Trump, Sisi and a Nationalist World

by Rana Allam

After a presidential campaign drenched in racism, fear-mongering, division, and ultra-nationalistic rhetoric, he won. His people woke up the morning after the election divided and driven by anger. Right away, his supporters began to engage in hate speech. Some even took matters into their own hands and physically abused the “other.” The state, with its government and people’s representatives, was all his. He chose his advisers and ministers from his circle of followers, and there were be no voices to hear but his own. His entourage echoed his words, carried out his plans, and applauded his patriotism and courage in crushing the “other.” The whole country—Egypt, the United States—descended into despair and division like never before.

This November, democracy advocates in Egypt empathized with their counterparts in the US after the presidential election. They know a lot about divisive presidents, and they were always the ones to be crushed in the battle for freedom and plurality. Either under Muhammad Morsi (who won on religious grounds) or under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who won on a nationalist platform), democratic voices are the ones that pay the price.

Egyptian human rights advocates, who have been fighting repression for years, have long taken issue with the lack of action of a succession of US administrations. But they have also seen the Obama administration suspend military aid to Sisi for two years after his military’s power grab. The administration also criticized human rights abuses by the Egyptian regime on several occasions and called for the release of political prisoners. The Obama administration always made a point to appear to defend human rights, although it did not always take action. Still, it was an administration with which democracy and rights advocates could reason.

I remember being part of a peacebuilders group of high-profile women from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia as well as two prestigious US organizations. We were to have meetings on Capitol Hill with three Democratic senators and one Republican. The Democrats gave us the time to express our concerns regarding US policy in our respective countries. They took notes and asked questions. The Republican senator sent us one of his junior staff members—maybe an intern—to take a message, although we were scheduled for an appointment. Not that the democrats had the power to change things, but at least they wanted to know, they listened. The Republicans have a completely different agenda that has nothing to do with human rights or the brutal dictators they support. I was not sure then if such contemptuous behavior was because we were the wrong gender, or the wrong religion, or the wrong skin color. Probably a combination of the three.

President-elect Trump does not care for appearances. Much like Egypt’s Sisi, Trump views human rights as an obstacle or, at best, not worthy of attention. It was clear in Trump’s praise of brutal dictators and his admiration of their will to kill. To Trump, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was “a really bad guy, but very good at killing terrorists” and Iraq would have been “better off if Hussein remained in power.” North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are “strong leaders,” and he was indeed “honored” by Putin’s praise of him. Sisi, of course, is a “fantastic guy.”

But Sisi occupies a special place with the Republicans. In one of the Republicans debates last year, Sisi was the center of praise by the candidates, who called him “courageous,” “tough,” and someone who “should be befriended.” No wonder that many supporters of Sisi in Egypt were ecstatic when Trump won in November. The media apparatus played its role in praising Trump and attacking Hillary Clinton during the election. According to Sisi’s cronies in the media, Trump’s anti-Muslim stance is directed only at the Muslim Brotherhood, while Hillary was the reason that Morsi came to power.

After Brexit, Theresa May took hold of the UK. After the November election, white supremacy and Trump took over the US. The UN Security Council’s permanent members are now represented by Trump, Putin, Xi, May, and possibly Le Pen. Who will hold oppressive and brutal regimes accountable? Who will listen to the grievances of human rights advocates?

When the most powerful country in the world falls prey to fear and ultra-nationalistic sentiment, the whole world will pay the price. When the biggest arms exporter in the world is led by a white supremacist leader, it is indeed catastrophic.

The only way out of the mess is to mobilize civil society. After a short while, the Americans who thought Trump will bring economic prosperity will know the truth—that only the rich will benefit. Similarly, many Sisi supporters now see that all he brought was poverty, and even the rich are suffering from the economic collapse. Protests, as Egyptians can testify, might bring a president down but that is not a fix for the problem. What brought Trump, Sisi, and their ilk to power are defunct systems that must be changed. The way out of the current crisis rests in the hands of the people.

Rana Allam is former chief editor of Daily News Egypt, with a journalism career dating back to 1995. She is currently an advisor and editor to the International Civil Action Network (ICAN) and the Women Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) organizations. 

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