little ‘L’ liberal democrat that believes in freedom like we do?”

“No, he isn’t. But I think we have to be practical,” Bush said in the first foreign policy speech of his putative presidential campaign which could augur another turn in the roller coaster US-Egypt relationship.

“We have to balance our belief in liberty with a belief that security and engagement will create the possibilities for the Egyptians to garner more freedom.”

But if anything, Sisi’s performance in combating extremism has been just as dismal as his human rights record. As the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid recently argued:

Sisi’s raison d’être of security and stability, however, has been undermined with each passing month. By any measurable standard, Egypt is more vulnerable to violence and insurgency today than it had been before. On July 1, as many as 64 soldiers were killed in coordinated attacks by Egypt’s Islamic State affiliate, which calls itself the Province of Sinai. It was the worst death toll in decades, and came just days after the country’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, was assassinated.

Far from alleviating the problem, Sisi’s repressive governance and his human rights abuses have only served to push his opposition, in the absence of any way to express their dissent within the political system, toward violent extremism. As Hamid notes, academic research is increasingly identifying a link between tyrannical government and terrorism, so it’s no surprise that a government as tyrannical as Sisi’s has boosted the fortunes of a group like IS’s Sinai Province.

So if the actual facts surrounding Sisi’s two years in power don’t explain the American right’s adoration of him, what does? To paraphrase Senator Cruz from the beginning of this piece, “yes, it is ideological.” Jim Lobe has previously called Sisi’s Egypt a “case study” for the notion that, contrary to conventional wisdom, democracy promotion is at best a theoretical element of neoconservative foreign policy doctrine. When push comes to shove, and they’re forced to choose between promoting democracy and protecting Israeli interests, most neocons (though not all; Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan have both been consistent Sisi critics) will side with Israel over democracy. And Israel, as Kagan wrote a year ago, vastly prefers an authoritarian Egypt to a democratic one:

To Israel, which has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except Israel, the presence of a brutal military dictatorship bent on the extermination of Islamism is not only tolerable but desirable. Perhaps from the standpoint of a besieged state like Israel, this may be understandable. A friendly observer might point out that in the end Israel may get the worst of both worlds: a new Egyptian jihadist movement brought into existence by the military’s crackdown and a military government in Cairo that, playing to public opinion, winds up turning against Israel anyway.

The Adelson Factor

The neoconservative/pro-Israel ideological movement and all those high-profile Republican politicians can all be linked to one man: GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, whose willingness to put his roughly $30 billion net worth behind pro-Israel and pro-Republican political efforts has been well-documented (repeatedly) by LobeLog’s Eli Clifton, wields an extraordinary amount of influence within the Republican Party and within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in Israel. If he and Netanyahu have decided that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is good for Israel, and they clearly have, then it’s no mystery why so many Republican presidential hopefuls are falling over themselves to praise the Egyptian dictator.

John Feffer recently wrote about “authoritarian symps,” those on the right and left who find reasons to justify their support for repressive dictators around the world, and Sisi’s Republican/neocon supporters are clear examples of the type. Similar thinkers during the Cold War helped to justify American support for repressive dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the Duvaliers in Haiti, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Morsi’s predecessor in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.

Especially when it comes to the Middle East, influential voices on the American right have argued the merits of repressive authoritarians as bulwarks against the greater (or perceived greater) threats of Soviet influence (again, during the Cold War) and/or unchecked Islam. Those arguments led the United States to support Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1980s and before that to support the brutal absolutism of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran from the 1950s through the 1970s. Recent history should make it pretty clear how well America’s bets on those two authoritarian regimes turned out.

Sisi’s American fan club not only includes several Republican candidates for president, but also, at least by outward appearances, the Democratic administration they’re running to replace. After a short pause following the coup that brought Sisi to power, the United States has more or less resumed its arms sales to Egypt despite Sisi’s human rights failures. Last July, Secretary of State John Kerry inexplicably referred to Egypt as “transitioning to democracy” after its fundamentally unsound election validated Sisi’s repression of political opposition. Though some Republicans may wish that President Barack Obama were more like Sisi personally, they can’t deny that Obama has been supportive of Sisi’s government in spite of all the reasons why he probably shouldn’t have been.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.